Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Nothing Great in the World has been Accomplished without Passion

So speaks Hegel in his Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. For as long as I can remember, I have been stirred by this portrait of what moves humanity forward and what is the engine of history. For Hegel and then after him Heidegger, great prescient individuals who passionately dedicate themselves to a novel way of living, being, acting or thinking about the world change the world. This is a read of history as the provenance of great individuals and therefore a style of writing history that is at odds with social history. The latter--social history or the view of history from economics--is far more in vogue these days. As a feminist and a liberal, I am glad that social history is far more respected than it was in the past. Surely history is not simply a story about the great (male) individuals of a nation.

And yet, I have always been attracted to the idea of great individuals who accomplish things with passion. I guess I am just thoroughly American. I am inspired by stories of triumph against unbelievable odds. My first project in graduate school was to work through Heidegger's notion of history. This semester, I found students drawn to Hegel's work with the same interest that I once had. I pushed one student to tell me why she like this idea of world historical individuals and, not surprisingly, she told me that it gave her hope that she too could be such an individual.

Do we all need to believe we can make that kind of mark on the world when we are young? Does it ever go away? Is it wrong to aspire to that kind of greatness? And, more importantly, if we still find ourselves drawn to Hegel's Philosophy of History, does that call into question our politics (as feminists or lefties?)

I imagine that the valorization of passionate and prescient individuals can be read as a kind of megalomania. The need to believe that a lowly person could accomplish such greatness is the product of too much narcissism. And yet, isn't it just true that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion?