26 August 2016

The Great Man Theory

Frederic Harrison, The Meaning of History (New York: Macmillan, 1900) pp. 22-23:
There is one mode in which history may be most easily, perhaps most usefully, approached. Let him who desires to find profit in it, begin by knowing something of the lives of great men. Not of those most talked about, not of names chosen at hazard; but of the real great ones who can be shown to have left their mark upon distant ages. Know their lives, not merely as interesting studies of character, or as persons seen in a drama, but as they represent and influence their age. Not for themselves only must we know them, but as the expression and types of all that is noblest around them. Let us know those whom all men cannot fail to recognise as great —the Caesars, the Charlemagnes, the Alfreds, the Cromwells, great in themselves, but greater as the centre of the efforts of thousands.

We have done much towards understanding the past when we have learned to value and to honour such men. It is almost better to know nothing of history than to know with the narrow coldness of a pedant a record which ought to fill us with emotion and reverence. Our closest friends, our earliest teachers, our parents themselves, are not more truly our benefactors than they. To them we owe what we prize most — country, freedom, peace, knowledge, art, thought, and higher sense of right and wrong. What a tale of patience, courage, sacrifice, and martyrdom is the history of human progress! It affects us as if we were reading in the diary of a parent the record of his struggles for his children. For us they toiled, endured, bled, and died; that we by their labour might have rest, by their thoughts might know, by their death might live happily. For whom did these men work, if not for us?