(This essay was originally written as a chapter in my book, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters, and is an outtake from that book.)

Do specific geniuses or “great men” drive forward the events of history?   Is profound impact on social history the criterion of such great men or heroes?

This idea, known as “the great man theory of history,” was extensively argued during the 19th century, when Western support  for heroism was still pronounced.

Despite a fascinating philosophic debate among serious thinkers, the theory is fatally flawed.


The Great Man Theory

The essence of the hypothesis is that certain great men or heroes, by virtue of their genius, charisma, and/or military-political acumen, are the primary causal agents of historic events. Society does not shape great individuals; rather, great individuals shape society.

Napoleon—who, in accordance with this speculation, can be interpreted as seizing control of the French Revolution and imposing it on sundry European monarchs—is often advanced as an exemplar.

Thomas Carlyle, in his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, And The Heroic In History, analyzes writers, priests, and prophets as authentic examples of heroes, but definitively proclaims rightful rulers the greatest of the great. “The Commander over Men; he to whose wills our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men.”[i]

It is Carlyle’s fervent exhortation that we: “Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him….The Ablest Man; he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere, anyhow learn;–the thing which it will in all ways behoove US, with right loyal thankfulness and nothing doubting, to do.”[ii]

Drawn from history, Carlyle’s principal examples of proper commanders over men are Cromwell and Napoleon who, presumably, he believes, will provide us guidance “the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere, anyhow learn.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, although aphoristic and metaphoric in style—and hardly systematic—is a thinker vastly more profound; who mocks the “insipid muddleheaded Carlyle,” and who provides trenchant if brutal argumentation in support of his vision.

Ironically, Nietzsche, despite his devout atheism, holds a quasi-religious metaphysics, in which “will”—a feature of spirit or mind or consciousness—is presented as the impelling drive of reality itself.  He repudiates the mechanistic, “billiard ball” vision of the universe, which posits, in effect, a world composed of material entities moving, totally and unconditionally, in accord with the laws of physics; and does so, because such a view wrongly models human life and society, actuated as they are by passion and desire.

Nietzsche, rejecting dualism, and seeking a unified world view, resists a projection of inanimate matter’s form of causation onto man—and rather, projects man’s form of causation onto inanimate matter: “Let us assume that nothing is ‘given’ as real except our world of desires and passions….Would we not be allowed to experiment with the question whether these ‘givens’ are not sufficient for understanding the so-called mechanistic (or material) world?…To understand the material world as a pre-form of life?”[iii]

“Will-causality” is the sole form of causality he recognizes.  What are the will(s) composing reality willing? In some primordial sense, a drive to power, about which he works out no detailed theory applied to the universe, but does so applied to life. He writes:  “Life itself is essential assimilation, injury, violation of the foreign and the weaker, suppression, hardness, the forcing of one’s own forms upon something else, ingestion and—at least in its milder form—exploitation.”[iv]

For human beings, as for all organisms, the ultimate good is mastery, domination, subjugation.

(It is not to be overlooked that, for Nietzsche, the paradigm examples of the superior person or Overman were, most likely, such creative artists as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Goethe; who harness the passion, the turbulence, the raw, burgeoning power of their frenzied souls, and, having gained self-mastery, project order onto the world’s intractable materials, bringing forth in structured, stylized beauty, a momentous work of art. “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”[v])

Nevertheless, the most frequent examples of the exuberantly hard, indomitably self-assertive, world-bursting individuals he extols are generals, politicians, ruthless leaders of men—Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon. These individuals topple city-states, overturn republics, crush freedom, not as wantonly destructive nihilism but so they may establish empire.

“Most of the overmen whom Nietzsche mentioned by name were politicians and generals whose creativity often expressed itself in the conquest of alien peoples or the subjugation of their fellow citizens.”[vi]

Such giants of history were “beyond good and evil” precisely because, in overturning the old political order among men, and imposing a new, they flouted, violated, shattered conventional moral codes and thrust upon society rules, guidelines, commandments inherently  their own.

“The History of the world is but the Biography of great men,” stated Carlyle in perfect, pithy expression of this view. [vii]


Nineteenth Century Criticisms of the Theory

Today, it is generally held that the great man theory was logically devastated by the withering critique of Herbert Spencer. Spencer, arguing for the causal role of society in shaping an individual, famously observed: “You must admit that the genesis of a 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…Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him.”[viii]

William James, from a distinctively biological standpoint, critiqued Spencer’s critique. James pointed out, in terms of causation, a reciprocal relationship between geniuses (or great men) and society; comparing these to the mutual impact on each other of organism and physical environment, as elucidated in Darwinian theory.

“The causes of production of great men lie in a sphere wholly inaccessible to the social philosopher. He must simply accept geniuses as data, just as Darwin accepts his spontaneous variations…these data being given, how does the environment affect them, and how do they affect the environment? …the relation of the visible environment to the great man is in the main exactly what it is to the ‘variation’ in the Darwinian philosophy. It chiefly adopts or rejects, preserves or destroys, in short selects him. And whenever it adopts and preserves the great man, it becomes modified by his influence in an entirely original and peculiar way.”[ix]

For James, biological—not social—factors produce a great man: “Physiological forces, with which the social, political, geographical…conditions have just as much…to do as the condition of the crater of Vesuvius…with the flickering of this gas by which I write, are what make him.”[x]

Presumably, for James, expressed in contemporary terms, a genius arises due predominantly (perhaps exclusively) to genetic causation—either matches his environment or not—and by it is either accepted or rejected, embraced or crushed. When an individual’s genius matches his society, it welcomes him, and he becomes, for it, a driving catalyst of change. “The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment…”[xi]

Or, as James puts it, writing in the late 19th century: “Not every ‘man’ fits every ‘hour’…A given genius may come either too early or too late. Peter the Hermit [an 11th century priest who helped incite the First Crusade] would now be sent to a lunatic asylum…Cromwell and Napoleon need their revolutions, Grant his civil war…”[xii]

There are a constellation of errors permeating this debate, some committed by this thinker, others by that.

These are: 1. Impact on historic events is not a primary criterion of heroism. 2. Mistakes regarding the complex relationship between an individual and society. 3. Failure to apprehend a fundamental aspect of a great individual’s greatness. 4. The critical error that everyman should obey the commands of heroes, who properly should hold political and legal dominion.

Let’s examine these one at a time.


Critiquing the Great Man Theory

One: Impact on social history: Regarding heroism, an individual’s impact on history is the wrong question to ask. Vivid counter-examples form the start of a counter argument; principles extracted from them, its culmination.

Attila and earlier Hun chieftains had an incalculable impact on social history. Their invasions of Eastern and Central Europe swept before them Germanic tribes, who, fleeing, burst the boundaries of the Roman Empire; catalyzing a series of migrations and battles that, decades later, contributed to the collapse of civilization and triumph of barbarism. Attila ravaged extensive portions of northern Italy and even threatened Rome itself.

Attila and prior Hun leaders were a powerful force in early medieval European history. Is this sufficient to make them heroes? No. Blood-drenched barbarians who dramatically augment the destruction of civilization are, no doubt, mighty villains—but, by virtue of this alone, are excluded from the ranks of heroes.

Epistemologically, the concept “hero” refers to the identification that, in real life, some rare individuals achieve goals that substantially advance human life; that support construction and life, not destruction and death. If a powerful Roman emperor had arisen—a latter-day Augustus—had selected skilled commanders, rallied his troops, defeated the invaders, saved Rome, restored and upheld some degree of intellectual freedom, thereby promoting a revival of civilization, and had continued to protect it against barbarians—this would be a hero.

A different example on the same theme: If impact on history is a prime criterion of heroism, then few can lay better claim to the title than Hitler. But, in truth, one of history’s most egregious mass murderers has even less claim to the title of “hero” than does Attila.

There is a fundamental flaw in the great man theory of history: It asks the wrong question.

The proper criterion of heroism is not impact on society—but benefit to human life. The individual who discovers new knowledge—or applies it to such life-promoting fields as music, agriculture, medicine, electrical engineering, or numerous others—the person who creates material or intellectual wealth—or who effectively protects the creators—the men and women responsible for originating civilization, for raising mankind out of the caves and the jungles, for immensely increasing living standards, life expectancies, leisure time, and for creating art, entertainment, and consequent immeasurable  enhancement of men’s ability to enjoy their earthly time—these are mankind’s heroes.

Heroes, by this measure, do greatly impact social history—but such influence is not the fundamental criterion of heroism. If we employ the Carlyle-Nietzsche definition of “great men,” then, in truth, all (epic)heroes are great men—but not all great men are heroes. Unfortunately, heroes are not as widespread a phenomenon as “great men;”  worse, “hero worship” has been too often directed at “great men” unworthy of it.

Two: The relationship between the great individual and society:  Looked at from one perspective—viewing society as an immense but nonetheless single entity, composed of an incalculable number of components—a reciprocal influence upon each other of great man and society is undeniably true.

Napoleon certainly shook European monarchies to their foundations.

But the causal factors animating such momentous events stretched back through centuries; including, most obviously, the French Revolution; but also the long-unchallenged power of the ancien regime—the thoughts, values, and actions of various Bourbon monarchs, their families, foes, and advisors—the teachings and actions of the Catholic Church, its popes, cardinals, and theologians; the writings of various philosophes, supporting the freedom of man’s mind, opposing the ancient regime; the influence, especially on Voltaire, of Britain’s gradual movement away from absolute monarchy in the direction of increased individual liberties; the prevalence across the Continent of oppressive hereditary monarchies, and the opposition of many to the ideals and goals of the Revolution; and so on, in incessant litany of causes and conditioning persons and events, that could not be exhaustively recounted in a dozen lifetimes by a regiment of Will Durants.

Napoleon was acted upon, by society, in ways too numerous to catalogue.

But viewing society as a single super-organism that thinks and acts and influences an individual is worse than a fiction of lazy minds unwilling to examine its multitude of constituent parts. It is the fallacy of reification writ large. “Reification…is the hypostatizing [thing-making] of entities, that is, the making of abstractions into substances.”[xiii]

That, in some sense, society exists, is not to be doubted. But in what sense? Surely, “American society” does not exist in the sense that, for example, Clint Eastwood—American citizen—exists. One could meet face-to-face with Eastwood, converse, dine, and tipple with him—might visually observe, on the silver screen, his impressively manly squint—applaud (or not) as he garners “Best Director” awards—and so on. Can one engage in such activities vis-à-vis “American society?” One cannot.

American society, or any other, is an amalgam of such an immense quantity of individuals—their thoughts, values, emotions, actions, and swirling interactions—as to be, in a literal sense, incalculable. One could not encounter all such social components, never mind remember, during the latter stage of encountering, those antecedently encountered; much less keep track—in the time elapsed during these subsequent encounters—of the further doings of those initially encountered.

The concept “society” is a mental construct subsuming an immeasurable quantity of data, much, although not all of it, observational.  To state the point simply: Society is a collection of individuals who act upon each other.

Whose actions impinge most heavily on others?

Napoleon exerted more influence—for better or worse—on far more individuals than the vast majority of other individuals exerted on him. Although it is true, in some sense, to say that “society” significantly influenced (but not “made” or “molded”) Napoleon, the conventional understanding of this claim is—including by many philosophers—at best, woozy.

The sense in which it is true is that many members of human society—individuals—exerted some influence on Napoleon, and that some members exerted much; this latter includes more than the usual suspects of parents, family, peers, teachers, and so on; but also some of history’s other “great men,”  including a wide array of diverse artists, philosophers, scientists, and statesmen who helped create both the relatively-advanced Western society in which Napoleon was educated and the opportunities it afforded.

James succinctly expresses the point: “…the important thing…is that what makes a certain genius now incompatible with his surroundings is usually…that some previous genius of a different strain has warped the community away from the sphere of his possible effectiveness. After Voltaire, no Peter the Hermit…”[xiv]

Regarding the exertion of influence, not all human beings are created equal.  A few exert substantially—in some cases vastly—more on other individuals than do other individuals on them (or than these other individuals do on the still other individuals composing the rest of society). A critically important question is: Is such influence for good or ill—or is it mixed? To make such a judgment, of course, requires a standard.

That Napoleon exerted enormous impact on European society is clear. Further, numerous of his policies effectively supported human life. He ended feudalism, abolished serfdom, and annulled the Inquisition. He advanced religious freedom in Europe, even for the long-oppressed Jews. Across the continent, he so weakened the ancient regime that it would not long survive his own demise.

But the blood, the guts, the enormous cost in human life, in service of his dreams of conquest and power, cannot be sanctioned. Although certainly not a scourge of civilization a la Attila, much less a monster, the countless youthful lives snuffed out, in endless procession of gory battles, to fulfill his imperial designs renders unconscionable an overwhelming preponderance of his career.

It is definitely tragic, and possibly criminal that we, the human race, have so often glorified conquerors. Stendhal, as but one example, praised Napoleon as “the greatest man to appear in the world since Caesar.”[xv] Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, despite some noble qualities and beneficent policies, shed such an ocean of innocent blood as to dwarf their life-giving achievements. It is the creators and their protectors, not power-seekers and warmongers that deserve our respect and emulation. Nietzsche, in his best moments, understood this; unfortunately, his best moments were rare.

Three: The overlooked cause of a great man’s greatness: James, in effect, argues that geniuses or great men are born, not made. Presumably, the biological causes of a hero’s gifts are operative whether his society is ready or not for them; whether, to these gifts, it offers nurture or opposition; whether, for them, it provides outlet or stone wall.

In response to his chief opponent, he wrote: “Can it be that Mr. Spencer holds the convergence of sociological pressures to have so impinged on Stratford-upon-Avon about the 26th of April, 1564, that a W. Shakespeare, with all his mental peculiarities, had to be born there, –as the pressure of water outside a certain boat will cause a stream of a certain form to ooze into a particular leak?  And does he mean to say that if the aforesaid W. Shakespeare had died of cholera infantum, another mother at Stratford-upon-Avon would needs have engendered a duplicate copy of him, to restore the sociologic equilibrium,–just as the same stream of water will reappear, no matter how often you pass a sponge over the leak, so long as the outside level remains unchanged?”[xvi]

Presumably, Spencer meant no such thing. What he most likely meant was a more conventional claim that, once born, a future genius receives from society nurturing, education, religious training, stable political environment, friendship, love, human intimacy, and much more, all of which contribute to the eventual great man; or, in Spencer’s overstated terms, are what “make him.”

One assumes Spencer does not mean what James ascribes to him: that society—its cultural evolution, educational system, government, and so forth —necessitates, at precisely that moment, the birth of a man with the vigorous brain activity of a Shakespeare; but merely, that once such an individual is born, society trains that brain to cognize, to value, to feel, in specific forms.  James is here guilty of a straw man fallacy.

Aside from the reification already described—and the realization that the education, cultural accomplishments, and so forth, provided the germinating genius proceed from other individuals and institutions founded, run, and supported by individuals—both disputants overlook a cardinal principle necessary to understand the gestation of any person’s thinking and values, including those of a genius: volition. (This is an oversight especially puzzling in the case of James, strong advocate of free will that he is.)

Do Spencer and James differ over no more than variants of determinism, with the former advocating a social—and the latter a biological—version? If so, this writer disagrees.

That a Shakespeare is born with a robust brain (and nervous system) generating rich, diverse, quick, multiple neural firings—or however 21st century neuro-biology understands such functions—seems clear. Who doubts that the brain of a genius is pre-eminently active?

In a form analogous to how the coordinated muscle structure of an Olympic champion facilitates athletic accomplishments, just so the vigorous brain functioning of a Shakespeare is a necessary condition of  intellectual ones.  A certain type of brain and the neural activity it actuates are, presumably, foundations of the “one percent inspiration” of genius properly invoked by Edison.

Further, if an individual of prodigious cerebral endowment, such as a Shakespeare, is born to a primitive nomadic tribe, which has yet to formulate written language, the education, values, and training afforded by such a society provide scant opportunity for the potential Bard to actualize his surpassing literary gifts. (Although, he might be exactly the individual, in that society, who pioneers written language; the earlier absence of which itself provides opportunity). That the history, culture, education, political system, and so forth, of a given society emphatically affects the germination of a great individual’s intellect and values—on what basis can such a proposition be doubted?

Nevertheless, an individual is not the crafted outcome of what other individuals molded him to be; as many parents have ruefully discovered. He/she is not the sum total of the thoughts, appraisals, beliefs, emotions, and actions of the myriad individuals who have, to greater or lesser degree, impacted him. He is influenced; he is not molded.

If individuals are molded, who or what molded the original molders? (Or, in Spencer’s overstated terms, if society “make[s]” an individual, who makes the makers?) Somewhere in time, the process of molding began; otherwise, no process. Who initiated it? And what were the culture’s determining influence(s) on him (or them)? Or are we to assume that the human race’s progenitors made fundamental choices of which their descendants are incapable? If so, what principle explains the volition possessed by some members of humanity, as distinct and apart from the rest?

In short, the thesis that some individuals “make” an individual, is hopelessly entangled in an infinite regress of causes. For, the individuals that made Napoleon were themselves “made” by antecedent individuals, who, of course, were “made” by individuals prior to them, and so forth, ad infinitum. Positing such an infinite regress of causation is a more egregious logical error even than reification.

Further, does the super-charged brain activity of a Shakespeare necessitate its direction into literature? Was it neither neurologically nor socially possible for a man of such intellectual gifts to spark interest in mathematics or medicine or art? Indeed, was it necessary that he pursue an intellectual career at all? Many a time, honest observers have witnessed the sad spectacle of supremely gifted individuals squandering immense intellectual inheritance, as do some of their unfortunate counterparts regarding material ones.

As a striking example, Shakespeare’s brilliant contemporary, poet/dramatist, Christopher Marlowe, was, aged twenty-nine, stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances that might never be entirely understood.

Nevertheless, tragically, for the claim that Marlowe was as much a genius of low-living as he was of theater arts, there is abundant supporting evidence. An anonymous 16th century contemporary wrote of him: “Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell, Wit lent from Heaven, but vices sent from hell.”

That a man possesses active brain and brilliant acumen provides no assurance that he values either—that he will doggedly pursue serious intellectual interests, literary or otherwise—or, so  doing, that he will not simultaneously court dissipation or early demise in riotous hedonism, gratuitous violence, or one or another of self-destruction’s myriad seductive forms.

Marlowe manifested a short but brilliant career. How many others, with equally potent brains and similarly powerful vices, manifested careers only short—or non-existent? The graveyards, one sadly suspects, are filled with skeletons of potential geniuses that, for one or another reason, were never heard from.

The truth is that Shakespeare was born with a vibrantly active brain that enabled prodigious intellectual achievement—that he appeared in a 16th century English culture that prized theater and literature, providing thereby encouragement and opportunity—and that he chose an intellectual career and chose one distinctively in the field of literature.   

Choice, as a real aspect of human life, is known via direct introspective awareness–and the flaws of determinism, in any of its forms, are intellectually fatal.  (See Appendix B: “A Challenge to Determinism.”)

Four: Heroes possess no moral authority to command obedience:  Why do purveyors of the Great Man theory claim that a hero should rightfully possess unlimited political power?

Is it because he/she embodies a will to dominance that forms the core of metaphysical reality, is thereby incarnation of it, and entitled—as, in effect, reality’s certified deputy—to shunt, bestride, or trample lesser men? Or is it because the great individual possesses wisdom and judgment lacking in mere mortals, whose otherwise lost souls call out desperately for his guidance?

Is his/her rule justified by brute power—as, according to the most radical Greek Sophists—force was the final arbiter of right and wrong?[xvii] Or is it sanctioned by paternalism, similar to that of Plato’s vision of a Socrates-like Philosopher King? Is it the great person’s rightful destiny to overthrow societies, and, living “beyond” the conventional moral codes they embody, crush sniveling weaklings strewn athwart his path? Or, under the burden of noblesse oblige, must his/her reign embody not merely a material generosity to those less prosperous but, as well, a spiritual guidance to those less wise?

Clearly, for Nietzsche, the propositions contained in the former questions constitute his reasons; nor is it a matter of guesswork that, for Carlyle, those in the latter.

In his 1849 essay, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Carlyle is brutally clear regarding the reasons of paternalism’s rectitude. It is here that Carlyle first applied his now-famous epithet “the dismal science” to economics. What is “dismal” regarding economics? The economists’ commitment to individuals making unfettered choices in free markets, unguided by their intellectual and/or moral superiors.

To be blunt, Carlyle regarded certain human beings—blacks, European serfs, Irishmen, low-born workers—as unqualified for self-governing. The principles of individualism, individual rights, and political-economic liberty cut asunder such persons from a hierarchical society that bestowed upon them a sustaining  guidance from their superiors.  For this reason, Carlyle fervently supported race-based slavery—and excoriated the economists because they did not.[xviii]  In the end, in politics, Carlyle embodies a bastardized version of Platonism.

In truth, however, to the extent that authoritarian rulers are upheld as heroes, and hero worship is held to be unreserved reverence for and unquestioning obedience to them, they are dangerous figures; properly, human beings should be fearful of such beliefs.  In the “Prologue” to her book, Heroes, Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen: A History of Hero Worship, Lucy Hughes Hallett warns against human willingness to “hand over their political rights to a glorious superman.”[xix]   Regarding this aspect of the complex issue, she is quite right.

Why? The answer can be succinctly stated: Rational beings possess the wherewithal, and must accept the responsibility, to govern their own lives. To surrender this right is not merely to threaten political liberty, and enshrine statism, but to undermine the role of the mind in each individual’s life. Did nature endow us with a mind to surrender it to a fatherly despot? When we are children, we need the loving supervision of our parents. Does it follow that, as adults, we yet require such supervision from the state?

Epistemologically, psychologically, morally—despite our years, experience, and wisdom attained—do we perennially remain akin to children? Do the vast majority of persons—healthy, able-bodied, possessing a human brain—require Political Big Daddy or Super Nanny to guide them? “An exaggerated veneration for an exceptional individual poses an insidious temptation. It allows worshippers to abnegate responsibility, looking to great men for salvation or for fulfillment which they more properly should be working to accomplish for themselves.”[xx]

A healthy adult living in a free society can and will deploy his/her intelligence to choose the education he receives, the field of study in which he specializes, the career he pursues, the locale of his residence, and so forth regarding the myriad values of human life.

Could the state, for example,  know for Jenny Smith—better than she could know—what is best for her regarding a single one of these values, much less the totality? By what means? Jenny Smith, let us say, chooses to study biology—but the state deems architecture a field for her better suited. What evidence could the state adduce to support its claim? Since Carlyle (and many others) assumes paternalism, the kinship of a benevolent state to a loving parent, the sought-after outcome must include the well-being of the individual citizen.

By what means could the state know that architecture, rather than biology, will best ensure Ms. Smith’s fulfillment? Will it administer a battery of sophisticated aptitude tests? Will it hire expert psychologists to interview and examine her? Will it coerce her—as a trial run—to spend x amount of time studying architecture?

And what if, after all of the state’s noblest efforts, Ms. Smith persists in obdurate commitment to biology? Will the state coerce her into its preferred field? If so, is it reasonable to expect that, under conditions of forced labor, Ms. Jenny Smith will achieve career fulfillment?

Further, once this aspect of Ms. Smith’s drama is resolved, the state is yet faced with guiding her life regarding other significant human values. Multiply this dilemma by the fifty million citizens (or greater) populating a given society, and the insuperable epistemological difficulties faced by a paternalistic state become manifest.

Or, if it is assumed that the state need concern itself only with the best interest of society as a whole—rather than the fulfillment of individual citizens—how is this achieved? Under individual rights and freedom, individuals pursue their own values. But the impelling premise of paternalism is that the wise political rulers know what is best for each citizen—more ably than he/she can know for himself/herself.

If the state “guides,” that is, can coerce a person toward the end it—but not he/she—cherishes, how many members of society will be fulfilled? How many will work conscientiously, as opposed to resentfully and half-heartedly? How many will commit suicide? How is the best interest of society—a composite of millions of individuals—served by the enforced frustration of countless of those individuals?

Thus far, we have discussed only education and career. Throw in the values of friendship, romantic love, marriage, and children, and the prescription for state-dominated misery becomes irresistible.

Related: Nietzsche, in his best moments and moods, recognizes that the greatest individuals or most perfected heroes are not conquerors or kings, but creative artists and intellectual geniuses. About this, he is correct. What of such creative minds under paternalism? Are we to believe the wise rulers those most capable of identifying and nurturing such nascent talent? And what ensues if the germinating genius seeks independence from the state, as do teen-agers from parents, and dares disagree with its edicts and policies?

What occurs if he/she persists in such disagreement into adulthood, using his creative gifts to convey his message to the public? Stripped of the right to govern his/her life by application of his own intelligence, and obligated to—in all matters—accept the state’s superior wisdom, is he inevitably faced with the brutal alternative: Kowtow or die? How thick is the irony when Plato’s politics, embodied, results in the execution of a future Socrates?

Politically, this form of hero worship necessitates state worship. Ironically, in its milder form, it makes life exceedingly difficult for the great creative minds that constitute mankind’s grandest heroes; in its most virulent form, it crushes them.



The great man theory of heroism, as debated in the 19th century, is fatally flawed. Impact on society or on history is not a proper criterion of heroism; nor are many of the individuals hero-worshipped worthy of it. Heroes are “made” by neither genetic inheritance nor social conditioning nor a combination of the two; although these are impactful factors, they do not cover the waterfront; additionally, heroes choose to perform the life-enhancing feats they do, often under great duress and against social opposition; such courageous choices are part of what make them heroes. Heroes, as earlier discussed, are to be worshiped and emulated; not blindly obeyed.

Get your copy of Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters today!


[i] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, And The Heroic In History (Middlesex, England: Echo Library, 2007), p. 123.

[ii] Ibid.,  p. 123.

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, tr. M. Cowan (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1955), pp. 42-43.

[iv] Ibid., p. 201.

[v] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York: Viking, 1954), p. 129.

[vi] W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 4, “Kant and the Nineteenth Century” (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975), p. 257.

[vii] Carlyle, op. cit., p. 21.

[viii] Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), p. 34.

[ix] William James, “Great Men and their Environment” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), pp. 225-26.

[x] Ibid., pp. 234-35.

[xi] Ibid., p. 227.

[xii] Ibid., p. 230.

[xiii] Ward Fearnside and William Holther, Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959), p. 43.

[xiv] James, op. cit., p. 230.

[xv] Quoted in Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 11, “The Age of Napoleon” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), p. 773.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 235.

[xvii] W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, Volume One, “The Classical Mind” (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), pp. 68-71.

[xviii] Carlyle, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” www.efm.bris.ac.uk/het/carlyle/occasion.htm. Retrieved July 16, 2016. David Levy, How The Dismal Science Got Its Name (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), pp. xiii-xv, 3-28, 41-57, 147, 158-197, and passim. Levy, “150 years and Still Dismal!”  www.fee.org/articles/150-years-and-still-dismal/. Retrieved July 16, 2016.

[xix] Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Heroes, Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen: A History of Hero Worship (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004), p. 14.

[xx]Ibid., p. 5

Liked it? Take a second to support Andrew Bernstein on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

The Bernstein Express

Join Andy's email newsletter!

You have Successfully Subscribed!