The Great man theory is a theory held by some that aims to explain history by the impact of "Great men", or heroes: highly influential individuals, either from personal charisma, genius intellects, or great political impact.

For example, a scholarly follower of the Great Man theory would be likely to study the Second World War by focusing on the big personalities of the conflict — Sir Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Hideki Tojo, etc. — and view all of the historical events as being tied directly to their own individual decisions and orders.

Proponents of the theory Edit

It is often linked to 19th century commentator and historian Thomas Carlyle, who commented that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." This 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 cause certain developments to occur. The Great Man approach to history was most popular with professional historians in the 19th century; a popular work of this school is the Encyclopedia 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, to read about the "Migrations Period", one would consult the biography of Attila the Hun. This heroic view of history was also strongly endorsed by some philosophical figures such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but it fell out of favor after World War II.

Criticisms of the theory Edit

The editors of the influential 18th century French encyclopedia Encyclopedie were ideologically opposed to biographies because they believed too much ink had already been spilled on hagiographies of church fathers and deeds of kings, and not enough about the average person or life in general. To this end Encyclopedie had almost no biography articles. However, this policy was contentious among the encyclopedists and so some biographies were "hidden" inside articles; for example, the article on Wolstrope, England is almost entirely about the life of Newton.[1]

An opponent of the great man theory in its own time was Leo Tolstoy, who devoted the entire non-fictional beginning of the third volume of War and Peace to critiquing it, using the Napoleonic wars as an example.

Today the great man theory is out of favor as a singular explanation for why things happen. Historians look at other factors such as economic, societal, environmental, and technological which are just as or more significant to historical change. Many historians believe that a history which only follows around single persons, especially when their significance is determined primarily by political status, is a shallow view of the past, and that sometimes such a view excludes entire groups of people from being parts of the study of history. A broader view is provided by a people's history approach.

This critique has spread to other fields such as literary criticism, in which Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism argues that societies play roles in creating works of art, not just authors.

Master Harold...and the Boys and Crime and Punishment offer critiques of the great man theory.


  • Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1843)
  • Chris Krygier, Great Men in Theory and Practice: A Study of Three Great Dons (2005)


  1. ^ [1]

See also Edit

External linksEdit

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