In the larger classification of literature, biography comes midway between history and fiction. One school of historians, indeed, unwilling to cramp their imaginations into so mean a space as a generation or a century, reckon by millenniums and lose sight of mere individuals. They are intent on discovering and formulating general laws of cosmic progress; on tracing the collective action of multitudes through long periods of time; on watching institutions evolve. In their eyes, even Napoleon is a “negligible quantity.”

I would not for a moment disparage the efforts of these investigators. Most of us have felt the fascination of moving to and fro over vast reaches of time, as imperially as the astronomer moves through space. Such flights are exhilarating. They involve us in no peril; we begin and end them in our armchair; they attach to us no responsibility. The power of generalizing, which even the humblest and most ignorant exercise daily, sheds upon us a peculiar satisfaction; but we must not value the generalizations we arrive at by the pleasurableness of the process. Counting by the hundred thousand years, individual man dwindles beyond the recall of the most powerful microscope. So we may well disregard an æon or two in speculating on the rate of progress between oligocene and neolithic conditions. But after mankind have plodded out of geology into history there is nothing more certain than that the masses have been pioneered by individuals. You can prove it wherever two or more persons meet—one inevitably leads.

As the race emerged from barbarism, the number and variety of individuals increased. Men in the mass are plastic; or, to change the figure, they are like reservoirs of latent energy, awaiting the leader who shall apply their force to a special work. In many cases the great man is far from being the product of his time, but he has some interior and unborrowed faculty for influencing, controlling, we may even say hypnotizing, his generation. It is idle to suppose that a Napoleon can be explained on the theory that he is the sum of a hundred, or ten thousand, of his average French contemporaries. He shared certain traits with them, just as he had organs and appetites common to all normal men; but it was precisely those uncommon attributes which were his and not theirs that made him Napoleon.

We may safely cultivate biography, therefore, not merely as an adjunct of history, but as one of history’s mighty sources. In proportion as the materials concerning a given period or episode abound, it becomes easier to trace the significance of the great men who directed it—easier and most entrancing, for in this detective work we are shadowing Destiny itself. We see how some apparently trivial personal happening—Napoleon’s lassitude due to a cold at Borodino, Frederick the Second’s seasickness on starting on his crusade, McDowell’s cholera morbus at the first battle of Bull Run—was the hazard on which Fate hung the issue of history. We see, further, that men and women are not abstractions—that what we regard as laws in human evolution are the result of the motives and deeds—motives and deeds—of human beings; and that a flaw or twist in a single individual may break the current of development or deflect it into an unexpected channel.

The lives of state builders and of state preservers and pilots offer, accordingly, a double attraction: they show us history at those moments when, ceasing to be abstract and impersonal, it turns upon us recognizable human features and works through the heart and brain of highly individualized genius. They show us also biography, when individual genius becomes so powerful that it diffuses itself through multitudes, yet is never more truly itself than in this diffusion.

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