Great man theory

Great man theory

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The Great Man Theory was a popular 19th century idea according to which history
Philosophy of history
The term philosophy of history refers to the theoretical aspect of history, in two senses. It is customary to distinguish critical philosophy of history from speculative philosophy of history...

 can be largely explained by the impact of "great men", or hero
Hero
A hero , in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion...

es: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma
Charisma
The term charisma has two senses: 1) compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, 2) a divinely conferred power or talent. For some theological usages the term is rendered charism, with a meaning the same as sense 2...

, intelligence
Intelligence
Intelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving....

, wisdom
Wisdom
Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding. It often requires control of one's emotional reactions so that universal principles, reason and...

, or Machiavellianism
Machiavellianism
Machiavellianism is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct", deriving from the Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote Il Principe and other works...

 utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher during the Victorian era.He called economics "the dismal science", wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, and became a controversial social commentator.Coming from a strict Calvinist family, Carlyle was...

, and in 1860 Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era....

 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 lifetimes.

Introduction


Carlyle 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
Muhammad
Muhammad |ligature]] at U+FDF4 ;Arabic pronunciation varies regionally; the first vowel ranges from ~~; the second and the last vowel: ~~~. There are dialects which have no stress. In Egypt, it is pronounced not in religious contexts...

, Shakespeare, Luther
Martin Luther
Martin Luther was a German priest, professor of theology and iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money. He confronted indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel with his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517...

, 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.

Alongside 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 History 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.

The 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 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
Attila the Hun
Attila , more frequently referred to as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. He was leader of the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from the Ural River to the Rhine River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. During his reign he was one of the most feared...

. This heroic view of history was also strongly endorsed by some philosophical figures such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Spengler
Oswald Spengler
Oswald Manuel Arnold Gottfried Spengler was a German historian and philosopher whose interests also included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West , published in 1918, which puts forth a cyclical theory of the rise and decline of civilizations...

, but it fell out of favor after World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

.

In Untimely Meditations
Untimely Meditations
Untimely Meditations consists of four works by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, started in 1873 and completed in 1876....

, Nietzsche writes that: "...the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens" http://books.google.com/books?id=vn3GBIA7wUYC&pg=PA94&lpg=PA94&dq=Nietzsche+untimely+meditations+highest+specimens&source=bl&ots=0SUs6i1XLQ&sig=kt1IKcsGWTmhBFHFyVb9JTNlrWI&hl=en&ei=VxSfSo1bzZzxBvyt0cYG&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9#v=onepage&q=Nietzsche%20untimely%20meditations%20highest%20specimens&f=false.

In Fear and Trembling
Fear and Trembling
Fear and Trembling is an influential philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard, published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio...

, 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."

Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality as a whole revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.Hegel developed a comprehensive...

, proceeding from providentialist theory, argued that what is real is reasonable and World-Historical individuals are World-Spirit's agents. Thus, according to Hegel, a great man does not create historical reality himself but only uncovers the inevitable future .

Critique and criticisms


One of the most vitriolic critics of Carlyle's formulation of the Great Man theory was Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era....

, 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.
The editors of the influential 18th century French encyclopedia Encyclopedie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

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 (Woolsthorpe)
Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth
Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth is a hamlet in the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, England. It is probably best known as the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton....

, England is almost entirely about the life of Newton
Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."...

.

Tolstoy
Tolstoy
Tolstoy, or Tolstoi is a prominent family of Russian nobility, descending from Andrey Kharitonovich Tolstoy who served under Vasily II of Moscow...

's War and Peace
War and Peace
War and Peace is a novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, first published in 1869. The work is epic in scale and is regarded as one of the most important works of world literature...

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.

William James
William James
William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a physician. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism...

 in his lecture 'Great Men and Their Environment' 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 should mention Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook was an American pragmatic philosopher known for his contributions to public debates.A student of John Dewey, Hook continued to examine the philosophy of history, of education, politics, and of ethics. After embracing Marxism in his youth, Hook was known for his criticisms of...

, whose book The Hero in History is devoted to the role of the hero
Hero
A hero , in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion...

 and in history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

 and influence of the outstanding persons
Person
A person is a human being, or an entity that has certain capacities or attributes strongly associated with being human , for example in a particular moral or legal context...

. .

Leonid Grinin
Leonid Grinin
Leonid Grinin is a philosopher of history and sociologist.Born in Kamyshin , Grinin attended Volgograd Pedagogical University, where he got an M.A. in 1980. He got his Ph.D. from Moscow State University in 1996...

  defines a historical figure (a Great Man) thus:

So, he concludes that the role of Great Man depends on a number of factors, or none at all.

See also

  • Annales School
    Annales School
    The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and...

     and New History
    New history
    For New history see:* James Harvey Robinson for "new history" in early 20th century American historiography* Nouvelle histoire for "new history" in late 20th century French historiography* New Mormon history for Mormon history in a historical context...

  • Greatness
    Greatness
    Since the publication of Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius in 1869, and especially with the accelerated development of intelligence tests in the early 1900s, there has been a vast amount of social scientific research published relative to the question of ‘greatness’...

  • Max Weber
    Max Weber
    Karl Emil Maximilian "Max" Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself...

    's charismatic authority
    Charismatic authority
    The sociologist Max Weber defined charismatic authority as "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him." Charismatic authority is one of three forms of authority laid out...

  • Heroic theory of invention and scientific development
    Heroic theory of invention and scientific development
    The heroic theory of invention and scientific development is the hypothesis that the principal authors of inventions and scientific discoveries are unique heroic individuals "great scientists" or "geniuses." A competing hypothesis is that most inventions and scientific discoveries are made...

  • People known as the father or mother of something
  • People's history
    People's history
    A people's history or history from below is a type of historical narrative which attempts to account for historical events from the perspective of common people rather than political and other leaders.-Description:...

  • Philosophy of history
    Philosophy of history
    The term philosophy of history refers to the theoretical aspect of history, in two senses. It is customary to distinguish critical philosophy of history from speculative philosophy of history...

  • Prosopography
    Prosopography
    In historical studies, prosopography is an investigation of the common characteristics of a historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives, in multiple career-line analysis...

  • Knight of faith
    Knight of faith
    The knight of faith is an individual who has placed complete faith in himself and in God and can act freely and independently from the world. The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard vicariously discusses the knight of faith in several of his pseudonymic works, with the most in-depth...

  • Übermensch
    Übermensch
    The Übermensch is a concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra ....

  • Whig history
    Whig history
    Whig history is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government,...


External links

  • "Twilight of the Idols", by Peter Dizikes, from The New York Times
    The New York Times
    The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

    , November 5, 2006. "Do changes in science mean the traditional great-man science biography is going the way of the dodo?"