Great man theory

Theory associated with the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

The most significant contribution to any society is made by outstanding individuals. It is such great men, rather than circumstances or broad social or historical movement, who are responsible for progress.

B E Lippincot, Victorian Critics of Democracy (Minneapolis, 1938)


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 Mohamet), 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, Spengler and Max Weber,[7][8][9] but it fell out of favor after World War II.[citation needed]

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.”[10] Thus, according to Hegel, a great man does not create historical reality himself but only uncovers the inevitable future.

In Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche writes that “the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens”.[11] Although Nietzsche’s body of work shows some overlap with Carlyle’s line of thought Nietzsche expressly rejected Carlyle’s hero cult in Ecce Homo.[12]

Assumptions of the Great Man Theory

This theory rests on two main assumptions, as pointed out by Villanova University:[13]

  1. Every great leader is born already possessing certain traits that will enable them to rise and lead, on instinct[14]
  2. The need for them has to be great for these traits to then arise, allowing them to lead[15]

This theory, and history, claims these great leaders as heroes that were able to rise against the odds to defeat rivals, while inspiring followers along the way. Theorists say that these leaders were then born with a specific set of traits and attributes that make them ideal candidates for leadership and roles of authority and power. This theory relies then heavily on born rather than made, nature rather than nurture and cultivates the idea that those in power deserve to lead and shouldn’t be questioned because they have the unique traits that make them suited for the position.[16]


Herbert Spencer was a contemporary critic of Carlyle’s great man theory.

Herbert Spencer’s criticism

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.[17] 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[18]

William James’ defence

William James was a 19th-century philosopher and psychologist.

William James, in his 1880 lecture “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment”,[19] published in the Atlantic Monthly, forcefully defended Carlyle and refuted Spencer, condemning what James viewed as an “impudent”, “vague”, and “dogmatic” argument.

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 sardonically claims that these inherent physiological qualities 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 his argument by considering the myriad genetic variations that can occur in the earliest stages of sexual reproduction:

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?

James argues that genetic anomalies in the brains of these great men are the decisive factor by introducing an original influence into their environment. They might therefore offer original ideas, discoveries, inventions and perspectives 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.” James describes the manifestations of these unique physiological qualities 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 then argues that these spontaneous variations of genius, i.e. the great men, which are causally independent of their social environment, subsequently influence that environment which in turn will either preserve or destroy the newly encountered variations in a form of evolutionary selection. 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 their environment which is either embraced or rejected and if embraced will in turn shape the crucible for the selection process of future geniuses.

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.”

James asserts that Spencer’s view, conversely, ignores the influence of that 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.

One thought on “Great man theory

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