The Great Man Theory of History as evidenced in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance

Applying the Great Man theory of History as a subtext to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay Self-Reliance makes for an interesting synthesis. The Great Man theory was brought into public discourse by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s. But most of the later commentators pointed out to some of the misassumptions and flaws in the theory. Chief among them was Herbert Spencer who viewed that great individuals were products of their culture, history and environment and the inverse is seldom true. Yet the idea of the Great Man holds an intuitive appeal to readers. As people sharing a sense of community we are all looking for leaders and role models to provide us guidance. It is this intuitive appeal for leadership that sustains the value of the Great Man Theory, although it had somewhat become unfashionable in the last century.

Great men are thought to be path-breakers and independent thinkers. (James, p.114) In Emerson’s text, we find a powerful invocation of individuality. He attacks acts of token conformity that we all display due to pressures of society. As his famous quotation from the text mocks, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”. (p.25) A man who succumbs to the habits of conformity loses the spontaneity and the open-mindedness that are the hallmarks of a man living to his full potential. It is in identification of these exceptional qualities that Emerson cites Plato, Moses and Milton among his Great Men.

Emerson’s litany of great men contains several luminaries across the span of two millennia of European civilization, including “Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton”. (p.44) But these people did not become legends through dint of birth, privilege or fortune. Most of them were vilified and ostracized during their own life times. Some of them even lost their lives for the cause they believed in. This is the uttermost expression of individuality and originality. These great men refused to bow to pressures of conformity due to the profound faith they held in their convictions. Though great men are mostly misunderstood during their own lifetimes, they grace humanity through the wisdom and legacy they leave behind. In this context, Emerson asks, “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? …every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”(p.32)

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