Herbert Spencer's Critique of 'Great Man Theory'

From The Study of Sociology (1873)

Original text at Archive.org

An allied class, equally unprepared to interpret sociological phenomena scientifically, is the class which sees in the course of civilization little else than a record of remarkable persons and their doings. One who is conspicuous as the exponent of this view writes: "As I take it, 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." And this, not perhaps distinctly formulated, but everywhere implied, is the belief in which nearly all are brought up. Let us glance at the genesis of it.

Round their camp-fire assembled savages tell the events of the day's chase; and he among them who has done some feat of skill or agility is duly lauded. On a return from the war path, the sagacity of the chief and the strength or courage of this or that warrior, are the all-absorbing themes. When the day, or the immediate past, affords no remarkable deed, the topic is the achievement of some noted leader lately dead, or some traditional founder of the tribe: accompanied, it may be, with a dance dramatically representing those victories which the chant recites. Such narratives, concerning, as they do, the prosperity and indeed the very existence of the tribe, are of the intensest interest; and in them we have the common root of music, of the drama, of poetry, of biography, of history, and of literature in general. Savage life furnishes little else worthy of note; and the chronicles of tribes contain scarcely anything more to be remembered. Early historic races show us the same thing. The Egyptian frescoes and the wall-sculptures of the Assyrians, represent the deeds of leading men; and inscriptions such as that on the Moabite stone, tell of nothing more than royal achievements: only by implication do these records, pictorial, hieroglyphic, or written, convey anything else. And similarly from the Greek epics, though we gather incidentally that there were towns, and war-vessels, and war-chariots, and sailors, and soldiers to be led and slain, yet the direct intention is to set forth the triumphs of Achilles, the prowess of Ajax, the wisdom of Ulysses, and the like. The lessons given to every civilized child tacitly imply, like the traditions of the uncivilized and semi-civilized, that throughout the past of the human race, the doings of conspicuous persons have been the only things worthy of remembrance. How Abraham girded up his loins and gat him to this place or that; how Samuel conveyed divine injunctions which Saul disobeyed; how David recounted his adventures as a shepherd, and was reproached for his misdeeds as a king these, and personalities akin to these, are the facts about which the juvenile reader of the Bible is interested and respecting which he is catechized: such indications of Jewish institutions as have unavoidably got into the narrative, being regarded neither by him nor by his teacher as of moment. So too, when, with hands behind him, he stands to say his lesson out of Pinnock, we see that the things set down for him to learn, are when and by whom England was invaded, what rulers opposed the invasions and how they were killed, what Alfred did and what Canute said, who fought at Agincourt and who conquered at Flodden, which king abdicated and which usurped, &c.; and if by some chance it comes out that there were serfs in those days, that barons were local rulers, some vassals of others, that subordination of them to a central power took place gradually, these are facts treated as relatively unimportant. Nay, the like happens when the boy passes into the hands of his classical master, at home or elsewhere. " Arms and the man " form the end of the story as they form its beginning. After the mythology, which of course is all-essential, come the achieve ments of rulers and soldiers from Agamemnon down to Caesar: what knowledge is gained of social organization, manners, ideas, morals, being little more than the biographical statements involve. And the value of the knowledge is so ranked that while it would be a disgrace to be wrong about the amours of Zeus, and while inability to name the com mander at Marathon would be discreditable, it is excusable to know nothing of the social condition that preceded Lycurgus or of the origin and functions of the Areopagus.

Thus the great-man-theory of History finds everywhere a ready-prepared conception is, indeed, but the definite expression of that which is latent in the thoughts of the savage, tacitly asserted in all early traditions, and taught to every child by multitudinous illustrations. The glad acceptance it meets with has sundry more special causes. There is, first, this universal love of personalities, which, active in the aboriginal man, dominates still a love seen in the urchin who asks you to tell him a story, meaning, thereby, some body s adventures ; a love gratified in adults by police-reports, court-news, divorce-cases, accounts of accidents and lists of births, marriages, and deaths; a love displayed even by conversations in the streets, where fragments of dialogue, heard in passing, show that mostly between men, and always between women, the personal pronouns recur every instant. If you want roughly to estimate any one s mental calibre, you cannot do it better than by observing a ratio of generalities to personalities in his talk how far simple truths about individuals are replaced by truths abstracted from numerous experiences of men and things. And when you have thus measured many, you find but a scattered few likely to take anything more than a biographical view of human affairs. In the second place, this great-man-theory commends itself as promising instruction along with amusement. Being already fond of hearing about people's sayings and doings, it is pleasant news that, to understand the course of civilization, you have only to read diligently the lives of distinguished men. What can be a more acceptable doctrine than that while you are satisfying an instinct not very remotely allied to that of the village gossip while you are receiving through print instead of orally, remarkable facts concerning notable persons, you are gaining that knowledge which will make clear to you why things have happened thus or thus in the world, and will prepare you for forming a right opinion on each question coming before you as a citizen. And then, in the third place, the interpretation of things thus given is so beautifully simple seems so easy to comprehend. Providing you are content with conceptions that are out of focus, as most people s conceptions are, the solutions it yields appear quite satisfactory. Just as that theory of the Solar System which supposes the planets to have been launched into their orbits by the hand of the Almighty, looks feasible so long as you do not insist on knowing exactly what is meant by the hand of the Almighty; and just as the special creation of plants and animals seems a tenable hypothesis until you try and picture to yourself definitely the process by which one of them is brought into existence; so the genesis of societies by the actions of great men, may be comfortably believed so long as, resting in general notions, you do not ask for particulars.

But now, if, dissatisfied with vagueness, we demand that our ideas shall be brought into focus and exactly defined, we discover the hypothesis to be utterly incoherent. If, not stopping at the explanation of social progress as due to the great man, we go back a step and ask whence comes the great man, we find that the theory breaks down completely. The question has two conceivable answers : his origin is supernatural, or it is natural? Is his origin supernatural? Then he is a deputy-god, and we have Theocracy once removed or, rather, not removed at all; for we must then agree with Mr. Schomberg, quoted above, that "the determination of Caesar to invade Britain "was divinely inspired, and that from him, down to "George III. the GREAT and the GOOD," the successive rulers were appointed to carry out successive designs. Is this an unacceptable solution ? Then the origin of the great man is natural; and immediately this is recognized he must be classed with all other phenomena in the society that gave him birth, as a product of its antecedents. Along with the whole generation of which he forms a minute part along with its institutions, language, knowledge, manners, and its multitudinous arts and appliances, he is a resultant of an enormous aggregate of forces that have been co-operating for ages. True, if you please to ignore all that common observa tion, verified by physiology, teaches if you assume that two European parents may produce a Negro child, or that from woolly-haired prognathous Papuans may come a fair, straight- haired infant of Caucasian type you may assume that the advent of the great man can occur anywhere and under any conditions. If, disregarding those accumulated results of experience which current proverbs and the generalizations of psychologists alike express, you suppose that a Newton might be born in a Hottentot family, that a Milton might spring up among the Aiidamanese, that a Howard or a Clarkson might have Fiji parents, then you may proceed with facility to explain social progress as caused by the actions of the great man. But if all biological science, enforcing all popular belief, convinces you that by no possibility will an Aristotle come from a father and mother with facial angles of fifty degrees, and that out of a tribe of cannibals, whose chorus in preparation for a feast of human flesh is a kind of rhythmical roaring, there is not the remotest chance of a Beethoven arising; then you must admit that the genesis of the 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. If it be a fact that the great man may modify his nation in. its structure and actions, it is also a fact that there must have been those antecedent modifications constituting national progress before he could be evolved. Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him. So that all those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from. If there is to be anything like a real explanation of these changes, it must be sought in that aggregate of conditions out of which both he and they have arisen.

Even were we to grant the absurd supposition that the genesis of the great man does not depend on the antecedents furnished by the society he is born in, there would still be the quite — sufficient facts that he is powerless in the absence of the material and mental accumulations which his society inherits from the past, and that he is powerless in the absence of the co-existing population, character, intelligence, and social arrangements. Given a Shakspeare, and what dramas could he have written without the multitudinous traditions of civilized life without the various experiences which, descending to him from the past, gave wealth to his thought, and without the language which a hundred generations had developed and enriched by use? Suppose a Watt, with all his inventive power, living in a tribe ignorant of iron, or in a tribe that could get only as much iron as a fire blown by hand-bellows will smelt; or suppose him born among ourselves before lathes existed; what chance would there have been of the steam-engine? Imagine a Laplace unaided by that slowly- developed system of Mathematics which we trace back to its beginnings among the Egyptians; how far would he have got with the Mecanique Celeste? Nay, the like questions may be put and have like answers, even if we limit ourselves to those classes of great men on whose doings hero-worshippers more particularly dwell the rulers and generals. Xenophon could not have achieved his celebrated feat had his Ten Thousand been feeble, or cowardly, or insubordinate. Caesar would never have made his conquests without disciplined troops, inheriting their prestige and tactics and organization from the Romans who lived before them. And, to take a recent in stance, the strategical genius of Moltke would have triumphed in no great campaigns had there not been a nation of some forty millions to supply soldiers, and had not those soldiers been men of strong bodies, sturdy characters, obedient na tures, and capable of carrying out orders intelligently.

Were any one to marvel over the potency of a grain of detonating powder, which explodes a cannon, propels the shell, and sinks a vessel hit were he to enlarge on the transcendent virtues of this detonating powder, not mentioning the ignited charge, the shell, the camion, and all that enormous aggregate of appliances by which these have severally been produced, detonating powder included; we should not regard his interpretation as very rational. But it would fairly compare in rationality with this interpretation of social phenomena which, dwelling on the important changes the great man works, ignores that vast pre-existing supply of latent power he unlocks, and that immeasurable accumulation of antecedents to which both he and this power are due.

Recognizing what truth there is in the great-man-theory, w T e may say that, if limited to early societies, the histories of which are little else than endeavours to destroy or subjugate one another, it approximately expresses the fact in representing the capable leader as all-important; though even here it leaves out of sight too much the number and the quality of his followers. But its immense error lies in the assumption that what was once true is true for ever; and that a relation of ruler and ruled which was possible and good at one time is possible and good for all time. Just as fast as this predatory activity of early tribes diminishes, just as fast as larger aggregates are formed by conquest or otherwise, just as fast as war ceases to be the business of the whole male population, so fast do societies begin to develop, to show traces of structures and functions not before possible, to acquire increasing complexity along with increasing size, to give origin to new institutions, new activities, new ideas, sentiments, and habits; all of which unobtrusively make their appearance without the thought of any king or legislator. And if you wish to understand these phenomena of social evolution, you will not do it though you should read yourself blind over the biographies of all the great rulers on record, down to Frederick the Greedy and Napoleon the Treacherous.