History’s Leaders: Great Men or Sons of Society?

I’ve mentioned before that my novel features a religious element. It’s a central part of the conflict that a small, anti-mage religious sect became very powerful after a cataclysmic series of wars. I haven’t decided, though, what sort of man founded that sect and set in motion the events that led to my book. I intend that he be one of the great men of the world; influential, charismatic and driven. In the name of realism, I’d like to have some sort of historic basis to work from. Other characters, for example, are based on Spartacus (leader of a famous slave rebellion) and Arminius (who united Germany against Rome).

The history of the world is but the biography of great men. — Thomas Carlyle

Certainly, the march of history is determined by more than just the will of any one individual. But I think it is foolish to believe that anyone standing in the right time and at the right place could have capitalized on the trends behind Industrialization the way that, say, Henry Ford did — it’s not as though the knowledge necessary for assembly lines hadn’t been around for centuries.

History tells us the story of many great men. Some, like Muhammad and Buddha, founded religions, and their teachings and preachings remain with us to this day. Others, like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, united their people and conquered big chunks of the world. Often, this sort of great man takes a mediocre inheritance and turns it into something genius. John Stuart Mill was a brilliant thinker, raised in the philosophy of his father. He turned Utilitarianism from a fundamentally hedonistic practice into a normative system of ethics. Without the Apostle Paul, the teaching of Jesus would never have grown into the church as we know it today.

I’ve spoken about the intersection of religion and war before, and so I won’t belabor that point, but the lingering impact these great men had on the world — and what happened in the aftermath of their deaths — calls to mind that old chestnut: Do the times make the man, or does the man make the times?

Great Men

The Great Man theory has been adapted to different fields, notably philosophy, psychology, and history. It originated with the idea that history is directed by individuals who, due to some particular character trait like charisma or intelligence, had a decisive impact on the world. About twenty years later, the counter-theory became popular; that the actions of “great men” are a product of their society, impossible without the flow of history to build up to the situation that made them famous.

Philosophers like Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche believed it was largely the latter, but modern thinkers tend to believe that societies shape the individuals who emerge as forces within them.

My first degree was in Philosophy — my most recent training in Education. But my answer to this particular question is that of a lawyer: it depends. I don’t believe in pat answers to tough questions.

War Leaders

I’d like to note, though, that Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great have something very interesting in common. Of course they were both great men, generals who united their people and conquered great swaths of the world around them. Alexander’s Macedonian empire is the 11th largest empire in history, and Khan’s second only to Britain. The Romans, by contrast, rank a distant 24th.

Alexander the Great being Tutored by Aristotle. Both are indisputably great men in their own right.

Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who in turn tutored Alexander the Great. The Greek Philosophical tradition begins with a man put to death for his opposition to unbridled democracy, and the spread of Hellenistic ideals is kicked off by a King. Fitting, no?

Yet, both empires collapsed after their deaths, with their generals fighting for control. Could any of those generals accomplished what their predecessors had? I doubt it — or they would have been able to hold it together and continue the forward momentum. It is not timing alone that gives us a Napoleanic era or an Elizabethan age — the charisma, vision and drive of Napolean and Queen Elizabeth cannot be discounted when studying the world these great leaders impacted.

Cycles of power have occurred at at other points in history as well, but rarely is the effect of a great man’s death so obvious and instant as in the case of Alexander and Khan… even in fiction.

It seems to me that a great king who united all of the disparate tribes in the world, and then saw everything collapse into the “modern” ethnic divisions, would make an excellent historic war to base a myth cycle on for my fantasy setting. Yet, where does that leave me with regards to the anti-mage sect I mentioned above?

Religious Leaders

When we think of the great men of religion, it’s easy to fixate on the men we view as the founders of the world’s top religions: Buddha. Jesus. Abraham. Muhammad. Men everyone has heard of, even if we are not ourselves Buddhist or Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Their words are still with us hundreds, if not thousands, of years later,  impacting entire societies according to the viewpoints those men expressed.

Yet even so, I find men like Martin Luther, Joseph Smith, and St. Paul far more interesting. They took those philosophies and built something out of them. Without St. Paul, Jesus was just an influential, somewhat revolutionary rabbi who died before his time. Paul turned those teachings entirely different faith. Martin Luther took the Church and, in the wake of its inevitable bureaucratic corruption, made religion fundamentally democratic centuries before democracy became common again in the West. Joseph Smith is a more modern example, a prophet of the Mormon Church whose life gifts us with a much more well-rounded view of how society can view religious leaders who try to revolutionize a popular faith.

The infrastructure of religion is much more compelling to me than the tenants that popular leaders preach, though undoubtedly, they were greater men by the standards of history. But I’ve often been told that infrastructure is a foolish thing to build a novel around, so i’m left wondering: What sort of character is more compelling in a novel? The religious leader himself, revolutionizing the world with a brand-new thought, or the heir to an obscure philosophy tweaking it into something suited for the times? Or, phrased another way: do you think this villain should be a “high concept” character, charismatic and revolutionary, or a “low concept” characters — the heir, tweaking an existing system into brutal efficiency? Would it be better to write him as Jesus, or Paul? The Great Man, or the Rider of the Whirlwind?


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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6 Responses

  1. Dustin Fife says:

    Loved this. I’ve always enjoyed the books that capitalize on the charisma of one leader and follow said leader’s influence. (Dune and some of the subsequent books comes to mind at first).

    • Eleanor says:

      It’s surprisingly hard to capture in print what makes a charismatic leader so powerful and influential. Dune is a really great example, though. I hadn’t thought to look for example texts, that will help a lot I think.

  2. Kira Kestral says:

    It’s an interesting topic, what makes a great man. And examples abound in history. I see you mentioned Alexander the great and Gengis Khan here, but there are a myriad of other examples too — for example, Pachakuti of the Incan Empire.

    When he came to power, it wasn’t an empire, more like a large city state with a little valley, but under his reign, he conquered the majority of the other countries in the area, from Chimor to Quitu, and expanded the country to create an empire that spanned most of Western South America, a stretch of land longer than Europe. It was all the known land — to them, he’d conquered the whole world. After his death, civil war broke out as his sons fought for power for nearly a decade, destroying the country, the armies, and chipping away at the power of the empire. And then the Spanish showed up, and well, the person in power at the time was no Pachakuti, that’s for sure. >O<

    • Eleanor says:

      It’s a hard thing, I think, to be the son of someone great, particularly if you’re not quite as skilled or talented as they are. We see it sometimes in American politics; John Adams and his son, George Bush and his. But it must be infinitely worse to also be competing with your siblings for the status as someone’s “true” heir. It’s common in many fields — football springs immediately to mind, with Peyton and Eli Manning. But at least in those examples, no one has the power to really break the system: a football rivalry is hardly going to break the league!

  3. Tee says:

    This was a great read. Very well-written and insightful.
    I find Alexander the Great to be an amazing individual for his time since he didn’t just go around conquering, but conquered and then learned from other civilizations and united the people of vastly differing cultures.
    Well done. Thank you!

    • Eleanor says:

      Thank you so much, Tee! I’m glad you enjoyed the read, and I agree; leaders who encourage actual learning, instead of mere taking, from other cultures are to be lauded.

Let me know what you think!