The Role of Personality in History

Some people have asserted that history is a struggle between ingenuity and normal limits. The common and average people support the situation to which they have been accustomed while the geniuses want to replace the existing situation with a better one. Carlyle claims that history begins with the geniuses and the heroes. This theory is in fact based on two presumptions:

The first presumption is that society is devoid of nature and personality. The individuals composing society do not form a real compound. All individuals are independent of each other.

They act and react upon each other, but they do not form a compound having its own collective spirit, personality, nature and special laws. They all have their individual mentality and way of thinking. The individuals; bear the same relation to society as the trees to a forest. Social events are nothing but a total of individual events. As such society is mostly governed by the universal and general causes.

The second presumption is that individual human beings have been so created that they vastly differ from each other. Although generally speaking the human beings according to the terminology of the philosophers are rational animals, yet almost all of them lack originality and creativity. Most of them are the consumers of culture and civilization, not the producers of them. In this respect they differ from the animals only so far that the animals cannot even be the consumers of culture. The spirit of majority is that of imitation, unquestioning adoption and hero-worship.

But a very small minority of men consists of heroes, geniuses, independent thinkers of outstanding caliber, of those who have an original and creative spirit, and of those who possess a strong will. They are distinct from the majority. Had there been no scientific, philosophical, artistic, political, social, ethical and technical geniuses and heroes, humanity would not have moved a step forward and would have remained where it was in the beginning.

From our point of view both these presumptions are defective. As for the first presumption, we have, while discussing society, proved that society has its own personality, nature, laws and norms and all events take place in accordance with its established general traditions. These traditions in themselves are progressive and evolutionary.

Therefore we must set aside this presumption and then see whether, in spite of the fact that society has its personality, nature and traditions, it is possible for the personality of the individual to play any role in the march of events. We will discuss this point later. As for the second presumption, although it cannot be denied that the human beings have been so created that they differ from one another, it is not correct to say that only heroes and geniuses have creative power and all others are the consumers of culture and civilization.

In fact more or less all human beings have creative capacity, and as such all individuals or at least most of them can take part in productive and creative activities, though their share may be insignificant as compared to that of a genius.

Diametrically opposed to the theory that personalities create history, there is another theory which asserts that it is history that creates personalities. In other words, it is actually the existing social needs that create a personality.

Montesquieu has said:

"Great men and important events are the signs and the results of the longer and greater events."

Hegel said:

"Great men do not give birth to history; but act as midwives."

The great men are the symbols, not the agents. According to the thinking of those who like Durkheim believe that collective spirit is the basic thing, and that the individuals as such absolutely lack personality and they borrow their whole personality from society, the individuals including big personalities are nothing but a manifestation of the collective spirit of society. In the words of Mahmud Shabistari they are a screen of the window of collective spirit.

From the view-point of those who like Marx consider individual consciousness to be a manifestation of the collective material needs, the personalities are a mere manifestation of the material and economic needs of society.


22.See: E.H. Carr, What is History?; Will Durant, Studies in History, The Pleasures of Philosophy, pp. 291-312

23. Some animals can transmit to others what they have learnt, but only on the level of daily events, not on the level of any scientific experience. The Quran also hints at this fact when it says:

"When they (Sulayman's army) arrived in the valley of ants, one ant said to the others, 'Enter your dwellings lest you be carelessly crushed by Sulayman and his army." (Surah an-Naml, 27:18)