“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”
– or so claimed Thomas Carlyle, who also claimed that “No sadder proof can be given of a man’s littleness than his disbelief in great men.” The nineteenth century philosopher, Hegel, could not help but behold the “World Spirit” in Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who, as Hegel saw, “reaches out over the world and masters it”. Friedrich Nietzsche later claimed, like Carlyle, that “the goal of humanity lies in its greatest specimens.” What Carlyle called a ‘great man’, Nietzsche would later classify as an ‘ubermensch’.
In the twentieth century the sociologist Herbert Spencer would provide the de facto refutation of Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, succinctly summarised in his phrase, “Before he can remake society, first society must make him”. Such a thought was in fact implicit in Hegel, who, though recognising the existence of great men, saw them as the result of a myriad of historical and social factors that just so happened to result in the great man himself, through no volition or force of will of his own. For Carlyle, outside circumstances and influences meant little.
Traces of Carlyle’s idea managed to creep into Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which was inspired by Carlyle’s A History of the French Revolution, (Carlyle’s friend- and mentorship would earn him a tribute in the opening pages of Dickens’ Hard Times). When, in Two Cities, the mob outside the Bastille is finally moved to violence, Dickens uses the character of Madam Defarge to drive the action. Historically, the violence was perpetuated anonymously. By inserting Defarge, Dickens takes a historical reality and presents it through the lens of a singular ‘hero’ (however inappropriate that word seems here) who drives the fated event to its bloody conclusion. According to some critical circles, Defarge is said to be represent one of the Fates from Greek Mythology; essentially, she is one member of a cabal of entities that can influence the flow of history.
Defarge later rouses the mob to murder a French official: “give us the blood of Foulon, rend Foulon to pieces!” This has serious and long-lasting implications, and Defarge represents the bloodlust of the Revolution, with the rioting mobs merely a tool for her vengeance. Carlyle appreciated the character, calling Dickens’ novel “wonderful”. However, Dickens, though a Carlylian acolyte, never proselytized the Ecclefechan Prophet’s teachings – Defarge, though a driving force, conquers nothing, and is eventually felled by a bullet from her own gun. Still, Defarge’s actions and their consequences in the novel follow Carlyle’s theory that people of great force can direct the flow and ebb of life, and not the other way around.
Despite the character of Defarge, Carlyle himself was not one to attribute women with great qualities. Great Men are the epitome of masculinity, power and nobility. Women were simply considered to be lesser beings. But they did have their champions. In her poem Aurora Leigh, E.B. Browning stages a debate between the titular character and her cousin on the merits of women and their potential for greatness. Browning had been ruffled by Carlyle’s “praise for dumb heroic action” at the loss of finer qualities – qualities, like chivalry, that Browning argued men of her age had lost. “The world’s male chivalry has perished out, but woman are knights-errant to the last,” she wrote. Women are teachers of the world, and even if “women do not think at all, they may teach thinking.” Carlyle read Aurora Leigh, and though he admired Browning’s talent, he surmised that, “[T]his Lady ‘hath a good utterance of speech;’ but as to the thing said with it, one asks: is it a thing at all?”
Whilst Browning denied that men had any chivalry about them, Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre, didn’t deny its existence, but was clear that she found overabundant masculinity, such as that found in a Carlylian ‘great man’, to be simply uninteresting: “had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape,” says Eyre of the helpless Rochester, “[I] should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.” While women have no place by the side of Carlyle’s great men, Jane Eyre is drawn to Rochester because he needs her; Bronte understanding that a man and a woman can complement one another. Additionally, where Carlyle characterises a ‘great man’ as one who “willingly devotes his life to the divine and inner truth and shares his vision with the rest of the world,” Bronte warns that “The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted”.
Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory is almost Biblical in that it sees history as a narrative led and understood through singular figures, i.e., Moses, Noah, and Christ. This is perhaps a remnant of his religious upbringing – the hierarchical, duty-bound Calvinism and its belief in a preordained “chosen people”. Such notions were of course thrown into disarray and panic by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which contained his theory of evolution through natural selection. Great men, then, were the result of generations of biological refinement. Carlyle had bemoaned the mechanisation of labour that was occurring during the Industrial Revolution, and Darwin’s book, in Carlyle’s eyes, seemed to mechanise mankind himself whilst also extinguishing his soul and severing his connection to the Divine (and greatness) altogether. As he was with E.B. Browning, Carlyle was dismissive of Darwin. “I have no time for these gorilla damnifications of humanity,” he said. Darwin could only shrug, “As far as I could judge, I never met a man with a mind so ill-adapted for scientific research.”
Darwin stressed that mankind’s position as the most advanced species on Earth was due to the merits of our every ancestor, rather than the achievements of a few fine specimens. According to Darwin, Man did not advance through history and to the top of the organic scale “through his own exertions”; but he points out that we “may be excused for feeling some pride for having risen” in the first place. “[T]he fact of having thus risen, instead of being aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”