What is the best way to approach the study of history? This question is one that has grappled many great minds over the centuries. Most history enthusiasts such as ourselves who are not involved in the professional discipline tend to be more inclined to read about the history itself; after all, that’s the content that we’re most interested in! However, I think that it’s worth taking a little time to ponder methods of historiography. What is the best way to tell the story of history?
One of the most influential methods in the history of historical narrative is based on what is known as the ‘Great Man theory of history’. As the name suggests, this style of historical narrative revolves around the influential people who have shaped the world around them. For example, most ancient history books would tell the story of the classical world based on the great men and events that transpired: Themistocles, Leonidas, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and so on. It isn’t difficult to see why this method is most compelling; after all, a story is most exciting when it has engaging characters, and history certainly has no shortage of those.
But from a more philosophical standpoint, there are also clear reasons for why the ‘Great Man’ theory of history has held sway over historians for centuries. One of the strongest proponents for this was Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, a philosopher who wrote a book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and The Heroic in History. In it, he claimed: “the history of the world is but a history of great men”. Great people such as Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Pericles and Napoleon were able to shape history through their personal charisma, wisdom, intellect and political skill. This standpoint was endorsed by numerous other philosophers. Friedrich Nietsche, another thinker, opined similarly that “the goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens”.
The ‘Great Man’ approach to history reached its apex during the 19th century, but has since then come under ferocious attack by other thinkers. Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher, proposed an alternative to this theory. In one of his masterpieces, The Study of Sociology, Spencer writes:
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.
A man is merely a product of his society, and so a faithful attempt to accurately tell the story of history must focus not simply on the lives of its great men, but also on the common people. After all, if great men are slaves to their societies, then only the study of these societies as a whole can reveal the whole picture of the events of the past. We can see the product of this thinking through attempts to tell history through lenses such as those of economic history. This theory of ‘the common people’s history’ has become much more popular as time has gone by. “People’s histories” have become more common on the bookshelves’; attempts to tell the story of history through economic trends and objects have become more fashionable. David Kelly writes in the University of Edinburgh’s journal of politics and international relations:
Carlyle’s theory has also fallen out of intellectual fashion because of the growing, debilitating cynicism which has pervaded the Western body politic probably since the era of Watergate. Citizens want to believe in their leaders, they want to believe that they can change the world for the better, but they see precious little evidence of this. After the recent rise and fall of another generation of ephemeral messiahs – Clegg, Erdogan, Hollande, Karzai, Medvedev, Obama – this is perhaps unsurprising.
So, with these two contrasting approaches, which is the best? Of course, there are no easy answers. To argue that we can understand history merely by studying the lives of its greatest names mean that we ignore the bigger picture of the larger society. But to say that the study of great men is any less relevant than studying historical sociology would also be a mistake. After all, despite Spencer’s claim that great men are merely the products of their society, then what of the people who has changed the course of history through their own individual actions, and in the way remade their societies? Perhaps one could say that men like Winston Churchill were the product of their societies- in Churchill’s case his Victorian background- but clearly it was with Churchill that Britain could be willed to continue fighting Nazism. Without Churchill, would a lesser prime minister have surrendered? We will never know, but clearly great men do make their mark on the course of events. It is unsustainable to be wholly opposed to the great man theory.
As a writer of popular history and politics, I must admit that I have my preferences. The great man theory of history, for all its flaws and omissions, is still the easiest way to convert a historical chronology into a compelling popular narrative. And, in this era where there are so many other entertaining distractions to the pursuit of historical knowledge, such a tool for high engagement cannot be ignored. Yes, we must be sure to place these great men in their proper context, and to provide economic and sociological explanations as necessary. But to write dry essays in the hopes of “not ignoring the common people” while running the risk of turning more people away from studying history would be a mistake indeed.
After all, who doesn’t like to listen to a good old hero’s tale?