Definitions

Great man theory

Great man theory

The Great man theory is a theory held by some that aims to explain history by the impact of "Great men", or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence and wisdom or Machiavellianism, used power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

For example, a scholarly follower of the Great Man theory would be likely to study the Second World War by focusing on the big personalities of the conflict — Sir Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Hideki Tojo, et al — and view all of the historical events as being tied directly to their own individual decisions and orders.

Proponents

The Great Man theory is associated most often with 19th-century commentator and historian Thomas Carlyle, who commented 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 On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle set out how he saw history as having turned on the decisions of "heroes", giving detailed analysis of the influence of several such men (including Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, and Napoleon). Carlyle also felt 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 true nature.

This theory is usually contrasted with a theory that talks about events occurring in the fullness of time, or when an overwhelming wave of smaller events cause certain developments to occur. The Great Man approach to history was most fashionable with professional historians in the 19th century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopedia 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 philosophical figures such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but it fell out of favor after World War II.

Criticisms

One of the most vitriolic 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 a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. He believed that the men Carlyle called "great men" were merely products of their social environment, writing,

The editors of the influential 18th century French encyclopedia Encyclopedie were ideologically opposed to biographies because they believed too much ink had already been spilled on hagiographies of church fathers and deeds of kings, and not enough about the average person or life in general. To this end Encyclopedie had almost no biography articles. However, this policy was contentious among the encyclopedists and so some biographies were "hidden" inside articles; for example, the article on Wolstrope, England is almost entirely about the life of Newton.

An opponent of the great man theory in its own time was Leo Tolstoy, who devoted the entire non-fictional beginning of the third volume of War and Peace to critiquing it, using the Napoleonic wars as an example.

Today the great man theory is out of favor as a singular explanation for why things happen. Historians look at other factors such as economic, societal, environmental, and technological which are just as or more significant to historical change. Many historians believe that a history which only follows around single persons, especially when their significance is determined primarily by political status, is a shallow view of the past, and that sometimes such a view excludes entire groups of people from being parts of the study of history. A broader view is provided by a people's history approach.

This critique has spread to other fields such as literary criticism, in which Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism argues that societies play roles in creating works of art, not just authors.

Master Harold...and the Boys and Crime and Punishment offer critiques of the great man theory.

References

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