Boston University Wind
Ensemble, conducted
by David Martins, at the
Tsai Performance
Center on Thursday,
December 6, at 8 p.m.
Week of  30 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 15


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Conversazioni to examine responsibility and historical inevitability

Why did the chicken cross the road? According to Karl Marx, "It was an historical inevitability."

So goes the old joke. However, over the years, many have taken issue with the Marxist belief that historical events could have developed only in the precise way they did. If you believe in free will, can you also believe that there is such a thing as historical inevitability? Scholars will address this question in upcoming Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Responsibility and Historical Inevitability, which will take place on Friday, November 30, and Saturday, December 1, at the School of Management Auditorium. (See sidebar on page 8.)

Political scientist Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), in his 1953 lecture Historical Inevitability, launched countless debates about the roles of individuals in history. He argued that despite the constraints of circumstance, historical figures acted freely and are therefore morally accountable. An excerpt from this essay, in the Conversazioni program, along with a passage from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and a segment from The Decline of the West, a 1922 book by German philosopher Oswald Spengler, will provide the backdrop for a two-day discussion on the pros and cons of a determinist approach to history.

Can individuals alter the giant sweep of history, or are we merely marionettes? Claudio Véliz, director of The University Professors program at BU, says that if Berlin were alive today, he would be alarmed to see the prevalence of the latter philosophy. "It is a flight from responsibility," says Véliz, who uses as an example the murder trial of Richard Sharpe, a Wenham, Mass., dermatologist accused of killing his wife last year. "Sharpe said, 'It's not my fault. My father abused me when I was a little boy.' It's extraordinary. He's basically saying, 'The murder of my wife is the inevitable occurrence that flows from my father beating me when I was five years old. I know that I killed her, but I'm not responsible.'"


David Fromkin, director of BU's Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Véliz says that this attitude comes from a pervasive culture of irresponsibility. "The heart of its belief is that we are creatures of history; we think we are free to choose, but in fact, our action has been determined by an infinity of irrevocably imprinted decisions by fellow human beings. I think it's rubbish."
One of Berlin's favorite quotes, says Véliz, was Benito Mussolini's utterance when he learned of the Allies landing in Sicily: "History has seized us by the throat." Berlin contended that mistakes made by individuals are often conveniently chalked up to historical inevitability.

David Fromkin, director of BU's Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, thinks that perhaps some events may be inevitable. "It's my belief," he says, "that in 1914, if the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire had not been assassinated, there probably would have been a world war anyway."

  George Steiner, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard.
Photo by Vernon Doucette

Still, Fromkin says that for the most part, history isn't predestined. He plans to discuss individual responsibility in his lecture, How Individuals Shape the Future on Friday, November 30, at 2:30 p.m. "It's a common belief that everything is determined by impersonal forces and trends," he says. "I don't believe that, and I am going to discuss different ways in which individuals make a difference."

Is there such a thing as fate? If there is, can one resist it? Véliz says that Berlin used to enjoy another quote, this one from Justice Louis Brandeis: "The irresistible is often only that which is not resisted."




Conversazioni: a discussion in the pursuit of learning

The 12-year-old Boston, Melbourne, Oxford Conversazioni on Culture and Society is an annual arrangement between The University Professors program of Boston University, La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and Wadham College, Lincoln College, and Merton College of the University of Oxford to address major topics of our time in a cross-disciplinary manner. BU has hosted the event four times.

"It is truly a conversation," says Claudio Véliz, director of The University Professors at BU. "The lecturer reads his or her paper, and then the reactor offers a brief comment and puts one question to the lecturer. Then the topic is open to discussion."

This year's lecturers are freelance journalist Bryan Appleyard; David Fromkin, director of BU's Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future; Harvard Physics Professor Gerald Holton; George Hupert, president of the Historical Society at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Times Literary Supplement editor Ferdinand Mount; Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; biographer Andrew Roberts; George Steiner, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard; author and publisher Keith Windschuttle; and Newsweek International
editor Fareed Zakaria.

The reactors are CAS International Relations Professor Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations; University Professor Liah Greenfeld; STH Professor David Hempton; University Professor Geoffrey Hill; University Associate Professor Igor Lukes; University Professor Lance Morrow; National Review editor John O'Sullivan; University Professor Bruce Redford; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; and CAS Physics Professor Lawrence Sulak, chairman of the physics department.

The lectures, which are free and open to the public, will begin on both days at 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. For a list of lecture times, visit

30 November 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations