The "Great Man" Theory of History

Essay by aswitha February 2006

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Two famous writers have presented us with opposite theories about the influence of leaders. Thomas Carlyle wrote most passionately: "Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here." Heroes teach us right and wrong, he said; heroes give us great inventions and discoveries. It is the great few who transform society; the multitude follows them. Modern democracy, he believed, has produced millions of fools who vote, other men who go to Parliament and palaver, and, inevitably, the few who act.


By contrast, Count Leo Tolstoi asserted that there is no greater fool than he who thinks he makes history and believes others when they assure him he does. Not even a leader like Napoleon Bonaparte, according to Tolstoi, has any part in determining the course of history. Napoleon was the tool of vast social forces beyond his control.

"Studying the laws of history," Tolstoi declared, "we must absolutely change the objects of our observation, leaving kings, ministers, and generals out of the account, and select for study the homogenous, infinitesimal elements that regulate the masses."

Both Carlyle and Tolstoi are representative of long rosters of illustrious writers. Those who share Carlyle's view of the role played by men of genius tend also to be aristocratic in political viewpoint. Among the most enthusiastic have been men who believed that they themselves were to be among the great of history and that their indomitable wills could overcome all obstacles-Hitler and Mussolini, for example.

By contrast, those who have agreed with Tolstoi have often been socialists. For socialism, as Marx taught it, was a triumph of the masses over the few, and of irresistible historical tendencies over individual effort-socialism being the irresistible tendency of...