Union hold ‘Great Man Theory of History’ debate

In second week, the Union held one of its most anticipated debates of term, “This House Regrets the Great Man Theory of History”. The speakers that made up the debate were titans of academia, all remarkable historians in their own right. On the Proposition: Professor Sir Richard Evans, British historian of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Ken Follett CBE, author of thrillers and historical novels. On the Opposition we had the controversial Tudor historian Dr David Starkey CBE, Andrew Gimson, biographer of Boris Johnson, and the prominent military historian Anthony Beevor. Tom Elliot, Secretary of the Union, spoke in proposition alongside Abigail Bacon, Chief of Staff of the Union, and Darrian Griffith, Union Director of Research, spoke in opposition.

President Charlie Mackintosh put the motion before the House, saying he was “very excited” for this debate. An audience member started to illegally record proceedings but was quickly asked to stop. Mackintosh then made the house aware of the Varsity debate coming up, where Oxford would face up against Durham, Cambridge, and Trinity College Dublin. 

Abigail Bacon opened for the proposition (Chief of Staff, Brasenose)

Bacon thanked the President for hosting this debate and began by addressing the importance that the “great man” theory has had on history. She argued that science has advanced far quicker than history because it lets “old ideas die”. Bracon spoke of how the founder of “great man” theory, Thomas Carlyle, was a mythmaker and not an historian. History should “stem from Ranke [the founder of modern source-based history] not him,” she exclaimed. She finished her speech by arguing “economic and cultural circumstances influence history more than individual actions; the great man theory hangs across historiography like an albatross”. She urged members to vote with the proposition.

Darian Griffith opened for the opposition (Union Director of Research, Christ Church)

Griffith thanked the President for giving him the privilege to speak for the first time at a Union debate. Griffith spoke of how the Union’s debating chamber is “modelled on the House of Commons, titans of the past look down upon us, Churchill, Gladstone, Helssetine; can we ever reject this theory?”. Darian then spoke of the criticisms of great man theory. “Some may say this is a masculine theory, this does have validity, but it doesn’t make a strong case to reject”. Darian addressed the strengths of the great man theory “the lessons we can learn from great individuals, Mary Seacole, Napoleon, the actions of these individuals provides a light for people today to see how we reached the present”. “History cannot be simply reduced to a single myopic perspective, the great man theory is a simplification of reality. If we reduce history to faceless theories, then what room do we leave for ourselves? We all have the ability to be great people even if we end up footnotes in history books. We may one day pause and look back to the annals of the past and listen and learn”. Darian urged the house to vote against.

Ken Follett CBE continued for the proposition

Follett opened by stating “if history changes there is nothing to say”. He focused on what causes historical change. He brought a Stone Age era tool to the debate to demonstrate how after thousands of years via the innovation of so many people, we have gone from this tool to the chainsaw. He spoke of his bestselling book “Pillars of the Earth” , a book about the building of cathedrals, demonstrating thousands of people rather than one great man building something big. Follett then moved on to Waterloo, exclaiming that “to most, Waterloo is about two great men, Napoleon and Wellington, but shouldn’t it be about the unknown British diplomats who convinced the Prussians to send an army to support Wellington, that won him the battle?” He urged the house to vote with the Proposition.

Professor Richard Evans continued for the proposition

Professor Evans thanked the President for being invited. He began by saying “individuals do matter in history, but what we are saying is history cannot just be understood by great men”. Evans poignantly spoke of how Thomas Carlyle, the founder of the great man theory, is seen as one of the precursors of Fascism. “The experience of the twentieth century has taught us that the greatness of some men is negative, Hitler came from nowhere and shaped history; it wasn’t by his talents alone that he became Chancellor. The Wall Street Crash happened and the growing threat of communism and political chaos and international humiliation. The elite put him in power and believed they could control him. Hitler was launched from them and the weakness of the Western powers propelled him. What about Churchill? A great man or a study in failure? A cult of the great man can lead to disaster, especially politicians”. Professor Evans finished by stating “I’m not saying individuals don’t have no impact on history, history in the end is far too large and diverse to be looked at through one approach. The great man theory doesn’t explain history.” He begged the house to support the motion.


“individuals do matter in history, but what we are saying is history cannot just be understood by great men”

Dr David Starkey continued for the opposition

Dr Starkey opened by being delighted by the “contradiction” of the side opposite. He joked at how his dear friend Richard had garnered a compromise “individuals make history important but are shaped by events”. Starkey spoke of how Thomas Carlyle “was a figure who believed in greatness in an era confronted by greatness”. Starkey argued “people support ideas because of the language used to make them believe those ideas and only an individual can do that”. Starkey discussed the Carlyle meaning of biography. “You begin with tradition, circumstance and family, you are a creation of circumstance”. Starkey used the example of Henry VIII seizing the moment to begin the English Reformation and Zelensky seizing the moment in Ukraine, going from clown to hero. Starkey urged the house to vote against the motion.

Tom Elliot closes for the proposition

Elliot opened by saying “it has fallen to our side to convince you the history of the world isn’t the biography of great men, therefore the burden of proof has fallen on the opposition to prove to you the Thomas Carlyle theory”. Tom spoke of the theory’s outdated nature and how “Marx and Hegel are more reliable in their theories of history”. Tom exclaimed that “history cannot have simply been shaped by great men” and how “the great man theory is either too exclusive or too broad”. “Great men shouldn’t have a monopoly on history, and I urge the chamber to vote in proposition of the motion.”

Anthony Beevor closes for the opposition

Beevor opened by stating “war is God’s way of teaching the disaster of human history. Big beasts of history have often led our nations into disastrous conflicts with their own egos playing a part”. “We may instinctively dislike the great man theory of history, but this doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. The key question about the theory is can one person change history, and they simply can”. Beevor used Genghis Khan as an example and about “how many Asians would have lived a lot longer if not for him”. Beevor finished by stating “great man theory is still alive in the great dictators today of Putin and Xi Xinping” and then saying “the great man theory isn’t positive but it’s alive and well today and should not be rejected.”

The proposition won by a margin of 232 to 165. 


Image description: inside the Union chamber

Image credit:  NATO