July 25, 2011 at 7:50 am #25156scout1067Participant
I would argue that the “Great Man” approach is more appropiate to large scale histories because it is these men that shaped events. The social and cultural themes are more appropriate to micro-histories. Great Men shaped events while others were merely participants. I think it would be hard to show that an individual archer in Edward III's army at Crecy shaped events as much as Edeward himself did. The great Men are central to history and the development of peoples and nations in ways that others are not.July 25, 2011 at 9:42 pm #25157
I agree, but most History departments are frowning upon the Great Man approach. Of course they do, it's harder to stick your ideology into your research when you are attributing historical change to a charismatic leader. 😉 Still, when you are dealing with subjects such as The Great Awakening, The Civil War, or the Cold War, you have to deal with ideology, cultural factors, and economics. Why? Because social conditions determined the historical players; not the other way around. So both approaches appear to be valid depending on the topic at hand.July 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm #25158PhidippidesKeymaster
Older generation historians structured their monographs around great man themes. Today's generation of historians focus less on significant actors in history, and more on cultural and ideological based themes. Is this a step forward or backward in historical method practice? Or are there times when both are appropriate?
I think it's a step "forward" inasmuch as it broadens the historian's perspective of history. I am not painting myself into a leftist-historian corner by saying that the "Great Man approach" alone runs the risk of relegating historical influence to a handful of people when there are so many other drivers to consider. IMO, a comprehensive study of history at any period requires peeling away layer upon layer of society to uncover what made it what it was. The "Great Man approach" does provide a good starting point for studying history (it makes things easier to understand), but it is incomplete on its own.July 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm #25159donrocParticipant
Events occur, but “great men” determine the outcome.Kenneth Clarke compared the founders of the Florentine Renassance with the founders of our nation in that they were rare confluences of great men.The French Revolution is an example of how after the death of Mirabeau Robespierre altered the direction to the Reign of Terror and then a greater Napoleon swerved it in another direction.Imagine if Lincoln had been a Buchanan ("Oh for an hour of Andrew Jackson"), if TR had been President 1912-1916 instead of the vastly overrated Wilson and might have mediated a postponement of WWI.The bolshevik revolution could only take place after the "First" revolution in 1917 produced a weak, naive Kerensky paving the way for giants such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.Today, we seem to be floundering in the USA awaiting a great man as a counterweight to that self-appointed false Messiah who offered "hope and change" and seems bent on deconstructing the USA.It is not an either or situation. Events also thrust non-entities into the arena, and they can also become great. Harry Truman is one. Imagine if that lefty Henry Wallace had succeeded FDR, which leads me to include in this skeptical age a "wild card" we may well call Divine Providence.July 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm #25160
I think it's a step "forward" inasmuch as it broadens the historian's perspective of history. I am not painting myself into a leftist-historian corner by saying that the "Great Man approach" alone runs the risk of relegating historical influence to a handful of people when there are so many other drivers to consider. IMO, a comprehensive study of history at any period requires peeling away layer upon layer of society to uncover what made it what it was. The "Great Man approach" does provide a good starting point for studying history (it makes things easier to understand), but it is incomplete on its own.
Spoken like a Phd candidate. Well said.July 29, 2011 at 3:56 am #25161scout1067Participant
Spoken like a Phd candidate. Well said.
😀July 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm #25162Vulture6Participant
Reading this, I'm drawn to a quote from Admiral William “Bull” Halsey:"There are no extraordinary men, only extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men have to deal with." (or words to that effect 🙂 )October 13, 2023 at 2:24 pm #2885
This is the discussion thread for the article, “Should historians discount the “Great Man Approach” to history?”.October 16, 2023 at 4:57 pm #61801PhidippidesKeymaster
Revisiting this question, is it almost like a chicken-and-egg scenario? Do great men influence history, or do cultural, technological, economic, and religious concerns influence larger society which then push certain men into the limelight?
Examples of this can be our last two presidents – Trump and Biden. Trump is a larger-than-life figure who objectively can be called a “great man” in the context of historical influence (regardless of whether you like him or not). The course of events in American history are no doubt changed as a result of who he is and what he has done. However, the case can very well be made that his election was only possible because of the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo that had been mounting for years in the background. The wave of populism then spread to other countries, which suggests that society makes the man, rather than vice versa.
We also have Biden, a rather unremarkable figure who occupies an office which he seems rather incompetent to fulfill. Nevertheless, the policies and pronouncements from his administration have been quite extreme. Is this an example of how the “Great Man Approach” is cast aside in favor of the more powerful ideological push by groups of unnamed figures? And perhaps his election was only the result of suburban housewives feeling “yucky” voting for Orange Man because they thought it legitimized his mean tweets?
In the end, I’m not sure which approach wins for sure, but I think the Great Man Approach is more likely to be the loser here.
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