“Hero-worship exists, has existed, and will forever exist, universally, among mankind.” – Thomas Carlyle, ‘On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History’, 1841.
I often read history through the lens of ‘Great Men’*. The term ‘Great Men’ refers to ‘Great Man Theory’. Originating from Thomas Carlyle’s lectures on heroism in 1840, later being published as ‘On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History’ in 1841, the theory alleges that history is dictated by those men who possess a remarkable ability to inspire, lead, operate, and execute. These men often find themselves climbing the ladders of power with haste, winning decisive battles or reinvigorating policy and therefore dictating the future of their people for generations to come. Furthermore, these men are rare to come by.
Most notably, Great Men most often rise to power after periods of struggle and disdain. This is no coincidence, of course, as it is during these times when those seeking power find the cracks to reach it. Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus all rose to power sometime after periods of national crisis, and afterwards pursued a relentless set of reforms. It makes one wonder, as the United Kingdom struggles and toddles along with little direction, how long it will be before another Great Man makes our nation his own. I am not going to write yet another list of everything that is wrong in the United Kingdom in 2023, as this has become rather cliché, but it is worth saying that in such bleak and despairing times, people will seek a Great Man to worship.
Yet, if history is so full of Great Men, then where are the Great Men of today? Some present the argument that history is written and read through the lens of nostalgia, and that perhaps these Great Men of the past were not vastly different to the leaders we have today. While nostalgia will always tilt perceptions of history to some degree, it would be unfair to discredit the Great Men of history due to it. Or perhaps, the leaders of today simply do not have as much opportunity to prove their ‘greatness’. While Bonaparte, Caesar, and Augustus could ride into battle on horseback, wielding swords and witnessing stunning victories before their own eyes, the leaders of today can only really prove their greatness via oratory and data. However, this isn’t to say that a leader cannot be ‘great’ post 19th century. Winston Churchill may not have rode into battle on horseback, but he can be considered a Great Man nonetheless.
However, the greater point here is that modern democracy simply isn’t built to elect Great Men. It is impossible for the electorate to understand the character of candidates to any considerable degree if information is only presented to them via snappy slogans, 60-minute debates on Channel 4, and vague five-point policy plans. Not only do we rarely understand what it is the candidate wants to do, but we know nearly nothing about the candidates themselves. A 30-minute interview with Andrew Neil, however great of an interviewer he may be, will not accurately inform us of the deeper character of the interviewee. If one wishes to elect Great Men, you must know them personally, or at least be aware of their faults and goods to some deeper level. The modern electorate simply cannot elect Great Men, and not for a fault of their own. You could call it a factory for mediocrity.
Compare this to older processes of election, and the story is different. Richard D Brown talks of the system of election soon after the United States was birthed in his article titled ‘Where Have All the Great Men Gone?’, and says:
“The key process of nominating candidates was dominated by layers of local, state, and national elites. Candidates were selected by their peers, people who had witnessed them in action for years and who knew first-hand their strengths and weaknesses. Whatever the office in question, relatively homogeneous groups of incumbents and their associates selected candidates from among their own number. While the system was open to new men, and choices required approval at the polls, it had a distinctly oligarchic flavor. High esteem among the peer group was a prerequisite for major elective offices.”
The likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were elected because the electorate knew them. The electorate trusted them. They assumed the presidency because those voting for them could trust that they had the guts, the character, and the bottle to lead this newly born nation. Furthermore, as Brown later says, these men were elected on the basis of “private, personal virtue as a prerequisite to public virtue”, and on the basis of possessing “superior wisdom, energy, initiative, and moral stature”. One could say that this system intended to elect Great Men. Moreover, this certainly is not an advocacy for the implementation of the electoral system of the early years of the United States. Instead, it tells us that our current electoral system is flawed, and that we should seek to implement electoral systems with the potential to fight off mediocrity. Electoral systems featuring some form of meritocracy and aristocracy appear to do this best.
Moreover, it was said earlier that a modern leader cannot ride into battle on horseback. Therefore, how do we identify Great Men in the modern world? Such a man should not be judged by the endless quest for progress, nor should they be wholly judged by however much of a percent our GDP rises by each quarter. If we are to identify Great Men, we need to search for the correct metrics to find them. This requires hefty research, and it wouldn’t be proper of me to claim to know how to identify Great Men in the modern world in this short article. Yet, having the capability to identify Great Men is central to moving past mediocrity.
However, as a final point, it is worth noting that the Great Men of history often have common personality traits. We have already talked of energy and charisma, but initiative, principle, and confidence are personality traits often found, and these traits should be a starting point when attempting to identify a Great Man in the modern world. Moreover, these personality traits remain massively important. While a Great Man of today may not have access to swords, bayonets, and rifles, reform and reinvigoration remains as important as it ever has. Only a master statesman is capable of successfully reforming and reinvigorating a nation. The likes of Bonaparte, Caesar and Augustus all had the vigour to do just that, and all three understood that politics is about winning.
*Today, ‘Great Men’ are sometimes referred to as ‘Big Beasts’, and the purpose behind this is to include great female leaders under the term. While I rarely like to modernise language (and haven’t done so in the article above), I do believe it is worth writing this note here, for there have been many great female leaders of whom possessed many of the same traits as Great Men.