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Thomas Carlyle On Heroic Vitalism Watch

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    I've just finished reading Thomas Carlyle's "On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History". I spent four hours finishing it to the end and it has been an invaluable investment. Carlyle is an ancient voice much needed in these modern times. He was among the first men of our increasingly sceptical age to grasp the fact that history is nothing more than an account of the deeds of exceptional individuals. In this age, when academics would have us believe that vast, impersonal socio-economic forces alone are responsible for the moulding and the creation of individuals, Carlyle stands as an everlasting rebuke of the "Sceptical Dilletantism" so fashionable in his age as in ours, championing the role of the Great Man in history.

    It is hard not to be touched emotionally by Carlyle's description of the life of the great Cromwell, to read about how noble that man was, how heartfelt his feelings and utterances were, how arduous and dynamic the life of this humble gentleman turned ruler of all the British Isles was. I was slightly underwhelmed by Carlyle's words on Napoleon, but he speaks well of a great any others, perhaps most controversially, the Prophet Muhammad. Now, I always accounted myself a proud Islamophobe, yet it is hard not to admire the Prophet Muhammad, at least not when brought to life as vividly as Carlyle does in his lecture on this most notorious of the Arabs. He may be an evil man according to our liberal rationalist standard of morality, but it is difficult not to be in awe of his achievements. This illiterate merchant became a prophet and a warlord, and set alight an entire region with the flame of faith. 1 billion people in this world today continue to follow the teachings laid down by one man 14 centuries ago.

    Carlyle reminds us just how much history is shaped by the deeds and the words of great men, even fictional ones like the Norse god Odin, or his mighty son Thor, wrestler of giants. He reminds us that, even if we are to account the stories around them false, they have at least a grain of truth, and that much is to be respected and acknowledged as profound.

    I recommend this book to all those who have an interest in history or philosophy, especially those who wish to take up the subject at institutions of higher learning. It shall be your Bible, your Koran, your shield and buckler against those vile university professors who will try to indoctrinate you with their trash Marxist historiography. The doctrine of the Great Men is a doctrine for our time, and an inspiration to us to also be Great Men.
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    (Original post by Cato the Elder)
    history is nothing more than an account of the deeds of exceptional individuals.
    It isn't though, is it? If you only look at how individuals shape the world, and refuse to acknowledge how the world shaped them, you might as well argue these people were sent from god to guide us forward. There's nothing wrong with studying the significant figures of history, but to suggest they alone forged our world is patently absurd. Folk movement, economics, popular belief, famine, climate, natural disasters, disease, not to mention the inaction or misdeeds of incompetent individuals - have these not contributed to our history? The kind of history you study is entirely up to you, but dismissing other fields is just wilful ignorance.

    Open your mind. There are plenty of amazing social histories and microhistories I can recommend you, if you're willing to broaden your horizons.
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    (Original post by Captain Haddock)
    It isn't though, is it? If you only look at how individuals shape the world, and refuse to acknowledge how the world shaped them, you might as well argue these people were sent from god to guide us forward. There's nothing wrong with studying the significant figures of history, but to suggest they alone forged our world is patently absurd. Folk movement, economics, popular belief, famine, climate, natural disasters, disease, not to mention the inaction or misdeeds of incompetent individuals - have these not contributed to our history? The kind of history you study is entirely up to you, but dismissing other fields is just wilful ignorance.

    Open your mind. There are plenty of amazing social histories and microhistories I can recommend you, if you're willing to broaden your horizons.
    Social history...ew. Sounds Marxist. And boring. Unless it's about some interesting topics like the history of Christendom, rather than, say, gender roles in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    And society is shaped by individuals. Individuals may also be shaped by society, but those societies had to be shaped by exceptional individuals to be the way they were. Christendom emerged because a charismatic fanatic in the Middle East was able to gain a following which then spread far and wide, and because a Roman Emperor decided to adopt it as the religion of the empire.
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    (Original post by Cato the Elder)
    Social history...ew. Sounds Marxist. And boring. Unless it's about some interesting topics like the history of Christendom, rather than, say, gender roles in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    And society is shaped by individuals. Individuals may also be shaped by society, but those societies had to be shaped by exceptional individuals to be the way they were. Christendom emerged because a charismatic fanatic in the Middle East was able to gain a following which then spread far and wide, and because a Roman Emperor decided to adopt it as the religion of the empire.
    Well, quite. It's a symbiotic relationship. No historian in their right mind would deny the role of personalities in shaping history, but nor would they wilfully ignore the broader context in which they operated. All great men were products of their time. Christendom may have a had a 'great man' at the centre of its belief system, but it was shaped by innumerable factors.

    Social history is a huge field. It's the history of experience. I'd be very surprised if you can't find something that interests you. My favourite topic is the witch craze in Early Modern Europe precisely because of the interaction between popular experience/folk belief, and elite mentalities and institutions. For a history of a 'Not So Great Man', I'd recommend picking up a copy of Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms. It recounts the life of an Italian miller whose extraordinary views on the universe led to multiple run-ins with the Inquisition. It's considered one of the great works of history. Or, since you're into the whole anti-Christianity thing, you can hold your nose and read Christopher Hill's World Turned Upside Down, which tells the story of the many dissenting, sometimes even atheistic, religious groups that operated in England under Cromwell's rule. Whatever you do just don't close yourself off to topics like this. There's more to history than great men.

    Edit: I've got it. William Miller's Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland
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    (Original post by Captain Haddock)
    Well, quite. It's a symbiotic relationship. No historian in their right mind would deny the role of personalities in shaping history, but nor would they wilfully ignore broader context in which they operated. All great men were products of their time. Christendom may have a had a 'great man' at the centre of its belief system, but it was shaped by innumerable factors.

    Social history is a huge field. It's the history of experience. I'd be very surprised if you can't find something that interests you. My favourite topic is the witch craze in Early Modern Europe precisely because of the interaction between popular experience/folk belief, and elite mentalities and institutions. For a history of a 'Not So Great Man', I'd recommend picking up a copy of Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms. It recounts the life of an Italian miller whose extraordinary views on the universe led to multiple run-ins with the Inquisition. It's considered one of the great works of history. Or, since you're into the whole anti-Christianity thing, you can hold your nose and read Christopher Hill's World Turned Upside Down, which tells the story of the many dissenting, sometimes even atheistic, religious groups that operated in England under Cromwell's rule. Whatever you do just don't close yourself off to topics like this. There's more to history than great men.

    Edit: I've got it. William Miller's Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland
    I'm not closed off to it, I just find Great Man History much more interesting and exciting.
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    (Original post by Cato the Elder)
    The doctrine of the Great Men is a doctrine for our time, and an inspiration to us to also be Great Men.
    There is a reason Great Man history went out of fashion.

    It only explains things within a very narrow compass. You can follow the battles of medieval kings and from their respective characters see why one is successful and another a failure but that won't explain why all of them are campaigning in the same or different ways. It won't explain why armies are the size they are; why they are carrying the same or different equipment; they they are adopting the same or different tactics; why they are fighting at the same time of the year. It also won't show why the way people fight changes through time. None of those things occur because of the actions of great men.

    Moreover, great men act on a stage filled with lesser men and they both provide the opportunity for the great man but also define the sphere in which he acts, A classic great man history will show Wellington thwarted by his Spanish and Portuguese allies throughout the Peninsula War but say nothing about the motivations of those allies. The Portuguese do not get up every morning thinking how they can best thwart Wellington that day. They are pursuing their own agendas that only incidentally hamper Wellington. Great man history doesn't get to the bottom of what is going on around the great man.

    Certain types of history do and other types do not lend themselves to great man history. The history of science works well if studied through great men. Local history and the history of law does not. The former is because there is usually no more information about local great men than local little men and many decisions are the products of committees. That latter is because most developments in the law are not the product of great men.

    The history of technology has been poorly served by great men history because it tells a false story. The classic example is James Watt inventing the steam engines that had been in existence before his birth, but men like George Stephenson were the hired help, not the progenitors of the early railways. If Stephenson had never existed, somebody else would have built a railway between Liverpool and Manchester.

    You also get a false picture of the role of women. You can do great man history about women. There is no problem about doing Elizabeth I or Emmeline Pankhurst in the same way you can do Henry VIII or Gladstone. However, you can't really get at something like womens' role in WWI which is of immense importance for the history of the 20th century through great women. Mrs Pankhurst was there and played a part, but that doesn't really tell that story.
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    I'd say one of the issues with Great Man history is that it's very heavily biased. History is usually written by the victors & therefore the victor himself or their supporters/followers are very likely to bend the truth in order to been seen in a positive light.
    I don't necessarily find the social side of history all that interesting. I remember having to study the American Civil Rights movement at A2 which didn't particularly appeal to me nor having to study the social side of Nazi Germany from 1933-1939 at AS. I'm unashamedly very much into my military history and, although I appreciate an understanding of some social history is necessary in order to develop the bigger picture, I think of the social side as rather mundane in comparison.
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    (Original post by Tempest II)
    I'd say one of the issues with Great Man history is that it's very heavily biased. History is usually written by the victors & therefore the victor himself or their supporters/followers are very likely to bend the truth in order to been seen in a positive light.
    I think it's an untrue cliche to say that "History is usually written by the victors". There are plenty of losers' histories out there. They're usually a load of revisionist crap (i.e. the "Good Old Cause" histories of the Confederacy), imbued from cover-to-cover with Nietzschean slave morality.
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    "What is the Bible of a Nation, the practically credited God's-Message to a Nation? Is it not, beyond all else, the authentic Biography of its Heroic Souls? This is the real record of the Appearances of God in the History of a Nation; this, which all men to the very marrow of their bones can believe, and which teaches all men what the nature of the Universe, when you go to work in it, really is."-Thomas Carlyle
 
 
 
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