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Great man theory

Related: auteur theory - genius - greatness - human - history

Compare with: social history


The Great man theory is a theory held by some that aims to explains history by the impact of "Great men", ie: highly influential individuals, either from personal charisma, genius intellects, or great political impact.

For example, a scholarly follower of the Great Man theory would be likely to study the Second World War by focusing on the big personalities of the conflict, ie: Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, etc.

It is often linked to 19th century philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, who commented that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." This theory is usually contrasted with a theory that talks about events occurring in the fullness of time, or when an overwhelming wave of smaller events cause certain developments to occur.

Today the great man theory is out of favour. Most historians today believe that economic, societal, and technological factors are far more important to history than the decisions made by any individual.

This has spread to other fields such a literary criticism where the New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt argues that societies create works of art, not just authors.

When this theory is applied to film theory, this theory tends to explain film history and the evolution of film almost exclusively in terms of "Great Men", with some notable directors. It however, neglects the efforts of crews, assistants and outside constraints. It could be described as the film history equivalent to the star system or the auteur theory. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_man_theory [May 2005]

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