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Great man theory

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"The history of the world is the biography of great men" — Thomas Carlyle, inscribed in the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress
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.
—Thomas Carlyle.[1]
Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

Icon history.svg
Secrets of times gone by

The great man theory of history was initially proposed by Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas CarlyleWikipedia (1797–1881) in 1840 in a series of lectures, which were collected into a book in the following year.[2] The examples that Carlyle gave fell into six categories, one for each lecture:[2]

  1. The Hero as Divinity: Odin
  2. The Hero as Prophet: Muhammed
  3. The Hero as Poet: Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare
  4. The Hero as Priest: Martin Luther and John Knox
  5. The Hero as Man of Letters: Samuel Johnson,Wikipedia Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Robert BurnsWikipedia
  6. The Hero as King: Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte

Carlyle's great man theory posits that history is shaped by singularly great individuals whose uncommon abilities have a decisive effect on the course of events. To a less-enamored and more-dispassionate eye, some of these figures are not so heroic, e.g.: Luther was an antisemite, Cromwell's army killed many Irish people, and Napoleon was a dictator and imperialist. In terms of leadership, the theory rests on two primary assumptions: that great leaders are born possessing certain traits that enable them to rise and lead and that great leaders can arise when the need for them is great.[3] Additionally, this excludes great women throughout history, including in the time of Carlyle. The use of 'man' rather than 'person' was characteristically misogynist for that era.

Carlyle was an antisemite[4]:526-527 who was also a white supremacist in the form of believing in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority.[4]:360[5]:54 With the British Empire ascendant during Carlyle's lifetime, there would seem to have been a certain confirmation bias in Carlyle's worldview.

"People's history", or "history from the bottom", which attempts to describe the history the history of common people and marginalized groups, as well as the elite, is sometimes contrasted with great man theory, though it is not entirely antithetical to it.[6]

Some philosophers' arguments[edit]

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), a polymath and social Darwinist, who was a contemporary and significant critic of Carlyle argued that people are products of the social environment from which they originate.[7]:32-34

Philosopher and psychologist William JamesWikipedia (1842–1910) defended Carlyle and criticized Spencer, by fleshing out a nature vs. nurture comparison of the two sides and himself coming down in favor of of nature, that it is the unique physiological characteristics of great men that make them so.[8]

Novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy's argued against both free will and the great man theory in his War and Peace ("Book IX, Chapter I. The year 1812. Rulers and generals are 'history's slaves'").[9]:663

Similar to James, philosopher Sidney HookWikipedia argued against determinism and supported the great man theory.[10]


Napoleon Bonaparte, perhaps the quintessential "great man".
See the main article on this topic: Falsifiability

Is the great man theory scientific, can it be falsified? This is a question that Spencer alluded to, albeit in a racist way,[7][11]:3 but did not firmly answer because the concept of falsifiability as a benchmark for science did not exist until the 20th century. So, the philosophers of 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were left with arguing about nature vs. nurture or some combination of both, without coming up with any convincing answer. The problem with looking at historical figures with regard to the great man theory is that each person appears to be in a unique position in space and time, and hence it is difficult to come up with parallel examples, and the theory would seem to be unfalsifiable.

Fortunately, Carlyle's theory was very broad and though he himself did not include scientists, at least one of the theory's defenders, Hook, has included scientists and mathematicians.[10]:30-31 Hook even noted that it was commonplace for scientists to make the same discovery simultaneously,[10]:30-31 and Hook considers the likelihood of discovery had not the great man lived:[10]:31-32

It is extremely difficult to see how we would go about establishing a legitimate claim that, if this or that discovery had not been made, its subsequent discovery would be unlikely. Yet certain general considerations apply. If Newton had not made his discoveries in mechanics and optics, we can readily believe that others might have done so not long after, for interest in the problems of these fields was widespread and other attempts at their solution by first-rate minds had been independently made. But some other branches of mathematics and physics show creative work along certain lines by an individual who had no outstanding predecessors in the field and from whom all subsequent investigations in the same direction stems. For example, we have no specific evidence that would warrant the judgment that Cantor'sWikipedia theory of transfinite numbers and Einstein's special theory of relativity would have been developed by others. Although it would be rash to assert that no one but Cantor and Einstein would have propounded these theories, the assertion that others would have done so has even less ground.

Similar to the great man theory vs. people's history argument, in science there has been an argument of the "heroic theory of invention and scientific development"Wikipedia vs. multiple discovery.Wikipedia

Hook knew that he was weakening his own argument for the great man theory by this explanation, but a fuller examination of multiple discoveries comes very close to discrediting the theory. Both fundamental inventions of civilization (plant[12] and animal domestication,[13] writing systems[14] and metallurgy[15]) and many advanced scientific discoveries have been discovered independently by different people.[16]

Regarding Hook's specific examples, it is true that special relativity and transfinite numbers were not discovered independently, but several of Einstein's other discoveries were also independently discovered (Mass–energy equivalenceWikipedia [E=mc2], Brownian motion,Wikipedia the Einstein Relation,Wikipedia and the Stark–Einstein lawWikipedia), and while Cantor's transfinite numbers were counter-intuitive at the time, the concept is not particularly difficult to understand and it is taught in undergraduate mathematics classes.[17]

So, the frequency of multiple independent discoveries argues against the great man theory. It is instead supportive of the idea that past inventions and knowledge plus current problems lead to discoveries from multiple people working on the problems and sometimes discovering the solutions independently.

Thought experiment[edit]

Another approach to looking at the plausibility of the great man theory is the thought experiment. A relevant one is the Killing baby Hitler thought experiment, which started floating around in 2015,[18] but had earlier antecedents.[19] In this case one can regard Hitler as a great man in the broad sense that Time magazine has for their person of the year cover ("for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year").[20] And, Hook also discussed Hitler as a great man in this sense of having great effect.[10]

So, the thought experiment if one could go back in time to kill baby Hitler, should one do it, and would it change the course of history significantly. A strong argument can be made that it is not a worthwhile endeavor, that the historical and sociological currents of that era[18] (anti-communism, anti-semitism, pogroms, economic depression, eugenics, irredentism, Lebensraum, militarism, authoritarianism, persecution complex within Christianity, scientific racism, and the Treaty of Versailles' unfavorable terms for Germany) were strongly supportive of someone like Hitler rising to power. One does not need to look much past the upper echelon of Nazi Germany for likely candidates who could have replaced Hitler in the early 1930s.

In popular culture[edit]

The most notable popular work that came out of the great man theory was the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911), which contains lengthy detailed biographies of great men and few social histories.[21] It is also notable for containing many articles written by living famous men (Henry Ford, Thomas Henry Huxley, Pyotr Kropotkin, John Muir,Wikipedia Bertrand Russell, Ernest RutherfordWikipedia).[21][22]

Time magazine's Man of the Year, and starting in 1999 Person of the Year, clearly was influenced by this idea, though it seems to have faded in later years as groups of people and non-humans were featured instead of individuals.[20]

Dictators are particularly fond of great man theory, because by definition they are great, right? Their endless hagiographic, door-stopping autobiographies are evidence of this.[23]

Virtually every public statue depicting an historical figure is predicated upon the great man theory.[24][25] The pigeons do not understand the theory but they are grateful for the practice.

Two logical fallacies are basically predicated upon the great man theory, argument from authority (in part), and appeal to celebrity.

White nationalists sometimes make claims to the effect that most or all of the great men of the world were white.[26][27] This of course ignores the contributions from elsewhere in the world.[28][29]

See also[edit]

Potential examples of "great men"[edit]

Related topics[edit]

External link[edit]


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Great man theory.
  2. 2.0 2.1 On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History: Six Lectures by Thomas Carlyle (1841) James Fraser.
  3. The Great Man Theory. Villanova University.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Thomas Carlyle: A Biography by Fred Kaplan (1993). University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520082007.
  5. Observing America: The Commentary of British Visitors to the United States, 1890–1950 by Robert Frankel (2007). University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0299218805.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on People's history.
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer (1880) C. Kegan Paul & Co. 8th edition.
  8. Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment by William James (1880) Atlantic Monthly (archived from March 7, 2015).
  9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1997) Penguin Popular Classics. ISBN 0140622691.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility by Sidney Hook (1943) Martin Stecker & Warburg.
  11. Hero Myths, edited by Robert A. Segal (2000) John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0631215158.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on History of agriculture. See the Wikipedia article on List of domesticated plants.
  13. See the Wikipedia article on Domestication of animals. See the Wikipedia article on List of domesticated animals.
  14. See the Wikipedia article on History of writing.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America.
  16. See the Wikipedia article on List of multiple discoveries.
  17. Math M114S: General Course Outline UCLA Department of Mathematics (archived from August 29, 2018).
  18. 18.0 18.1 The Ethics of Killing Baby Hitler: A moral dilemma is better understood as a historical one. by Matt Ford (Oct 24, 2015) The Atlantic.
  19. Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act TV Tropes.
  20. 20.0 20.1 See the Wikipedia article on Time Person of the Year.
  21. 21.0 21.1 See the Wikipedia article on Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.
  22. Immortal Encyclopedia? by Craig Stark (7 June, 2004) Book Think #20.
  23. The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy by Daniel Kalder (2019) Picador. ISBN 1250181607.
  24. Is There Still Value in ‘Great Man’ History? How important is the study of the powerful, epoch-defining individual? by Diarmaid MacCulloch (September 2019) History Today 69(9).
  25. The new Eisenhower Memorial is stunning, especially at night. But is this the last of the ‘great man’ memorials? by Philip Kennicott (August 6, 2020 at 4:00 a.m. PDT) The Washington Post.
  26. Whites that want to preserve their cultural and heritage want to gas Jews and lynch innocent blacks eh? Plus, they are 'prejudice' too unlike the haters that slander whites, right? All of the great men of the world came from the white race. by Tom Fauld (1:12 PM · Apr 10, 2019) Twitter (archived from 28 Feb 2020 08:07:07 UTC).
  27. The white race we take what we want and build what we need. The rest of the world should thank us for giving it all the Great Inventions Cars airplanes air conditioning electricity computers smartphones etc.. I could be here all day name and all the inventions we gave the world by @FrattoRealjames (10:13 AM - 21 Aug 2019) Twitter (archived from 28 Feb 2020 08:12:12 UTC).
  28. See the Wikipedia article on List of Chinese inventions.
  29. See the Wikipedia article on List of Indian inventions and discoveries.