A Component Part of a Social System
In Book IV of his Annals Tacitus worries that his history may seem too small and trifling compared to other historical works. Those works chronicle gigantic wars, great leaders, duels of the noble class, and important pieces of legislation. Tacitus covers those too, of course, but prefers on occasion to delve down into the constituent parts of history — the common people, everyday life, lesser known events — in order to show what the larger edifice of history is built upon. “Yet it may be not unprofitable,” he writes, “to look beneath the surface of those incidents, trivial at the first inspection, which so often set in motion the great events of history.”
Tolstoy, disillusioned with the historians of the Napoleonic Wars, is interested in doing something similar. He feels that historians erroneously focus on the great men and big ideas of history. This leads them to develop poor and inaccurate theories of history. History, Tolstoy feels, does not issue forth from the lofty dictates of an elevated leader but, rather, it emerges from the messy mix and disparate desires of the masses. Better, in his opinion, to focus historical lights upon the more granular segments of history.
We often make the same mistake as Tolstoy’s historians. As the authors of our own history we look, almost exclusively, to the person who appears to be the great central figure of existence: Ourself. Certainly we are important but to focus on ourselves to the exclusion of others leads us to make the same mistakes of analysis committed by Tolstoy’s historians of the Napoleonic Wars.
As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life. Whatever act of yours then has no reference either immediately or remotely to a social end, this tears asunder your life and down not allow it to be one, and it is of the nature of a mutiny, just as when in a popular assembly a man acting by himself stands apart from the general agreement.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations