The great man theory is a 19th-century approach to the study of history according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes: highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership abilities or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect. The theory is primarily attributed to the Scottish essayist, historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who gave a series of lectures on heroism in 1840, later published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History, in which he states:
Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realisation and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.
This theory is usually contrasted with "history from below", which emphasizes the life of the masses creating overwhelming waves of smaller events which carry leaders along with them. Another contrasting school is historical materialism.
Carlyle stated that "The History of the world is but the Biography of great men", reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration. In his book Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle saw history as having turned on the decisions, works, ideas, and characters of "heroes", giving detailed analysis of six types: The hero as divinity (such as Odin), prophet (such as Mohamet), poet (such as Shakespeare), priest (such as Martin Luther), man of letters (such as Rousseau), and king (such as Napoleon). Carlyle also argued that the study of great men was "profitable" to one's own heroic side; that by examining the lives led by such heroes, one could not help but uncover something about one's own true nature.
As Sidney Hook notes, a common misinterpretation of the theory is that "all factors in history, save great men, were inconsequential", whereas Carlyle is instead claiming that great men are the decisive factor, owing to their unique genius. Hook then goes on to emphasize this uniqueness to illustrate the point: "Genius is not the result of compounding talent. How many battalions are the equivalent of a Napoleon? How many minor poets will give us a Shakespeare? How many run of the mine scientists will do the work of an Einstein?"
American scholar Frederick Adams Woods supported the great man theory in his work The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History. Woods investigated 386 rulers in Western Europe from the 12th century until the French Revolution in the late 18th century and their influence on the course of historical events.
The Great Man approach to history was most fashionable with professional historians in the 19th century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911) which contains lengthy and detailed biographies about the great men of history, but very few general or social histories. For example, all information on the post-Roman "Migrations Period" of European History is compiled under the biography of Attila the Hun. This heroic view of history was also strongly endorsed by some philosophers, such as Léon Bloy, Kierkegaard, Oswald Spengler and Max Weber.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, proceeding from providentialist theory, argued that "what is real is reasonable" and World-Historical individuals are World-Spirit's agents. Hegel wrote: "Such are great historical men—whose own particular aims involve those large issues which are the will of the World-Spirit." Thus, according to Hegel, a great man does not create historical reality himself but only uncovers the inevitable future.
In Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that "the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens". Although Nietzsche's body of work shows some overlap with Carlyle's line of thought Nietzsche expressly rejected Carlyle's hero cult in Ecce Homo.[page needed]
- Every great leader is born already possessing certain traits that will enable them to rise and lead on instinct.
- The need for them has to be great for these traits to then arise, allowing them to lead.
This theory, and history, claims these great leaders as heroes that were able to rise against the odds to defeat rivals while inspiring followers along the way. Theorists say that these leaders were then born with a specific set of traits and attributes that make them ideal candidates for leadership and roles of authority and power. This theory relies then heavily on born rather than made, nature rather than nurture and cultivates the idea that those in power deserve to lead and shouldn't be questioned because they have the unique traits that make them suited for the position.
Herbert Spencer's critique
One of the most forceful critics of Carlyle's formulation of the great man theory was Herbert Spencer, who believed that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was an unscientific position. He believed that the men Carlyle called "great men" were merely products of their social environment:
You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. ... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.— Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology
William James' defence
William James, in his 1880 lecture "Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment", published in the Atlantic Monthly, forcefully defended Carlyle and refuted Spencer, condemning what James viewed as an "impudent", "vague", and "dogmatic" argument.
If anything is humanly certain it is that the great man's society, properly so called, does not make him before he can remake it ... The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movements, setters of precedent or fashion, centers of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction.
James' defence of the great man theory can be summarized as follows: The unique physiological nature of the individual is the deciding factor in making the great man, who, in turn, is the deciding factor in changing his environment in a unique way, without which the new environment would not have come to be, wherein the extent and nature of this change is also dependent on the reception of the environment to this new stimulus. To begin his argument, he first sardonically claims that these inherent physiological qualities have as much to do with "social, political, geographical [and] anthropological conditions" as the "conditions of the crater of Vesuvius has to do with the flickering of this gas by which I write". He then illustrates his argument by considering the myriad genetic variations that can occur in the earliest stages of sexual reproduction:
Now, when the result is the tendency of an ovum, itself invisible to the naked eye, to tip towards this direction or that in its further evolution, - to bring forth a genius or a dunce, even as the rain-drop passes east or west of the pebble, - is it not obvious that the deflecting cause must lie in a region so recondite and minute, must be such a ferment of a ferment, an infinitesimal of so high an order, that surmise itself may never succeed even in attempting to frame an image of it?
James argues that genetic anomalies in the brains of these great men are the decisive factor by introducing an original influence into their environment. They might therefore offer original ideas, discoveries, inventions and perspectives which "would not, in the mind of another individual, have engendered just that conclusion ... It flashes out of one brain, and no other, because the instability of that brain is such as to tip and upset itself in just that particular direction." James describes the manifestations of these unique physiological qualities as follows:
[T]he spontaneous upsettings of brains this way and that at particular moments into particular ideas and combinations are matched by their equally spontaneous permanent tiltings or saggings towards determinate directions. The humorous bent is quite characteristic; the sentimental one equally so. And the personal tone of each mind, which makes it more alive to certain impressions, more open to certain reasons, is equally the result of that invisible and imaginable play of the forces of growth within the nervous system which, [irresponsive] to the environment, makes the brain peculiarly apt to function in a certain way.
James then argues that these spontaneous variations of genius, i.e. the great men, which are causally independent of their social environment, subsequently influence that environment which in turn will either preserve or destroy the newly encountered variations in a form of evolutionary selection. If the great man is preserved then the environment is changed by his influence in "an entirely original and peculiar way. He acts as a ferment, and changes its constitution, just as the advent of a new zoological species changes the faunal and floral equilibrium of the region in which it appears." Each ferment, each great man, exerts a new influence on their environment which is either embraced or rejected and if embraced will in turn shape the crucible for the selection process of future geniuses.
The products of the mind with the determined æsthetic bent please or displease the community. We adopt Wordsworth, and grow unsentimental and serene. We are fascinated by Schopenhauer, and learn from him the true luxury of woe. The adopted bent becomes a ferment in the community, and alters its tone. The alteration may be a benefit or a misfortune, for it is (pace Mr. Allen) a differentiation from within, which has to run the gauntlet of the larger environment's selective power.
If you remove these geniuses "or alter their idiosyncrasies", then what "increasing uniformities will the environment show? We defy Mr. Spencer or any one else to reply." For James (Barney), then, there are two distinct factors that cause social evolution:
- The individual, who is unique in his "physiological and infra-social forces, but bearing all the power of initiative and origination in his hands" and
- The social environment of the individual, "with its power of adopting or rejecting both him and his gifts".
He thus concludes: "Both factors are essential to change. The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community."
James asserts that Spencer's view, conversely, ignores the influence of that impulse and
denies the vital importance of individual initiative, is, then, an utterly vague and unscientific conception, a lapse from modern scientific determinism into the most ancient oriental fatalism. The lesson of the analysis that we have made (even on the completely deterministic hypothesis with which we started) forms an appeal of the most stimulating sort to the energy of the individual ... It is folly, then, to speak of the "laws of history" as of something inevitable, which science has only to discover, and whose consequences any one can then foretell but do nothing to alter or avert. Why, the very laws of physics are conditional, and deal with ifs. The physicist does not say, "The water will boil anyhow"; he only says it will boil if a fire is kindled beneath it. And so the utmost the student of sociology can ever predict is that if a genius of a certain sort show the way, society will be sure to follow. It might long ago have been predicted with great confidence that both Italy and Germany would reach a stable unity if some one could but succeed in starting the process. It could not have been predicted, however, that the modus operandi in each case would be subordination to a paramount state rather than federation, because no historian could have calculated the freaks of birth and fortune which gave at the same moment such positions of authority to three such peculiar individuals as Napoleon III, Bismarck, and Cavour.
Before the 19th century, Blaise Pascal begins his Three Discourses on the Condition of the Great (written it seems for a young duke) by telling the story of a castaway on an island whose inhabitants take him for their missing king. He defends in his parable of the shipwrecked king, that the legitimacy of the greatness of great men is fundamentally custom and chance. A coincidence that gives birth to him in the right place with noble parents and arbitrary custom deciding, for example, on an unequal distribution of wealth in favor of the nobles.
Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace features criticism of great-man theories as a recurring theme in the philosophical digressions. According to Tolstoy, the significance of great individuals is imaginary; as a matter of fact they are only "history's slaves," realizing the decree of Providence.
In 1926, William Fielding Ogburn noted that Great Men history was being challenged by newer interpretations that focused on wider social forces. While not seeking to deny that individuals could have a role or show exceptional qualities, he saw Great Men as inevitable products of productive cultures. He noted for example that if Isaac Newton had not lived, calculus would have still been discovered by Gottfried Leibniz, and suspected that if neither man had lived, it would have been discovered by someone else. Among modern critics of the theory, Sidney Hook is supportive of the idea; he gives credit to those who shape events through their actions, and his book The Hero in History is devoted to the role of the hero and in history and influence of the outstanding persons.
In the introduction to a new edition of Heroes and Hero-Worship, David R. Sorensen notes the modern decline in support for Carlyle's theory in particular but also for "heroic distinction" in general. He cites Robert K. Faulkner as an exception, a proponent of Aristotelian magnanimity who in his book The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics, criticizes the political bias in discussions on greatness and heroism, stating: "the new liberalism’s antipathy to superior statesmen and to human excellence is peculiarly zealous, parochial, and antiphilosophic."
Ian Kershaw wrote in 1998 that "The figure of Hitler, whose personal attributes – distinguished from his political aura and impact – were scarcely noble, elevating or enriching, posed self-evident problems for such a tradition." Some historians like Joachim Fest responded by arguing that Hitler had a "negative greatness". By contrast, Kershaw rejects the Great Men theory and argues that it is more important to study wider political and social factors to explain the history of Nazi Germany. Kershaw argues that Hitler was an unremarkable person, but his importance came from how people viewed him, an example of Max Weber's concept of charismatic leadership.
- Bentley, Eric (1944). A Century of Hero-Worship: A study of the idea of heroism in Carlyle and Nietzsche, with notes on Wagner, Spengler, Stefan George, and D.H. Lawrence (Second, revised and reset ed.). Boston: Beacon Press (published 1957).
- Harrold, Charles Frederick (1934). "Carlyle and Heroes". Carlyle and German Thought, 1819–1834. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 180–196.
- Lehman, B. H. (1928). Carlyle's Theory of the Hero: Its Sources, Development, History, and Influence on Carlyle's Work. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. hdl:2027/mdp.39015008382213.
- Carlyle, Thomas (1841). "Lecture I: The Hero as Divinity. Odin. Paganism: Scandinavian Mythology.". On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History: Six Lectures. London: James Fraser. pp. 1–2.
- Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Divinity" in: Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840).
- Hirsch, E.D. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Third Edition), Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2002.
- Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Fredrick A. Stokes & Brother, New York, 1888. p. 2.
- Sidney Hook (1955) The Hero in History, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 14
- Sidney Hook (1955) The Hero in History, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 22.
- Woods, F. A. 1913. The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History. New York, NY: Macmillan.
- As to Hegel and Nietzsche: Edelstein, Alan (1996) Everybody is Sitting on the Curb: How and why America's Heroes Disappeared Greenwood. ISBN 9780275953645
- As to Kierkegaard: Evjen, John Oluf (1938) The Life of J. H. W. Stuckenberg: Theologian, Philosopher, Sociologist, Friend of Humanity Luther Free Church Publishing.
- As to Spengler, Nietzsche, Bloy and Weber: Saul, John Ralston (2012) The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 58 ISBN 9781476718941
- Hegel, G. W. F. . Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), 30.
- Bishop, P. (2004). Nietzsche and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition. Camden House. p. 94. ISBN 9781571132826. Retrieved 18 May 2015.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (17 July 2017). Ecce homo. ISBN 978-1-78877-874-9. OCLC 1005922656.
- "What is the Great Man Theory?". www.villanovau.com. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
- Segal, Robert A. Hero Myths, Wiley-Blackwell, 2000, p. 3.
- Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p. 31.
- James, William (1880), "Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment" Archived 2019-03-28 at the Wayback Machine
- "Pascal, Blaise | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". iv. Discourses on the Condition of the Great in c. Minor Works (Opuscules). Retrieved 8 August 2020.
- Tolstoy, L. 2010. War and Peace. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press Bk. IX, ch. 1
- Ogburn, William Fielding (December 1926). "The Great Man versus Social Forces". Social Forces. 5 (2): 225–231. doi:10.2307/3004769. JSTOR 3004769. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
- Hook, S. 1943. The Hero in History. A Study in Limitation and Possibility. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. p. 116
- On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, Edited by David R. Sorensen and Brent E. Kinser, Yale University Press, 2013, pp. 2-3.
- Faulkner, Robert (2007), The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 210.
- Kershaw, Ian Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris, W. W. Norton, New York, 1998, p. xii-xiii & xx