ANWAR SADAT was, to put it simply, a great man, a historic figure, not the least of whose accomplishments was to rescue the notion of individual responsibility from the casual determinism that assigns all historical actions to the swirling of abstract "forces." He expelled the Soviets, on his and his country's own regained Egypt's honor in war, and then made possible the first Arab-Israeli peace. But it was not simply his achievements that defined Egypt's president, dead in a terrible hail of assassins' bullets in Cairo yesterday. It was unquestionably his style.

A stunning confidence, not so much arrogance as a serene boldness, even a sassiness, finally distinguished Anwar Sadat. When he said he would make war, no one believed him, and he made war. When he said he would make peace, no one believed him, and he made peace. He did these things, moreover, with a flair and gallantry that swept all before him. Arriving in Jerusalem on Nov. 19, 1977, he kissed the cheek of his old nemesis, former prime minister Golda Meir, and said, "I have waited a long time for this." "But you didn't come." "Now," he said, "the time has come." And later when Mrs. Meir reprovingly asked if he "always used to call me an old lady," he laughed and replied, "I am responsible. I did call her that, frequently!" Entirely predictably, and at no small additional political cost, he took in Iran's dying shah at a time when the United States had shoved him out in the cold. Anwar Sadat was not a man who had trouble understanding what elementary friendship required.

Under President Sadat's marvelous media-wise theatricality was an acute political intelligence. He judged, correctly, that the restoration of Egyptian self-confidence could only come about in the medium--war--in which it had been lost, and that this was the necessary condition for a reconciliation with Egypt's "cousins." He further judged, also correctly, that only a great and continuing leap across the "psychological Bar-Lev Line" of Israel's suspicions could bring peace. And if by the time of his death he had failed to convince Israelis of another truth-- that the best guarantee of a deal with an Arab is to make a deal that the Arab can defend among his fellow Arabs--then Mr. Sadat could not be faulted for lack of trying.

Surely not by accident, the attack that took his life occurred on the day that he had institutionalized as a celebration of Egypt's going to war--his war--in 1973. Initial accounts of the circumstances of the attack suggested a measure of planning and conspiracy more associated with Egypt's fanatical Moslem Brotherhood than with the odd Palestinian or Libyan hit man. All that, however, is to be determined.

What is certain is that, as Mr. Sadat's own example demonstrates, the basic conditions of Egyptian political life give play to sudden and sharp changes of personal leadership. The nerve-racking question of whether the Sadat peace policy represented one man's exploitation of Egyptian fluidity or a nation's irreversible decision will now get a testing sooner than any responsible person had expected or desired. That Egyptians have such a choice at all is Anwar Sadat's legacy.

It indicates the dimensions of Anwar Sadat's passage that almost everyone now wonders what difference, to his country and to his region, his death may bring. There is a sense, however, in which speculation passes from the analytical to the corrosive. Many people and nations benefited from Anwar Sadat's gifts. They owe Egypt now a presumption of constancy, at the least.