The Magazine

History As It Wasn't

What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Cleopatra had had an ugly nose?

Nov 27, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 11 • By DAVID FRUM
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Virtual History

Alternatives and Counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson

Basic, 560 pp., $ 30


What If?

The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been

edited by Robert Cowley

Putnam, 395 pp., $ 27.95

Many years ago, my father-in-law bumped into an old Korean War buddy in a Hong Kong street. The friend, now a general, offered to fly him back to North America on a military plane. Wanting to buy more souvenirs, my father-in-law declined. So they exchanged addresses and promised to get in touch when they returned home. That evening, the general's plane vanished over the Pacific.

Who doesn't have a story like this? Who has never wondered about how our lives and the lives of those we love would have been altered had we made another choice than the one we did? Footfalls echo in the memory, as T. S. Eliot wrote in "Burnt Norton," Down the passage which we did not take, / Towards the door we never opened.

But though it's natural to speculate about the paths we personally did not choose, historians have warned for decades that it is futile and misleading to engage in such speculation about humanity as a whole. "Cleopatra's nose: Had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed," Blaise Pascal mused -- and ever since, the idea that something as contingent as one woman's beauty might be responsible for the rise and fall of kingdoms has been damned by the historical profession as the "fallacy of Cleopatra's nose."

Historians have objected to Pascal's proposition for two opposite reasons: some because they believe that the shortening of Cleopatra's nose would have changed too little to make a difference; others because they believe that it would have changed too much for the human mind to reckon with.

Those who disparage the effect of the nose-change think that historical developments are vast, virtually irresistible tides, channeled within bounds that no individual can alter. Suppose Cleopatra had been less seductive, and that as a result Mark Antony rather than Octavian had emerged the dictator of Rome. How could that make a difference? To succeed, Antony would have had to govern more or less as Octavian did; had he failed to do so, his regime would have swiftly collapsed, as the three military dictatorships before Octavian's collapsed. In other words, had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the names on the busts in the Capitoline museum might well have been altered. But the face of the world? Hardly a jot. According to this deterministic objection, historical counterfactuals are useless because they fail to take account of how little difference any single human being can make.

The other theory, by contrast, complains that Cleopatra's nose counterfactuals are useless because they fail to reckon with how much difference a single human being can make. Ray Bradbury has a famous science-fiction story in which a character travels back in time to the age of the dinosaurs, accidentally steps on a single butterfly, and returns to the present -- only to discover the world entirely changed. It's ridiculous, goes this theory, to ask how Mark Antony's empire would have differed from Octavian's. Alter one fact of history and all of history is put up for grabs, in such a radical way that we here in North America could easily be pondering in Chinese what-if scenarios about our Han dynasty ancestors.

The Italian historian and philosopher Benedetto Croce delivered an especially eloquent expression of this point of view, which is disapprovingly quoted in Niall Ferguson's introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, a recent collection of essays on the topic. The Cleopatra's nose problem, Croce complained, "arbitrarily divides the course of history into necessary facts and accidental facts." A supposedly accidental fact is then

mentally eliminated in order to espy how the first would have developed along its own lines if it had not been disturbed by the second. This is a game which all of us in moments of distraction or idleness indulge in, when we muse on the way our life might have turned out if we had not met a certain person, . . . cheerfully treating ourselves, in these meditations, as though we were the necessary and stable element, it simply not occurring to us . . . to provide for the transformation of this self of ours which is, at the moment of thinking, what it is, with all its experiences and regrets and fancies, just because we did meet that person.