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"Great Man" Theory of History

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deathpigeon Relationship Status: One True Dodecahedron
Feb 28th 2013 at 6:14:07 AM

The "Great Man" Theory of History posits that history is made by so called "great men" who have an inordinate influence on history, while the influence of others on history is smaller. Examples of these great men include Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, FDR, Hitler, and Ghandi. Proponents of the theory indicate the great record of the influence of these men. Without Alexander the Great, Macedonia wouldn't have become a great power and conquer territory all the way to India. Without Napoleon, tons of wars wouldn't have happened that were a direct result of the militaristic expansion of France under his rule. Many historians view history through this lens, and many history books are written with great men in mind, often following the lives of these great men. To people who ascribe to this theory, history is merely a biography of great men.

Now, the theory is not without criticism or alternate theories.

The main criticism is that, while great men have great influence on their societies, their societies have great influence on them. Alexander the Great wouldn't have conquered large swaths of area without the influence of his culture and his father. Napoleon wouldn't have become the ruler of France without the French Revolution and the backlash of the people of France to it. For every great man, there is a society that made him great.

The biggest alternate view on history is the People's History or History from Below. People's Histories focus on the common people and society. It also gives focus to the oppressed, disenfranchised, minorities, outcasts, and other otherwise forgotten people. Rather than focusing on great man, it focuses on the societies in which those great men would've lived within. People's Histories see society, not great men, as important.

Personally, I believe that, yes, there are great men who have had influence on history, but everyone has had influence on history, from the poorest farmer to the richest king to the child who died early on. Great men only exist because they are the people who's effect on history is easiest to identify and follow. We know Alexander the Great's effect on history. He invaded a bunch of countries and spread Hellenic Culture. We know Ghandi's effect on history. He freed the Indians from British rule and created a tradition of non-violence. What would be harder to identify is the effect of a child who died when he was 5. That child might have left his parents emotionally distraught, leading to them seeking to help the kids of other parents to survive causing them to work as doctors and save the lives of many children. Also harder to identify would be the effect of a poor farmer on history. If he fails to realize his crops have gone bad because he's poor and overworked, there could end up being a string of food poisoning cases in a neighboring city which leads to stricter regulation of food and a healthier city. By presenting history as the product of great men, one is marginalizing those who have had great effect on history who have been forgotten by society.

Iaculus Pronounced YAK-you-luss from England
Pronounced YAK-you-luss
Feb 28th 2013 at 1:31:59 PM

So what, specifically, do you want us to discuss?

The Great Man theory was a child of the nineteenth century, and has largely died out for a reason - it ignores all the 'little people' who may have made the Great Man what he was, greatly assisted in his efforts, and perhaps contributed far more collectively than he ever did alone. Essentially, it hypothesises two classes of people, shepherds and sheep, and if you can't see the problems with where that line of thought leads, I'm not sure what I can say.

edited 28th Feb '13 1:32:59 PM by Iaculus

What's precedent ever done for us?
TuefelHundenIV Watchman of the Apocalypse from Wandering Relationship Status: [TOP SECRET]
Watchman of the Apocalypse
Feb 28th 2013 at 4:36:52 PM

Second Laculus. Great Man Theory of history is news to me.

Through out my various history courses from High School it was more focus on the events than the leaders and great men. The various icons and leaders were part of the events not the focus.

This approach frequently included other people who had affects on the history via their ineraction through policy, military actions, and the like. Great people had both their pros and cons laid out.

I can see why the theory was attractive as people have a habit of focussing on leadership especially if the individuals were charismatic and/or popular.

edited 28th Feb '13 4:37:52 PM by TuefelHundenIV

"Who watches the watchmen?"
RadicalTaoist scratching at .8, just hopin' from the #GUniverse
scratching at .8, just hopin'
Feb 28th 2013 at 5:01:11 PM

It's my estimation that every man ever had a statue made of him was one kind of sumbich or another.
-Malcolm Reynolds

edited 28th Feb '13 5:01:21 PM by RadicalTaoist

Share it so that people can get into this conversation, 'cause we're not the only ones who think like this.
TuefelHundenIV Watchman of the Apocalypse from Wandering Relationship Status: [TOP SECRET]
Watchman of the Apocalypse
Feb 28th 2013 at 6:41:22 PM

Lol. I can agree to that. Pretty much every great man alive has his share of flaws and foibles. Also rely on the help of others in their role in history.

"Who watches the watchmen?"
QuestionMarc from Down-town Canada Relationship Status: Having tea with Cthulhu
Feb 28th 2013 at 6:59:51 PM

I read a book tangentially related.

"Outliers", by Malcom Gladwell. It deconstruct the idea that great men are "self-made" and the history of the underdog that becomes rich despite his poor background. It's a good read really, it doesn't focus on the "great man" idea, but it does have a couple of chapter on the success of individuals that the author deconstructs.

Basically he says that great man needed an opportunity as well as the capacities to profit from the opportunity. It's really more complicated than it seems.

After reading that, I'm of the opinion that there are always opportunities to be great, and if one man didn't grab it, there would be another man in line to assume the "Great Man" role. Man or woman, either.

edited 28th Feb '13 7:00:18 PM by QuestionMarc

I cannot pinpoint a moment where I stopped not existing and started existing: Ergo, I have always existed.
IsaacSapphire from North of the Moon
Mar 3rd 2013 at 7:39:38 PM

The Great Man Theory isn't dead, just out of fashion in some groups (and so in fashion in others).

I was raised and educated from a conservative evangelical viewpoint (in the US) and the Great Man Theory was pretty much a given; any other view of history was a liberal/commie/Satanist lie to destroy our spirits, truth, justice, and the American way or something like that. In retrospect, a lot of the "history" I was given was simply inaccurate and in some cases blatantly and ridiculously so (no, the Coliseum in Rome was not intended to desensitize the watchers to violence so they could be soldiers) and most of it was full of Asops that were supposed to be applicable to current social and political issues.

Mar 3rd 2013 at 8:51:42 PM

When I have pondered this subject, and I think there is some merit to it, maybe the gaps are there to be filled, but just who fills them can have a huge effect, I consider Hannibal to be an example of the limits of a 'Great Man'. He was unquestionably brilliant, but was eventually defeated by the Roman society, which made available practically limitless manpower.

Iaculus Pronounced YAK-you-luss from England
Pronounced YAK-you-luss
Mar 4th 2013 at 12:39:38 AM

[up]That does, however, ignore the contributions of Hannibal's army and the rest of Carthage at the time. It's not like he walked over the Alps and beat the shit out off the Romans solo.

What's precedent ever done for us?
Mar 4th 2013 at 1:08:56 AM

Hannibal, Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus is interesting case on Great Man limits.

Hannibal is obviously very capable and competent general. But his project is multi-generational, Barcids family conquest of Spain enable him to get resources and soldiers to fight Rome. without his father and brother, and other Cartaginian who support his father project in Spain, he wouldn't have resources to fight Romans in Spain and Italy. without Hannibal brilliance and his father insight, Carthage will never managed to force Romans to fight on its Italian homeground.

Fabius Maximus and Scipio Africanus also very competent general who helped Romans survive Hannibal and eventually to defeat Carthage. They also benefit from loyalty of Rome Italian Allies and Romans cultural / political strength to sacrifice extreme number of soldiers before eventual victory. without these two men, Roman victory will cost more soldiers and years. without loyalty from other Italian, or Romans resilience, these two will not getting enough soldier to win against Hannibal.

Barkey War Profiteer from Bunker 051 Relationship Status: [TOP SECRET]
War Profiteer
Mar 4th 2013 at 3:14:28 AM

Both are required. When an individual kicks off a change, the change can only go through if the masses get behind it.

Obviously an individual can, at the right place, at the right time, and with the right decisions, mold great events. But what sets a great event from just an event is what the masses do to react, if they react at all. You can cause all the ruckus you want with clever or bold actions, but if other people who are less noteworthy don't get behind it, then it becomes an isolated incident, a footnote in history.

The way I figure it, there are a few ways to be "great" and impact the world, which all have different requirements.

  1. You can be exceptionally skilled, to where other people notice said skill and are in awe. But that relies on word of mouth, it doesn't matter how skilled you are if you don't have admirers, because nobody has heard of you.

  2. You can be exceptionally charismatic, and command the combined authority of the people who follow you. The combined assets of the people who place their trust in you is where you get the traction to perform "great" deeds.

  3. You can be exceptionally clever, and given the exact same tools and resources as any normal person, think outside the box to maneuver events and exploit advantages nobody else has thought of yet.

  4. You can be an exceptional example. Doing things that other people would normally not do. You can be like Gandhi, and be exceptionally brave or dedicated, as he was with British occupation. Part of what makes these people and their deeds great is the way that they can inspire other people to sack up and perform similar deeds.

Just my two cents, but those are the most obvious avenues I can think of as far as how individuals have caused major turns of events on our planet.

The AR-15 is responsible for 95% of all deaths each year. The rest of the deaths are from obesity and drone strikes.
betaalpha betaalpha from England
Mar 4th 2013 at 2:15:43 PM

Yeah, that theory kinda sucks. One man could become hugely famous for changing history when he might have only been the most visible member of a team, and the least contributing. And then you have movements that didn't really have one firm leader, eg. the Arab Spring was to an extent kicked off by a man in Tunisia who committed suicide but the wave of revolutions that followed often had no particular leader of the pack.

I imagine that the biggest exponents of the Great Man theory are wanna-be Great Men who desire a cult of personality and justification for stealing other people's kudos.

Barkey War Profiteer from Bunker 051 Relationship Status: [TOP SECRET]
War Profiteer
Mar 4th 2013 at 4:13:20 PM


A good share of them might just fall victim to the opinions of others in that regard as well, some people are given all the credit for events by the public, when they never would have had a problem giving a credit to other contributing factors. I doubt Gandhi would say that all the things he helped to accomplish were done alone, but he's still thought of as the face of the movement that freed India from British rule. Plenty of people contributed besides him, but he remains the one thought of as "responsible" because he was the frontman for that cause.

The AR-15 is responsible for 95% of all deaths each year. The rest of the deaths are from obesity and drone strikes.
Mar 22nd 2013 at 10:25:51 AM

Yeah, the Great Man theory sucks in my view. History is made by everyone- but especially the ordinary people. I have no idea who it was that raised the hammer & sickle from the Reichstag, but he's a bigger badass in my books that Hitler, Stalin and Churchill combined.

Direct all enquiries to Jamie B Good
Achaemenid HGW XX/7 from Ruschestraße 103, Haus 1 Relationship Status: Giving love a bad name
Mar 22nd 2013 at 10:29:12 AM


Pedantry Mode: If you're referring to the famous photo, then it was both staged and "photoshopped" (or rather, airbrushed so the abundance of stolen wristwatches all up the guy's arm was not visible).

edited 22nd Mar '13 10:29:25 AM by Achaemenid

Schild und Schwert der Partei
Mar 22nd 2013 at 10:34:54 AM

[up]OK, pedantry me all you like, but that photo is still pretty badass.

Direct all enquiries to Jamie B Good
Mar 22nd 2013 at 10:42:14 AM

either way. we can all agree the major flaw in the Great Man idea is it ignores that no man becomes great without a combination of drive, help from others, opportunity, and sheer goddamn luck.

Mar 22nd 2013 at 11:50:44 AM

I'd agree that all humanity contributes to the making of history, but having individual touchstones does make it easier to grasp. For every great man, or despot, for some reason there are loads of people willing to do what they say.

If I may digress into fiction for a moment, a scene that's always gotten to me from Return of the King is where Denethor, in his madness, is having his comatose but very much alive son, Faramir, burned alive over the very vocal protests of the hobbit, Pippen Took. That Denethor should be nuts enough to do this doesn't particularly offend me, but that ALL of his guards and attendants are blandly indulging his lunacy, again over the very vocal and very sensibly protests of Pippen, has always struck me as an example of what has historically been wrong with the world. You have some "great man" or "despot" as the case may be, but then you have all the ordinary folks who seem entirely willing to do whatever damned fool thing it is they say. Hitler ordered the deaths of the Jews, but dammit, his people made sure it happened (or not, as the case may be).

Possibly another angle on the "Great Man" theory might be found in something that I believe Thoreau said, which was something like "I don't care to read about the masses of Egyptians who built the pyramids; bring me the story of the one who refused."

Iaculus Pronounced YAK-you-luss from England
Pronounced YAK-you-luss
Mar 22nd 2013 at 12:25:18 PM

[up]Given how the pharaohs liked to run things, I imagine that would have been a very short story.

What's precedent ever done for us?
Ultrayellow Unchanging Avatar.
Unchanging Avatar.
Mar 22nd 2013 at 2:56:23 PM

Look, on the one hand it's true that the Great Man theory is an incomplete way of understanding history. But on the other, it's also worth saying that it has some merit. In the push to establish thematic history (which has the advantage of being incredibly politically correct) a lot of historians seem to forgotten that there were a lot of Great Men in history, who did make a difference in the way things turned out. You can talk about Alexander's influences all you like, but at the end of the day, the Macedonians would never have conquered Persia without him.

Except for 4/1/2011. That day lingers in my memory like...metaphor here...I should go.
Euodiachloris Relationship Status: Is that a kind of food?
Mar 22nd 2013 at 3:02:23 PM

[up]And, he wouldn't have been able to push in that direction without Macedonia behind him. It's a reciprocal arrangement. [lol] All Great Men need the backing they get, even if they are the only ones who could have come up with The Big Idea and have the drive to get the momentum started at that point in time. <shrugs>

History: Great Men and Women plus Little Men and Women equal stuff getting done... sometimes badly, sometimes well: but, at least noteworthy stuff happens. wink

edited 22nd Mar '13 3:03:58 PM by Euodiachloris

Ultrayellow Unchanging Avatar.
Unchanging Avatar.
Mar 22nd 2013 at 3:03:44 PM

Oh, I'm not denying that there were thematic history elements to stories like Alexander's. Merely pointing out that thematic history isn't much more comprehensive than Great Man.

Except for 4/1/2011. That day lingers in my memory like...metaphor here...I should go.
Iaculus Pronounced YAK-you-luss from England
Pronounced YAK-you-luss
Mar 22nd 2013 at 3:12:48 PM

It's worth remembering that historical documentation back then was a bit more... creative than is currently the fashion. That Alexander did so much in Greek and Roman documentation does not necessarily indicate that he was the driving force of his nation so much as that the historians felt the main character needed to drive the story.

I'm not disputing that Alexander existed or anything daft like that, but it's important to remember that he was subject to a lot of myth-making.

What's precedent ever done for us?
Clarste One Winged Egret Relationship Status: Non-Canon
One Winged Egret
Mar 22nd 2013 at 3:34:19 PM

I'm not sure it's actually true that "Civilization X could never have accomplished Y without Z". First of all, it's a simple fact that the anthropic principle is in full effect here and the only examples of history we have are the things that happened. We'll never know if Macedonia could have conquered Persia without Alexander because we've simply never seen a Macedonia in that exact situation without Alexander. The whole thing only happened once. There are no counterfactuals, and no way to test this at all.

However, what we've seen in other areas of history, such as science and math, is that "great men" like Isaac Newton often come up with brilliant ideas at almost exactly the same time as their peers and end up competing for credit. I'm not saying Newton was stupid or anything, but without him we'd have gotten calculus at basically the same time and probably his other theories a few years later at most. Geniuses, or "great men" are simply more common than the ideas they come up with. Any individual person is more or less interchangeable because what actually gave them their idea was the current academic climate. I mean, what are the odds that no one discovers calculus for thousands of years and then suddenly two people do it at once? Clearly there was a lot of cultural and educational build up that led the way to calculus.

So, given the lack of evidence for one side and an analogous situation seemingly proving it false, I very much doubt that Great Men have anything whatsoever to do with history. They were simply in the right place at the right time. Go back in time to assassinate Hitler and another extremist dictator will take his place because that was simply the political climate at the time.

edited 22nd Mar '13 3:35:57 PM by Clarste

Ultrayellow Unchanging Avatar.
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Mar 22nd 2013 at 3:40:51 PM

Scientific advancement isn't at all the same as political leadership.

Scientific advancement is one-dimensional. Humanity moves from ignorance to greater knowledge. There's only one way to go. You can advance faster or slower, but that's it.

With leadership, anything can happen. Anything at all.

Look, let's take the Iraq War. That war was completely dependent on Bush's decisions. If he hadn't wanted to go to war, we wouldn't have gone to war. But he decided to, and so the Iraq War happened.

That's the difference between science and politics. You can't go "oh, but the Macedonians would've conquered Persia eventually anyway." Probably not. We wouldn't have conquered Iraq if the sitting President had been a pacifist. Obama wouldn't have done it, for instance. Chances are, if it weren't for the decisions of a leader, it wouldn't have happened.

Except for 4/1/2011. That day lingers in my memory like...metaphor here...I should go.

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