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 and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect. The theory is primarily attributed to the Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle who gave a series of lectures on heroism in 1840, later published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which he states:

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. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.

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, works, ideas, and characters of heroes”, giving detailed analysis of six types:

  1. The hero as divinity (such as Odin)
  2. The Prophet (such as Mohamet)
  3. The poet (such as Shakespeare)
  4. The priest (such as Martin Luther)
  5. The man of letters (such as Rousseau)
  6. The king (such as Napoleon).

Carlyle also argued 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 own true nature.

As Sidney Hook notes, a common misinterpretation of the theory is that all factors in history, save great men, were inconsequential.”[4], whereas Carlyle is instead claiming that great men are the decisive factor, owing to their unique genius. Hook then goes on to emphasise this uniqueness to illustrate the point: Genius is not the result of compounding talent. How many battalions are the equivalent of a Napoleon? How many minor poets will give us a Shakespeare? How many run of the mine scientists will do the work of an Einstein?”

Read in the Wikipedia


January 1, 2020