The Great Man Theory was a popular 19th century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or Machiavellianism utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.
The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, and in 1860 Herbert Spencer 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.
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, Shakespeare, Luther, 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 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 philosophical figures such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but it fell out of favor after World War II.
In Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche writes that: “…the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens”
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.”
Hegel, 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.
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 a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. He believed that the men Carlyle called “great men” were merely products of their social environment.
“[Y]ou 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.”