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The great man theory is a 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 political skill used their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, but 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 stated 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 saw history as having turned on the decisions of "heroes", giving detailed analysis of the influence of several such men (including Muhammad, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, and Richard Wagner). 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.
American scholar Frederick Adams Woods supported the great man theory 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 until the French revolution in the late 18th century and their influence on the course of historical events.
This theory is usually contrasted with "history from below", which emphasizes the life of the masses over the leader. 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 philosophers, such as Leon Bloy, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler and Max Weber, but it fell out of favor after World War II.
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. Hegel wrote: "Such are great historical men—whose own particular aims involve those large issues which are the will of the World-Spirit." 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:
You 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.— Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology
Tolstoy's War and Peace features criticism of Great Man Theories as a recurring theme in the philosophical digressions. According to Tolstoy, the significance of great individuals is imaginary; as a matter of fact they are only history's slaves realizing the decree of Providence.
William James in his lecture "Great Men and Their Environment" underlined the importance of the Great Man's congruence with the surroundings (in the broad sense), though his ultimate point was that environments and individuals shape each other reciprocally, just as environments and individual members of animal species do according to Darwinian theory.
Among modern critics of the theory, one, Sidney Hook, is supportive of the idea; he gives credit to those who shape events through their actions, and his book The Hero in History is devoted to the role of the hero and in history and influence of the outstanding persons.
Leonid Grinin defines a historical figure (a great man) thus:
Owing to his personal features, or to a chance, or to his social standing, or to the peculiarity of the epoch, an individual by the very fact of his existence, by his ideas or actions (or inaction) directly or indirectly, during his lifetime or after his death may have such an influence upon his own or another society which can be recognized significant as he left a noticeable mark (positive, negative or unambiguous) in history and in the further development of society.
So, he concludes that the role of great man depends on a number of factors, not none at all.