The heroic view on historical change owes far more to Myth and Epic than to pitiful Thomas Carlyle, who, though much critiqued for approaching history primarily through biographies of "great men", was hardly inventing the idea with his 1840 publication of, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. It was actually far earlier, long before the ancient "Lives" written by Plutarch and Suetonius, when the hero-centered narrative planted its roots squarely among humanity's oldest literature - in the Iliad & Odyssey, in Genesis & Exodus, in Gilgamesh and the many Egyptian books of the dead. But even when classical histories became odes to the favored empire - brought to power by Fate, God, and/or Providence - the developing genre of "history" was still dominated by world-bending characters like Thucyddides' Pericles and Polybius' Paulus and Livy's Augustus and even Josephus' entire string of ancient Hebrew patriarchs. All of these were configured to some degree or another with the same heroic ideal as Homer's Achilles or as Carlyle's Martin Luther or (in our day) as David McCullough's increasingly popular John Adams.
Back in 1840, Carlyle's technical theory was more defensible than his actual practice, but history as "the essence of innumerable biographies" has never been feasibly writeable, not from the dawn of humanity even up until now. Much less, we suppose, could it ever be readable.
From a reception standpoint, therefore, while the so-called "great man theory" (henceforth a.k.a. "the hero-centered view of history", or "the hero-driven theory of history", or for short perhaps just "heroic history") remains impossible to defend as either objective or accurate, it has nevertheless gone deeply under-appreciated by professional historians, who should at least feel duty-bound to explain its perennial appeal. Most importantly, we may have all overlooked the mnemonic advantages heroic histories provide in their oversimplifications.
In educational settings around the world, day after day, there are small, snotty-nosed future-historians receiving very effectively oversimplified lessons in history. Meanwhile, just down the street there are pimply-faced future-historians receiving somewhat less simplified expansions on those elementary stories. And finally, over in the next town, there are sleepy, ramen-eating future-historians being shocked by introductory survey professors who unveil the un-simplified versions of those earlier childhood and teenaged school lessons. Note, however. Those professors do not unveil true complexity. They unveil complications of prior simplifications. That is a very big difference, in more ways than one.
This may not be quite what Hayden White had in mind when he said that academic history is inevitably ironic, but it very well could have been. It's not just that hero stories are common. It's that on some level they seem to be necessary. Which current historian in the academy today did not, as their very first history lesson, get told a story about some famous character who overcame obstacles to assist in, contribute to, or single-handedly accomplish a moment of famous historical change?
Paul Ricoeur said that Immanuel Kant's query, "What is man?" can be answered only by the endless accumulation of stories which illustrate real or imaginary persons in the narrated action of "being in time". In a similar way, the essence of innumerable biographies is precisely what we begin towards with our very first history lesson. Though our journey will ultimately be asymptotic, the true impossibility of Carlyle's "essence" is something we cannot begin to imagine until our accumulating exploration of full-on and piecemeal biographies expands in volume significantly toward the "innumerable".
One deepish irony of historical narrative is that ironic history must feed on unironical narratives. That is, it seems we cannot appreciate the absence of "great men" in history without abandoning a previously hard earned (albeit illusory) sense of their presence. At the least, we should say that all narratives are necessarily more simplified than the complex realities (or even pseudo-realities) which they figurally represent. Therefore, if history cannot be be learned without assistance from narrative, then history cannot be learned apart from simplified views. Simplify. Complicate. Wash, rinse, repeat. This cannot be reversed, evidently.
Simple and complex being relative, one wonders if any bedrock can be found. Perhaps. Stay tuned, and perhaps we shall see.
The hero-centered story of history is oversimplified, indefensible, and inadequate. It's also perennially popular, ineradicable, and a brilliant mnemonic.
Heroic histories are narrative distortions that offer mnemonic efficiency. This should not surprise us, since stories and memory went hand in hand at the dawn of the so-called heroic age.
There is much else yet to appreciate. Come back soon for more...