A common fallacy in our thinking about history is that of "single-threadedness" --- part and parcel of our naive human propensity to focus on celebrities. We dote on the big, the obvious, the famous, the charismatic, the rich. It's far harder to pay proper attention to quality. In an old story a mouse boasts of her huge litter of babies to a lioness, and then asks pointedly how many young the great cat has given birth to. "One, but a lion," was her reply.
Why do we believe that the space program created Velcro (or Teflon, or Tang)? Why do we fall for tales of how A's discovery of B led C to find D which resulted in E, as if this causal chain had any true explanatory power? Most probably, because we haven't thought about all the other paths which could have given us those inventions, perhaps sooner and better. Such alternatives are more than invisible. They never happened; it takes a strong act of creative imagination to visualize them.
Henry Hazlitt in his book Economics in One Lesson retells the parable "That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen" from an 18th Century essay by the French writer Frederic Bastiat. The key to good economic thinking, Hazlitt suggests, consists in analyzing not just the immediate visible effects of human actions, but also the long-range subtle cascade of consequences. The same applies to history.
History is not a chain that breaks when a single link is cut. History is a web, a supremely resilient fabric of events, where multitudes of paths connect every pair of points. To escape from the simplistic celebrity-history trap, we can think about those paths, about alternative might-have-been universes, and about the contributions of unseen, "unhistoric", forgotten individuals. Such an appreciation of the richness of history also reveals the value of our own personal acts, great and small, as we help each other learn and grow.
Saturday, May 08, 1999 at 10:18:45 (EDT) = Datetag19990508