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Napoléon Bonaparte, an exemplary great man, who determined the "Napoleonic" era of history

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 and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect. The theory is primarily attributed to the Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle who gave a series of lectures on heroism in 1840, later published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and 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 realization 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.



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.[1][2] In his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, 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 Muhammad), 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.[3]

As Sidney Hook notes, a common misinterpretation of the theory is that "all factors in history, save great men, were inconsequential."[4], whereas Carlyle is instead claiming that great men are the decisive factor, owing to their unique genius. Hook then goes on to emphasise 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?"[5]

American scholar Frederick Adams Woods supported the great man theory in his work The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History.[6] 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.

This theory is usually contrasted with "history from below", which emphasizes the life of the masses in addition to the leader. 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 philosophers, such as Léon Bloy, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler and Max Weber,[7][8][9] but it fell out of favor after World War II.[citation needed]

In Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche writes that "the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens".[10]

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."[11]

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."[12] 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.

Herbert Spencer's CriticismEdit

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.[13] 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[14]

William James' DefenceEdit

William James was a 19th century philosopher and psychologist.

William James, in his 1880 lecture "Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment",[15] published in the Atlantic Monthly, powerfully defended Carlyle and refuted Spencer, dismantling his "impudent", "vague", and "dogmatic" argument, by reversing his thesis:

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 summarised 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 humorously claims that these inherent physiological forces 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 this on the cellular level of genius creation:

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?

It is the brains of these great men that introduce an original influence into the environment. They offer original ideas, discoveries, inventions, perspectives, formed from premises 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." This physiological originality is described in detail 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 subsequently argues that these spontaneous variations of genius, i.e. the great men, which are causally independent of the environment, then influence that environment since it either preserves or destroys these new variations, which is to say it selects them. 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 the environment which previously showed no sign of it and which is either adopted by it or not. If so, it in turn causes new geniuses, and so on and so forth:

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, then, there are two distinct factors that cause social evolution:

  1. 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
  2. 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." Spencer's view, conversely, which ignores the 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.

Other responsesEdit

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.[16]

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.[17]

In the introduction to a new edition of On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, David R. Sorensen notes the modern decline in support for Carlyle's theory in particular but also for "heroic distinction" in general.[18] He cites Robert Faulkner as an exception, a proponent of Aristotelian magnanimity who in his book The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics, criticises 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."[19]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Divinity" in: Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840).
  2. ^ Hirsch, E.D. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Third Edition), Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2002.
  3. ^ Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Fredrick A. Stokes & Brother, New York, 1888. p. 2.
  4. ^ Sidney Hook (1955) The Hero in History, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 14
  5. ^ Sidney Hook (1955) The Hero in History, Boston: Beacon Press, p. 22.
  6. ^ Woods, F. A. 1913. The Influence of Monarchs: Steps in a New Science of History. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  7. ^ As to Hegel and Nietzsche: Edelstein, Alan (1996) Everybody is Sitting on the Curb: How and why America's Heroes Disappeared Greenwood. ISBN 9780275953645
  8. ^ As to Kierkegaard: Evjen, John Oluf (1938) The Life of J. H. W. Stuckenberg: Theologian, Philosopher, Sociologist, Friend of Humanity Luther Free Church Publishing.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Bishop, P. (2004). Nietzsche and Antiquity: His Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition. Camden House. p. 94. ISBN 9781571132826. Retrieved 2015-05-18.
  11. ^ Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Preliminary Expectoration.
  12. ^ Hegel, G. W. F. [1837]. Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), 30.
  13. ^ Segal, Robert A. Hero Myths, Wiley-Blackwell, 2000, p. 3.
  14. ^ Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology, Appleton, 1896, p. 31.
  15. ^ James, William (1880), "Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment"
  16. ^ Tolstoy, L. 2010. War and Peace. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press Bk. IX, ch. 1
  17. ^ Hook, S. 1943. The Hero in History. A Study in Limitation and Possibility. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. p. 116
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Faulkner, Robert (2007), The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 210.

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