Skip to content

Great Men or Sons of Society?

Questioning the uniqueness of history’s leaders

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

4 min read.
Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus sermon in Athens addressed early issues in Christology.
Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515. This sermon addressed early issues in Christology.

I’ve mentioned before that my stories feature a religious element. It’s a central part of the conflict that a small, anti-mage religious sect became 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.

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.

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?

Cycles of power have occurred 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 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 regarding 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, after 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: should this villain be a “high concept” character, charismatic and revolutionary, or a “low concept” character — 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?

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

Check out one of these related posts
Members Public
📰 The Intricacies of Ivory

Explore elephant, narwhal, hippo, walrus ivory's captivating history & uses in jewelry, tools, games, & trade.

📰 The Intricacies of Ivory
Members Public
📰 On Famines: why and how they happen. To who?

Agrarian societies experience famine for a variety of reasons, including poor governance, war, and weather.

📰 On Famines: why and how they happen. To who?
Members Public
📰 Food as Currency

On the origins of agriculture, money, & currency

A basket full of dried cocoa beans being traded at a mayan market via the MidJourney AI bot.