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Great Man theory

great man theory, great man theory of leadership
The Great Man theory is a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of "great men", or heroes; highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle But in 1860 Herbert Spencer formulated a counter-argument that has remained influential throughout the 20th century to the present: Spencer said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes123 Thus subsequent social history, economic history, and political history have de-emphasized the primacy of great men


  • 1 Overview
  • 2 Criticism
  • 3 See also
  • 4 References
  • 5 External links


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 inspiration45 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, Pericles, Napoleon, and Wagner 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 nature6

Along with Carlyle the Great Man theory was supported by American scholar Frederick Adams Woods In his work The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History7 Woods investigated 386 rulers in Western Europe from the 12th century till the French revolution in the late 18th century and their influence on the course of historical events

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 causes 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 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 philosophical figures such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but it fell out of favor after World War IIcitation needed

In Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche writes that: "the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens"8

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes that: "to be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime and the pedestrian — that only these knights of faith can do — this is the one and only prodigy"9

Hegel, proceeding from providentialist theory, argued that what is real is reasonable and World-Historical individuals are World-Spirit's agents Hegel opined: "Such are great historical men—whose own particular aims involve those large issues which are the will of the World-Spirit"10 Thus, according to Hegel, a great man does not create historical reality himself but only uncovers the inevitable future


Herbert Spencer was a contemporary critic of Carlyle's Great Man theory

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 a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position11 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 Sociology12

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 Providence13

William James in his lecture 'Great Men and Their Environment'14 underlined the importance of the Great Man's congruence with the surroundings in the broad sense, though his ultimate point was that environments and individuals shape each other reciprocally, just as environments and individual members of animal species do according to Darwinian theory

Among modern critics of the theory of Great Man, one, 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 persons15

Leonid Grinin defines a historical figure a Great Man thus:

"Owing to his personal features, or to a chance, or to his social standing, or to the peculiarity of the epoch, an individual by the very fact of his existence, by his ideas or actions or inaction directly or indirectly, during his lifetime or after his death may have such an influence upon his own or another society which can be recognized significant as he left a noticeable mark positive, negative or unambiguous in history and in the further development of society"16

So, he concludes that the role of Great Man depends on a number of factors, not none at all

See alsoedit

  • History portal
  • Philosophy portal
  • Annales School and New History
  • Greatness
  • Max Weber's charismatic authority
  • Heroic theory of invention and scientific development
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • List of people considered father or mother of a field
  • People's history
  • Philosophy of history
  • Prosopography
  • Knight of faith
  • Übermensch
  • Whig history


  1. ^ Robert L Carneiro "Herbert Spencer as an Anthropologist" Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol 5, 1981, pp 171–2
  2. ^ Robert Rives La Monte Socialism: Positive and Negative, Chicago: Charles H Kerr Publishing Company, 1912, p 18
  3. ^ Sidney Hook 1950 The Hero in History, New York: Humanities Press, p 67
  4. ^ Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Divinity" in: Heroes and Hero-Worship 1840
  5. ^ Hirsch, ED The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy Third Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2002
  6. ^ Carlyle, Thomas On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Fredrick A Stokes & Brother, New York, 1888 p 2
  7. ^ Woods, F A 1913 The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History New York, NY: Macmillan
  8. ^ Bishop, P 2004 Nietzsche and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition Camden House p 94 ISBN 9781571132826 Retrieved 2015-05-18 
  9. ^ Kierkegaard, Søren Fear and Trembling Preliminary Expectoration
  10. ^ Hegel, GWF 1837 Philosophy of History, trans J Sibree New York: Dover, 1956, 30
  11. ^ Segal, Robert A Hero Myths, Wiley-Blackwell, 2000, p 3
  12. ^ Spencer, Herbert The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p 31
  13. ^ Tolstoy, L 2010 War and Peace Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press Bk IX, ch 1
  14. ^ James, W 2005 1880 Great Men and Their Environment Kila, MT: Kessinger Publishing
  15. ^ Hook, S 1943 The Hero in History A Study in Limitation and Possibility Boston, MA: Beacon Press P 116
  16. ^ Grinin, Leonid 2010 The Role of an Individual in History: A Reconsideration Social Evolution & History, Vol 9 No 2 pp 95–136 P 116-1171

External linksedit

  • "Twilight of the Idols", by Peter Dizikes, from The New York Times, November 5, 2006 "Do changes in science mean the traditional great-man science biography is going the way of the dodo"

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