The Great Man Theory

Victor Cousin




Do Great Men and Women determine the course of history?

“We thought that under his shadow we would live among the nations. (Lamentations 4:20)

It is our nature to imitate other people and to emulate the personal authorities given to us in order to survive. We are not always born under the best of parental examples, which we normally want to equal or to exceed, but we are given a wider variety of models to choose from as we mature and become, at least to some extent, the independent authors of our fates.

Every child wants most of all to be a grown up, a big person, and by extension a great adult. As children many of us dream of being great men and great women in terms of social status. We soon realize that the world needs few United States presidents, for example, therefore we learn to aspire to other positions, and sometimes we must vie for any position we can get. But we do not give up our dreams of social greatness; we enjoy greatness vicariously as we continue to admire the examples before us as well as those presented by historians. Of course we do not always admire great men and women, we despise them too, and we might not even know who they are; but whether we praise or blame them, or are ignorant of their existence, we generally recognize that our lives have been influenced by the conduct of great men and women.

Nonetheless, strange as it might seem, some historians believe the most important people in the history books were not very important after all, at least not in the general context of human progress. The Great Man Theory of history formulated by thinkers of an aristocratic bent of mind has been greatly discounted by socialist intellectuals who believe far too much credit has been given to great men for the course of history, a course historians have historically portrayed as a history of war and conquest from which all good things under civilization’s cover have ensued. Socialist thinkers would rather not attribute progress to the crimes against humanity led by politicians, heroes, and generals, but would instead emphasize the part ordinary or common people play in the development of humane society.

The term ‘elite’ originally denoted a few powerful men who deserved praise and therefore had a right to be proud, but when that right was contested and subverted by popular demand because the right no longer seemed merited, especially when inherited, the term ‘elite’ took on a pejorative hue connoting the corrupt minority at the top who on average did not deserve their superior status. Of course the overthrow of the old regimes in favor of republican and democratic forms of government were led by great men who were often aristocratic defectors or who were sometimes great men arising from the ranks below. Therefore, if history supports enduring truths, it appears that the aristocratic intellectual’s preference for the Great Man Theory is justified by reality. No matter how conservative or progressive it might be, society is always led by great men and women. In fact, modern studies of obedience and authority support the view that the majority of people, as if they love to be ruled, will support and follow current authority no matter what its character might be.

The intellectual process in itself raises the man above the brute, wherefore men strive to make the most of reason; those who succeed are often feared and resented by so-called ‘anti-intellectuals’ who use their own intellects to defame the intellect – an eloquent argument against the prime virtue of reason is certainly ironic. Thus in matters of mind the will to emulate, to equal and to overpower, exerts itself just as it does elsewhere, and the result is everywhere a ‘pecking order’, a hierarchy of ideas and a social stratification of people – not that the best ideas rise to the top.

Now the best socialist thinkers are the greatest men and women in their field; they are not champions of the Great Man Theory but of The People ‘democratically’ organized. Nonetheless everyone, no matter how humble they might be, would be a great man or woman in one way or another. Socialist equality needs great men to effect it; the arrogant elite are overthrown and another cult of personality is developed around the socialist leader. The communist party is democratically organized according to the self-contradictory tenets of ‘anarchistic communism’ or ‘democratic socialism’; provisions are made for elections; a bureaucracy arises that survives those elections; eventually only one candidate is on the ballot; and, despite the constitutional separation of party and state, the party apparatus controls. Obviously, people will not give up their objective models of greatness regardless of what the current political hypothesis happens to be, and when they sincerely try to give them up, great men are shoved down their collective throat by a ruthless elite.

Therefore, since great men and women are here to stay, and since we all may be great in our own little ways nowadays, it behooves us to revisit the Great Man Theory no matter how unpopular it may be with the intellectual elite who would be lords of public opinion. To that end I have chosen to review the concept as presented by the French philosopher, Victor Cousin, for he was an eclectic philosopher or borrower of opinions who lived when kings and aristocrats were still falling with the rapid rise of modern nations, yet he still believed in great men and presented us with an abstract portrait of the Great Man who is no longer a master of a people but a servant of his nation. We should keep in mind that he borrowed heavily from his friend, Hegel, so much so that Hegel said Cousin had taken some of his fish and much of his sauce.

According to Cousin, people who best represent the spirit of a nation belong to an aristocracy of great men generated by that nation. The great man is not merely a particular individual who, standing alone, would be small, helpless, and miserable. Rather, he embodies the universal nature which endows him with a general power superior to his individuality. In actuality, he is just the right organic balance of universal and particular, an exemplary person, an ideally socialized individual. Of course the great man is also beautiful because we find in him the criterion of true beauty, the harmony of the universal – which is infinite, ideal and sublime – and of the particular – which is finite, real and pretty. He is a concrete universal; he is a living unity in diversity, not a handsome, immobile statue chiseled from stone or modeled in cement; he is a spiritual embodiment endowed with the highest qualities. In terms of social psychology, he is the most powerful interaction of individuality and situation.

The great man is a national representative but he is not necessarily its political representative. He may be a great legislator, warrior, artist, philosopher, pontiff, and so on. In any case, he represents a spirit common to all citizens; that is to say, a national spirit:

“A nation is veritably a nation on the condition of expressing an idea, which, entering into all the elements which compose the interior life of this nation, into its language, it religion, its manners, its arts, its laws, its philosophy, gives it a distinct physiognomy…. The spirit of a nation, the spirit common to all citizens, is what constitutes the country,” Cousin lectured his audience.

Cousin identified three types of individuals:

Ordinary Individuals: “There are individuals who have, so to speak, a general character only, that of their age and of their country, mere echoes of the voices of their times; they form the crowd, and are, thus to call them, the anonymous beings of the human species…. ordinary men, a numerous class, honest, useful… excellent soldiers of the spirit of the people; the form the army of every great cause that finds sufficient captains; it is with them, and them only, that one can perform great things: they know how to obey.”

Original Individuals: “At the other extreme are the friends of individuality… who seize for a moment upon their poor individuality… cling to it… proudly insurgent against all authority. The mania of individuality is to cut the knot which binds the individual to common sense by authority. There are the originals of the human species: they form a class apart: the give themselves out as the heroes of independence, and are, in general men without energy and without character; they are agitated for a moment without doing anything, and pass away without leaving any trace in history… (They are) unsusceptible of discipline, unworthy to command, incapable of obeying, their great aim upon this vast scene of the world is to represent, what? themselves, and nothing more.”

Great Individuals: “A great man is equally removed from the original and the ordinary man. He is the nation, and he is himself too; he is the harmony of generality and individuality… the spirit of his nation and of his times is the stuff of which the great man is made… it is from the height of the spirit, common to all, that he is great and commands all.”

Warriors are the first and most popular rank of great men, followed by Cousin’s own class, the philosophers – Cousin was famous in his time and received a standing ovation for the lecture we are quoting here.

“It is upon the field of battle that energetic and faith representatives are necessary, and there they are never wanting. Glory is an unexceptional witness of the importance of the true greatness of men. Now, what are the greatest glories? In fact, they are those of warriors…. Nowhere do the masses identify themselves more visibly with the great man than on the field of battle; but if this identification is more brilliant in the great captain, it is more intimate and more profound in the great philosopher.

“…it must be observed that nowhere are there more great men than in philosophy. The highest degree of individuality is reflection, which separates us from all that is not ourselves, and puts us face to face with ourselves; at the same time the object of philosophical reflection is what is most general in thought. Reflection has generality for its foundation, and individuality for its form. It is precisely the highest alliance of these two elements which constitutes the great man.”

Great political leaders and heroes govern and defend their respective nations and find glory in getting deeds done or in doing them. Although reputation is a paltry and petty thing, glory is glorious:

“…whatever is human is made so by humanity; to curse power… is to blaspheme humanity; to accuse glory, is simply to accuse humanity that decrees it. What is glory? The judgment of humanity upon one of its members, and humanity is always right…. There are a thousand ways to acquire a reputation; it is an enterprise just like any other, it does not even suppose a great ambition. What distinguishes reputation from glory is, that reputation is the judgment of the few, while glory is the judgment of a great number… With the masses, deeds are everything…. (Humanity) wishes great results…. Great results cannot be contested, and glory, which is their expression, can none the more be contested.”

We sense in Cousin the ancient militant feeling that might is right, or, at least might is required to make right. Force must be exerted to accomplish anything at all; in order to perform his work, the great man must move ahead and take all – he must win, and no matter what happens we should be on the side of the winners, not the losers:

“…the strife of nations is sorrowful, if the vanquished excites our pity, our greatest sympathy must be reserved for the vanquisher, since very victory infallibly draws after it a progress of humanity… we must be on the side of the victor, for that is always the side of civilization, the side of the present and the future, while the side of the conquered is always that of the past. The great man conquered is a great man out of place in his times; and his defeat must be applauded, since it was just and useful, since with his great qualities, his virtue and his genius, he marched contrary to humanity and the times.”

When we evaluate great men, we should ignore their sordid individuality and ask, What did they do for the nation?

“The fundamental rule of philosophy in regard to great men is to do as humanity does… to neglect the description of weaknesses inherent in their individuality and which have perished with it… to fasten itself upon the great things which they have done, which have served humanity, and which still endure in the memories of men… to search out what has given them power and glory, namely, the idea they represent, and their intimate relation with the spirit of their times and their nation….”

Furthermore, great men are called by the times and do not come into being unless there is something for them to do, their work – Cousin notes that many of them are fatalists, superstitious, hesitant and inactive until definitely called.

“It is the fortune of a great man to represent better than any other man of his times the ideas of those times, their interests, their wants. All the individuals composing a nation have the same general ideas, the same interests, the same wants, but without the energy necessary to realize and to satisfy them; they represent their times and their nation, but in a powerless, unfaithful, obscure manner. But as soon as the true representative shows himself, all recognize him distinctly what they have confusedly seized upon in themselves; they recognize the spirit of their times, the spirit even which is in themselves; they consider the great man as their true image, as their idea; and under this title they adore and follow him who is their idol and their chief….”

As for the great philosophers Cousin mentions after great heroes, they usually withdraw from immediate action to reflect at length, hence they become masters of symbolic activity. A king might be a frustrated philosopher or vice versa, but it is unwise for a philosopher interested in his immortal fame to associate too closely with the government of a nation or even the nation itself. It might be healthier for the dedicated philosopher to spit (my words) on national grounds from time to time. In any case, nations and civilizations rise and fall in due course of time, thus it behooves the philosopher to be a citizen of the cosmos no matter how powerful Athens and Rome might be at present. No doubt modern historians will associate a philosopher’s philosophy with his historical period, and declare his thinking passe today, but the citizen of the cosmos is something more than the victim of his circumstances, and we may enjoy and be enlightened by the leftovers from his fire.

Cousin the philosopher did not take his own philosophical advice, to remain aloof from politics, to heart. How could he, if a great man represents his nation? Cousin associated with the current powers that be, and, although he was the most famous French philosopher of his day, his sway over the Cosmos was tainted by ephemeral politics; his shooting star soon fell from grace. Cousin was a liberal agitator before 1830; thereafter, he was a moderate ‘doctrinaire’, sharing with the Doctrinaires their ‘chartist’ enthusiasm for a ‘constitutional monarchy’ form of government, an English model with a French twist. Cousin rode the July Monarchy to its fall. By 1851, he was completely out of favor, demonstrating that he was correct to assume philosophers are ill-advised to meddle in politics. His nickname was ‘Plato’, after his famous translation of Plato, whose utopian ‘Republic’ was governed by a philosopher king; perhaps Cousin, against his better judgment, was unduly influenced by the Plato’s political ideology, or maybe reading the German romantic philosophers made him rash.

In any case, a particular political theology is a dangerous enterprise for a searcher of truth to embark upon. Yet great men do take risks. Was Victor Cousin a great man? the type he identified as a ‘Great Individual’, in contrast to the Individual and Original types? He was obviously no ordinary individual; at one time he had virtual dictatorial control over the education of the French nation. And he was not an original, ‘flash in the pan’ sort of man either. Despite the world acclaim he enjoyed during his time, and his influence, for example, on the New England Transcendentalists and on the formation of the educational system of the United States, Cousin is often regarded as a ‘mediocre’ philosopher who lacked ‘originality.’ After all, his writing is an easy read and thus easy to criticize: a mere novice can understand what he is talking about. His philosophical platitudes are obvious. And, say his critics, Cousin’s eclectic or ‘borrowing’ approach to the world’s truths wants a criterion or method for deciding what to keep and what to throw away.

As a matter of fact, philosophical eclecticism is nothing new, and Cousin said he had no desire to be original. We have already seen what he thought about the original type of man. Then again, the great man may be original by not being original, but rather by incorporating the spirit of his people. Perhaps wisdom is moderation and obscure philosophies are mystical nonsense about common sense, or sophisticated variations on platitudes. The publicly ‘great’ man, then, would be unusual in his expression of the common spirit, and we would raise him up as ‘original’ because he either said what we already knew, thus confirming us in the truth. Walters Brewer puts it this way:

“Cousin insisted that if he were to be accused of having introduced foreign doctrines incompatible with traditional French systems of thought and practice, then he would have to be credited with a certain originality; the originality of his philosophy, he said, however, lay precisely in fact that it sought not to be original at all. Eclecticism was simply a way of looking at the various philosophies already propounded, an historical method that was in no sense a balance between the systems but that chose from among them… If the eclectic approach was to be assigned to a rubric, he added, then it would best come under spiritualism, that same doctrine at which Plato and Socrates began…” (Brewer, Walter Vance, Victor Cousin as a comparative educator, New York: Teachers College Press, 1971)

Now Cousin said that great men represent national spirits. He was an excellent expositor of the spirit of his nation. His writing speaks to us both passionately and formally, romantically and classically. Although a pragmatic logician or logical positivist might scoff at his presentation, Cousin gives us lyrical lines that make spiritual sense; after all, he held forth the simple proposition that the spirit of history advances our freedom in the world. He educates us to the spirit of his time. It is a mistake to call him a ‘mediocre’ philosopher for synthesizing and clearly expressing some of the ideas of Thomas Reid, Maine de Biran, Kant, Schelling and Hegel. Cousin was one of the best of his kind. Indeed, his supposed faults are occasionally attributed to the French at large; witness Hippolyte Taine’s disdain for the French genius, a Latin genius which, step by step, reconciles the dirty details of the English genius and the lofty speculations of the German genius, presenting the spiritual synthesis in beautiful, romantic speeches; something which the Frenchman Taine was a master at himself despite himself: he said he fought against it! the very quality that makes his conservative history of the French Revolution a pleasing read even for liberals.

A legitimate ‘theory’ is supposed to be good for something; the Great Man Theory may sound good but what is it good for? Isn’t it just rhetoric? Yes, if well plead, it is persuasive rhetoric, but even if it be badly presented, there is some motivating truth to it that, once recognized, causes one who wants to be great to be more enthusiastic about his ability to exceed himself, to become greater than he is. Victor Cousin and his contemporaries were enthusiastic about the spiritual development of national identities represented by great men, enthusiastic men who aspired to lead their nations to greatness. Given the tragic effects of excessive national zeal, we are much less sanguine in respect to national spirits today. All too often the love of country, patriotism, or father-ism, is hate-based love. Given the advancement of technology, the violent conflict of national spirits makes a universal hell out of Earth.

The philosophical developments leading up to and following the French Revolution, especially those woven by the German philosophers who influenced Cousin, had an enormous political impact, eventually dividing the world into totalitarian extremes of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Gods and princes were thrown down from the high places and stoned to death; states were raised thereupon and sacrificed as the highest form of humanity. A French ‘race’, an English ‘race’, a German ‘race’, or a ‘race of saints and so forth, represented by great men, did not satisfy the defrosted beast. Cousin’s Great Man was replaced by the Super Man of a mythical ‘Fire and Ice’ Super Race, and the unfrozen beast ran amok.

Victor Cousin certainly had his blinding prejudices, some inherited from German philosophers. For instance, he found truth all over the globe but he did not find any great men in the Orient, not “between the mountains of Persia and the sea-shore of China.” Today every European school kid should know of many great men in Oriental history; one of my favorites is Asoka, the amazing emperor of an Indian empire – Asoka is well known to Buddhists as ‘Buddhism’s Constantine.’ In fact, China and India were admired by Europeans: China for its imperial state and moralism, and India for its spiritualism. India’s Hinduism particularly inspired the transcendentally inclined German philosophers – Cousin described his own philosophy not only as ‘electicism’ but also as ‘Spiritualism.’

Human spirits are personal and representative – the ‘person’ is the social ‘interface’ of the willful individual. Abstract states and gods may be enlightening, but they do not give us the personal examples we need. Moral beings that we are, we tend to look for the best example; there are always a few persons who rise to the occasional although not to the perfect ideal we might desire. Now Cousin criticized India, saying its national spirit had been dissipated and its individual spirits throttled by the worship of impersonal infinity. As we know, Hindus do have a wide variety of personal forms available for worship although the Supreme Being of some schools is impersonal infinity – the Supreme Being can hypothetically take personal forms for particular purposes. We are well aware of the dangers of worshiping any definite person whether divine or, heaven forbid, human, therefore we look to the infinite possibilities beyond the imperfections that lead us astray. That is, we reach for the greatest beyond which no greater can be thought. Nevertheless, great men and women are indispensable for the advance of each and every person.

We might wonder whether or not the greatest leaders are the greatest followers and where each of us fits in to the scheme, but to doubt the existence and influence of great men and women would be fatal for the human race.

“When man does not regard himself seriously,” Victor Cousin lectured, “and has no importance in his eyes, he takes no note of what he does… Man, not believing himself worthy of memory, abandons the world to the action of the forces of nature, and history to the gods.”


Quoted Source:

Cousin, Victor 1792-1867, Course of the history of modern philosophy, New York: D. Appleton & company, 1857.

Contrary Notes:

The view that great men are the products of history rather than its masters can be found, for instance, in Leo Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE. His theoretical digressions on war and his philosophy of history is interspersed in Books Three and Four of that great work. Here are a few excerpts from Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation:

“On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not regard at the time as crimes.”

“Without each of these (foregoing) causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes – myriads of causes – coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had to come from the east to west slaying their fellows.”

“We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events…. The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become.”

“Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, unversal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evidence is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.”

“A king is history’s slave.”

“In historic events the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connexion with the event itself. Each act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary, and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.”

“The actors of 1812 have long since left the stage, their personal interests have vanished leaving no trace, and nothing remains of that time but its historic results. Providence compelled all these men, striving to attain personal aims, to further the accomplishment of a stupendous result no one of them at all expected – neither Napolean, nor Alexander, and still less any of those who did the actual fighting.”

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