"The history of the world is but the biography of great men"—so the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) summarized the impact of figures like Alexander the Great. How would you...
"The history of the world is but the biography of great men"—so the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) summarized the impact of figures like Alexander the Great. How would you construct an argument in support of this proposition? How would you refute it?
First, we might note that a more accurate statement would be "history is a collection of narratives we tell about the past." Biographies of great men are among the narratives with the most enduring appeal. In Carlyle's time, schoolchildren were raised reading Plutarch's Lives, Suetonius, Arrian's Life of Alexander, and other accounts of great personalities. These stories are stirring and entertaining and often what we remember even years after reading them. Even decades after leaving school, many people still enjoy dipping into new biographies of favorite historical characters such as Napoleon, Lincoln, or Queen Elizabeth I.
Although the lives of important people are one group of significant stories about our past, they are not the only stories we can tell. Stories can be composed from many different perspectives with many different protagonists. Most readers, for example, are not "great," and half of all possible readers aren't men. Many of us are curious about how people like ourselves might have lived and thus interested in the stories of Victorian governesses, African-American slaves, or ancient craftspeople rather than just the stories of the powerful and famous.
Moreover, the advances of archaeology and development of technologies facilitating archival research have led to new ways of understanding the past. Archaeologists can analyze soils and seeds found at dig sites to build up a picture of how agriculture evolved or papyrologists can use scraps of ancient writing to understand the legal systems of Graeco-Roman Egypt. These too give us important perspectives on the past that cannot be found if we read exclusives about the lives of great men.