Myth: The best way to understand history is by looking at important people and understanding their qualities.
Fact: Uh…not really. Maybe sort of? It gets complicated.
When you sat through history lessons at school you might have learned about kings and queens, or if there’s a show on TV it’s probably about a bunch of historical figures. Biographies are pretty much always popular; movies, books, everywhere you look people want to hear about other people doing stuff and being important.
Against the seductive power of hearing about people doing stuff, you’ve got a lot of people who seemingly don’t like to hear about people doing stuff. These people will complain about “Great Man History”, and insist you read books about it or you’re doing history bad and wrong.
So – what is the “great man” theory of history and what’s so wrong with it?
The Great Man Theory
To tackle this bit of bad history we’re going to…have to do a little bit of history.
Hopefully in this Bad History series, we’re getting to show that lots of people have lots of different ideas about how to do history. This isn’t just something that cropped up when historians discovered the internet – we’ve been arguing about how to write history probably since people started writing history down! But for the Great Man theory, the important parts start in the 19th century with a guy called Thomas Carlyle. Thomas was a writer-historian-essayist-philosopher-mathematican-all-around-too-bloody-smart guy who wrote a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. He argued that history is shaped by special, “great” individuals, thanks to their special qualities as people (and maybe with a bit of divine inspiration thrown in). On Heroes is a book that makes some pretty grand claims – partly because it started out as a series of lectures aimed at making easy-ish money for our Thomas – but this one sticks out:
“The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.”
Well, that’s a pretty grand claim. And it’s one that is at the heart of the Great Man theory of history: people, mostly men, who are inherently special and important in some way, are ultimately what change the world. Things like social, economic and health conditions can play a part, but ultimately it all comes down to some people being special. If we study what makes them special, we can also be like them and change the world.
(This is why Great Man theories sometimes come up in leadership and management – the idea is that by studying important people, you can become an effective leader. Your mileage may vary as to how well this works.)
Even Thomas Carlyle probably wasn’t that great of a man – it’s not like he sat down to write his lectures one day and went “perfect, I’ll come up with a new theory about history”! He based his ideas on thoughts that people had already had about heroes and heroism.
Thomas Carlyle influenced people like the American poet-essayist-philosopher-these-people-did-too-fucking-much Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it’s not like he wrote one book and everyone went “we love this theory”! Half a century later, biologist-philosopher Herbert Spencer would lay into Thomas because he believed that people were more a product of their environment – that environment would thereby shape action, not special great people.
(Oh, and by the way? That’s the “survival of the fittest” guy. He made that phrase up. Man, the 19th century really was just full of Very Serious People picking fights.)
And, of course, Karl Marx laid into Thomas. Ol’ Karl was big on understanding material conditions and class struggle to understand history, and he was not best pleased about thinking about history as the lives of special rich people. This is why lots of people influenced by Marx (so, a lot of people – this isn’t a big conspiracy, Marx is just an important thinker, hell, I’m influenced by Marx!) will look down on anything that looks like Great Man theory.
So, Great Man theory was controversial even a couple of decades after Thomas came up with it. It’s not like everyone was writing Great Man history and thought it was awesome until some jumped-up professors had a problem with it. People have been dunking on it since the nineteenth century!
But what’s wrong with Great Man history anyway?
Not Just People
This kind of depends on how much influence you think individuals have over the course of events. If you think it’s primarily people who shape events and that economics, culture and health take a back seat, you’ll love Great Man history. If you think it’s important to understand systems and not just a handful of people, you won’t like Great Man history much – if at all.
Now, I think society, culture and material conditions affect what people can do – and that this is broadly more important than how individuals act. I think this because I like looking at what people believed back in the olden days, and seeing how it shaped their actions. I think sometimes you can live through big, terrible, scary events and there’s nothing much you as an individual can do about them (thanks, coronavirus pandemic). But if you think individuals are big enough to shape society and culture singlehandedly, you’ll like Great Man theory and me (or anyone really) harping on about its faults isn’t likely to change your mind.
There are also things that may look like Great Man history but are not, so let’s talk about them.
People Can Do Things
Some people take one look at Great Man history, decide anything that involves individuals is Great Man history, and spend the rest of their time yelling about how anything with individuals is bad and wrong history.
Those people are missing the point.
The problem with Great Man history is not that it involves certain people, it’s that it says history happens because some people are special and more important than the societies and cultures they live in – and that’s just not true. Sometimes, though, people are special and do have special knowledge.
I do a lot of research on the history of space science and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory – the UK’s oldest space science centre, housed in a 19th-century mansion in the middle of nowhere. (Yes, really.) Every single person I’ve interviewed has had special knowledge that they try to explain to other people, like me, and all these people are important because nobody on Earth has their specific combination of knowledge and experience. This is similar where you’re looking at any kind of history with specialist knowledge, like fashion history or food history. Acknowledging the experiences of the people I interviewed isn’t Great Man history: they still do the work they do within wider societies and cultures. But it is important to understanding how space science has developed.
People Like People
The other thing is something that I tried to get at while writing the introduction: people like hearing about people, especially when they don’t want to slog through 20 pages of academic-ese. People are intereresting and entertaining. Analysis of material conditions? Eh, that can just be…boring in the wrong hands?
So that means people like biography. People like hearing about what other people got up to. Even when it’s not the most accurate or useful way to look at the world, it’s still one of the most accessible – hell, I did it when talking about Thomas Carlyle!
That doesn’t mean you have to do Great Man history – it’s totally possible to acknowledge the societies and cultures these people grew up in. Actually, I think it makes for a more interesting biography! But it explains part of the pull of Great Man history, and also some of the vehement reactions against anything that even looks like it.
People are interesting and we all want to think they’re great and special. Truth is, they’re not, and it’s not helpful – but it’s fun to look at people as people anyway.