Voltaire liked to recognize, “His majesty, Chance.” Current-day historians tend to attribute to it all its importance. The long-dominant idea of destiny, favourable or not, in the tide of humanity, under the influence of divine will or material forces at work, has lost its popularity. We like to enumerate the many, often picturesque, situations in which contingency, bringing the crucial consequences of minor, sometimes minuscule chances, played a major role in all human fields of activity, in war and in peace, in politics, science, even the economy. Alternate history (what would have happened if?), very much in vogue nowadays, sheds light on this in many ways. Does this imply that everything is random, to the point of leading to fatalism and discouraging action? No! If we consider, in fact, the differently paced forces whose intertwinings define the originality of each context, other determining factors surface, between individual and statistical, which, upon meeting, define, in short, the latitude of freedom available to each of us to change the course of things.
Jean-Noël Jeanneney is Professor Emeritus of contemporary history at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris. He served under both of François Mitterrand’s presidencies and was president of Radio France and RFI, the Mission for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution and the National Library of France. Every Saturday he produces the show Concordance des temps on the radio station France Culture.
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