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On the Great Man Theory of History

There is no shortage of theories on how history works and of ideas as to who or what is the motive force at the heart of history.[1] To cover them all would be the task of a particularly herculean dissertation; it is sufficient here to simply cover one. The Great Man Theory of History is well known, at least colloquially, but such familiarity is by nature shallow. It exists as something of an umbrella term that no single thinker can claim total ownership of; familiarity with it is shallow because the only consistent aspects of it are shallow.

What is the Great Man Theory of History, then? Or, at least, what is a version of it? Thomas Carlyle, a nineteenth-century Scottish historian and essayist, provides an articulation of the theory:

We have undertaken to discourse here for a little on Great Men, their manner of appearance in our world’s business, how they have shaped themselves in the world’s history, what idea’s men formed of them, what work they did;– on Heroes, namely, and on their reception and performance; what I call Hero-worship and the Heroic in human affairs. Too evidently this is a large topic; deserving quite other treatment than we can expect to give it at present. A large topic; indeed, an illimitable one; wide as Universal History itself. For, as I take it, 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.[2]

For Carlyle, the Great Man is “more a man than we”.[3] There is something explicitly religious – indeed, by his accounting Great Men were once confused with gods – in his view of the Great Man. The Great Man is possessed of a kind of inner fire; “with his free force direct out of God's own hand” he is “the lightning” that strikes into an era and casts it ablaze “into fire like his own”.[4] The Great Man is blessed, or otherwise gifted, by either God or Nature to be beyond the average man.

It is the Great Man, no one else, who is “the indispensable saviour of his epoch”; without the Great Man, nothing would be possible besides mediocrity.[5] As Carlyle states repeatedly: “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men”.[6] There is no space for anyone else and even if there were, no one else except for the Great Man could do anything that would make them deserving of being a part of history.

Like many other theories of history, the Great Man Theory of History attempts to divine the driving force of history. Like many other theories of history, it divines its answer crudely and with the opposite of success. These theories try to perform brain surgery with a rock, and so blunt is the instrument and so devoid of sense is the hand wielding it that the only possible resolution to the affair is a corpse. It is not unfair to say that these attempts at discovering the historical process do little more than butcher it and, in turn, result in history not dissimilar in appearance to Frankenstein’s monster. These histories stumble about, their skins and organs a patchwork of ill-assembled facts, unnaturally animated as abominations that play at life; no great acting skill could ever conceal the decay or the stench of the rot within and without.

The result of this program of history, like all the other simplistic programs of history, is history that is not worth the paper it is written on. The character of a historian who believes as Carlyle does is solely moralistic, their mind possesses a cultist bent. They are not interested in historical accuracy; they are only interested in confirming their biases, in affirming the greatness of Great Men. There is no room to criticize the Great Man:

Shew our critics a great man, a Luther for example, they begin to what they call 'account' for him; not to worship him, but take the dimensions of him,-and bring him out to be a little kind of man! He was the 'creature of the Time,' they say; the Time called him forth, the Time did everything, he nothing -but what we the little critic could have done too![7]

Do these critics see a “little kind of man”, or do they just see a man?[8] What should we see when we look at a man but a man? It is only a tragedy to assess a man and discover a man when something far more was expected, but of course, far more was expected. We take “account” of a man such as Luther, we “take the dimensions of him”, and we get a man.[9] Admirable in some ways and detestable in others, lacking in any divine gifts; for the historian of Great Men, an unacceptable outcome.

By definition, the Great Man is more than a normal man; were they a normal man they would not be a Great Man. The Great Man is a Great Man, not a little man, and so the humanity of the Great Man – which would prove him a little man – must be discarded. What is left of the Great Man is neither great nor historically accurate, it is merely the stringent curation of details to add colour between the lines of a predetermined image. The historian of Great Men is indistinct from a child with a colouring book and a box of crayons. Much like that same child when it is time to put away the toys and go to school, the historian of Great Men can only react with indignation when confronted by the thought that Great Men do not exist:

Those are critics of small vision, I think… No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such general blindness to the spiritual lightning, with faith only in the heap of barren dead fuel. It is the last consummation of unbelief… Such small critics do what they can to promote unbelief and universal spiritual paralysis…[10]

The disbelief in Great Men is a moral failing, the sign of a pathetic little man, or so says Carlyle. Perhaps the historian of Great Men is no larger, but at the very least they do not suffer from such a moral failing. The historian of Great Men worships – and indeed it is a kind of worship, a reverential treatment, a deeply rooted and fanatical love – his subjects and will suffer no criticism on their behalf. I will let Nietzsche speak on the faith of the historian of Great Men:

I have been reading the life of Thomas Carlyle, this unconscious and involuntary farce, this heroic-moralistic interpretation of dyspeptic states. Carlyle: a man of strong words and attitudes, a rhetor from need, constantly lured by the craving for a strong faith and the feeling of his incapacity for it (in this respect, a typical romantic!). The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of skepticism: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that. Carlyle drugs something in himself with the fortissimo of his veneration of men of strong faith and with his rage against the less simple-minded: he requires noise.[11]

It is ironic that the man who wrote of Übermensch would disparage the man who wrote of Great Men. It is, however, expected for the man who wrote of the failings of monumental history to do exactly that. Great Man history is monumental history and little more than historical sleight of hand: “[monumental history] will always bring closer what is unlike, generalize, and finally make things equal. It will always tone down the difference in motives and events, in order to set down the monumental effectus [effect], that is, the exemplary effect worthy of imitation, at the cost of the causae [cause]”.[12] “There are times which one cannot distinguish at all between a monumental history and a mythic fiction”; so too is Great Man history, the open worship of the Heroic, often barely distinguishable from mythic fiction.[13]

The Great Man Theory of History is an attempt at simplification. It is the result and the tool of componential thinkers who yearn for simplicity and for the confidence such simplicity gives them. The holistic ideal, the embrace of complexity, doubt, and skepticism, is abandoned in favour of simplicity and confidence, which is more like arrogance than anything else. With that ideal also goes large parts of history; “an uninterrupted gray flood” of knowledge goes past us, over the edge of existence and into the void, never to be known again.[14] The simplicity desired by the historian of Great Men is only possible through the cherrypicking of facts combined with the suppression or destruction of everything to the contrary.

Where are the voices of women in history? Of the countless people who were once viewed as lesser? Their voices have been allowed to fall over the edge of existence and into the void, never to be heard from again. Only some voices are worthy of being heard and only some people are worthy of remembrance, or so says the Great Man Theory of History.

Indeed, the historian of Great Men is inherently discriminatory and exclusionary. The framework of the theory makes such features explicit; what else can something be called that posits the existence of a Great Man who is “more a man than we”?[15] The process of historical simplification within the Great Man Theory of History allows for the separation of the so-called lesser from the so-called greater; it is the clumsy application of a nonsensical hierarchy to the processes of history.

Simplification and generalization are not abhorrent in and of themselves; they are necessary tools, indeed, this work itself is subject to both. Here, however, the process of simplification and generalization does not slam the door shut on further exploration of the subject. My simplifications and generalizations do not erect a fortress around my subject, they stop me from straying too far afield; they are not malicious but merely practical. The opposite is true with the Great Man Theory of History, which seeks to slam the door shut on the masses of people the historian of Great Men deems inferior. Discrimination and exclusion are necessarily implied by the acceptance of a narrative in which supposedly superhuman Great Men predominate.

Were we to speak of Great Women as well would we somehow make it less discriminatory, less exclusionary? No; that fundamental factor, the separation of the lessers from the greats, would be there all the same. History would still be contorted and twisted to conform to their preconceived greatness and knowledge of the past would still flow freely into the void. Practitioners of the Great People Theory of History would only wear the mask of impartiality and inclusivity; they would be just as averse to historical accuracy as before.

Were we to abandon Carlyle and construct our own Great Man Theory of History that removes or else tempers his extremes, would we somehow make it less discriminatory, less exclusionary? Should we deny that “the History of the world is but the Biography of great men”, that Great Men are “more a man than we”?[16] Should we recant more of Carlyle’s theory until all that remains is inoffensive? Having cut out the rot all that would remain is a meaningless and hollow shell of a theory; it would be less discriminatory and exclusionary by virtue of being nothing coherent at all.

Every formulation of the Great Man Theory of History shares in the desire to simplify, all of them discriminate and exclude, and all of them muddle the historical process through claims of dominance. Simplification, the claim that certain individuals were distinctly superior and thus exerted distinctly greater influence on events, results in the discrimination against, and the exclusion of, all those who allegedly exerted less influence on events. Such discrimination and exclusion thus reinforce the impulse driving simplification; as the allegedly less influential are erased from history the influence they exerted gets erased with them, justifying their initial diminishment and further erasure. In the background of this process is the fixation on the individual, that is, the belief that it was individual people – who just so happened to almost always be men – that exerted the greatest influence on the outcome of events. Dominance is claimed for a single factor, the individual, and then further narrowed down to certain individuals, the Great Men. Thus excluded is not just the rest of the species but every other factor that exerts influence on the outcome of events.

We should not overcorrect and reject the importance of the individual entirely, but that hardly means that we should continue to entertain some derivative of the Great Man Theory of History. We do not need to rehabilitate it; sometimes a theory is wrong, and that is that. We do not need the concepts of Great Men, Great Women, or Great People to express the importance of the individual in history. Such terms dispose of much of humanity at any rate and that defeats the point; by the importance of the individual in history I mean the importance of all individuals in history.

Such a conception of history, in which we allow all individuals as well as all other relevant factors to be of equal importance, is arguably the only way to introduce impartiality and inclusiveness into our understanding of the historical process. This subject will be returned to in the new year, for now, however, it is enough to end here.

By: Dillon A. J. Chicoski


[1] The image used in relation to this post is Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-07, oil on canvas, Paris, The Louvre, accessed from Although this article is not directly about Napoléon Bonaparte, it was intentionally released on the 218th anniversary (Dec. 2nd, 2022) of his coronation as Empereur des Français – Emperor of the French. Napoléon has long served as one of the archetypical Great Man. [2] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History: Six Lectures; Reported, with Emendations and Additions (United Kingdom: James Fraser, 1841), 1-2. [3] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 329. [4] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 20-21. [5] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 21. [6] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 47. [7] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 19-20. [8] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 20. [9] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 20. [10] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 21. [11] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols,” in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and ed. by Walter Kaufmann (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1954), 521. [12] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, trans. Ian C. Johnston, 9, [13] Nietzsche, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” 9. [14] Nietzsche, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” 9. [15] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 329. [16] Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship, & the Heroic in History, 47, 329.

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