Great men
by Chetan Parikh
  
 Mail this article to a friend
Previous Back  

In a classic book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on mass psychology.

 

“It is correct to say that great men do not make history. On the other hand, neither is it made without them. In mass psychology, they are the yeast, the active and creative fermentation agent, and the masses are the dough, the matter within which they operate. Mankind, Freud maintained, needs heroes, and just as the hero who remains faithful to his mission raises the whole level of human life, so the hero who betrays it lowers that level. This statement goes beyond the available historical and sociological data, and so far beyond the data and opinions we all share that it seems like a challenge to good sense. Contemporary theory has entirely abandoned the idea that great men playa part in the fate of peoples and are worthy of attention. In the last analysis the most important thing in its view is the action of the masses and events. History takes an irresistible course, and those who wish to ascribe its merits and responsibilities to a certain number of men are making a major mistake.

 

What we therefore need to know is the position of mass psychology on such matters. It fully recognises that external and objective factors such as technological progress, economic conditions and soaring population figures determine how human societies develop, but also sees internal human and subjective ones, and hence outstanding individuals, as playing a part. Such men are not simply minor actors in the drama of history. For most people, they are its heroes. The theory of the ‘great man’ in history can be rejected, but it has to be admitted that mankind as a whole has accepted it and continues to do so. The desire to believe in an inspired leader, an exceptional man capable of setting the course of events to rights, someone the crowd can tranquilly obey, is a well-attested phenomenon in ancient and modern societies. The basic desire to believe in him and his extraordinary gifts has had and very likely still has a considerable effect on social life. It is, of course, not the only factor to induce change and always goes hand in hand with general and impersonal ones. ‘There is room in principle for both. . . . Thus we reserve a place for “great men” in the chain, or rather the network, of causes’ (Freud: XXIII, 108).

 

That is how crowd psychology sees things. We could sum up that view in one sentence. The great man is the father of history, and the mass its mother. No doubt the description only applies to a handful of individuals in the very highest positions and acting at a universal level, a Napoleon, a Caesar, a de Gaulle, a Roosevelt, a Mao or a Mahomet, for example - but it is valid for others too. Every nation, tribe and village has its great men, its ‘big fellahs’ as the Africans say. They have shaped it, given it a matter by bringing individuals and groups together and a form by enduringly impressing their own character and destiny on it. There is no people without its Pantheon, and none with an empty one. Even if the village Hampdens are not mentioned in the annals of world history, local chronicles remember their names and recall them with veneration. There are associations to keep their memory alive and scholars to write their biographies. Statues and plaques at street corners or on the houses they were born in celebrate their memory and express the admiration of their community.

 

All these phenomena are an indication that great men of varying degrees of brilliance are a group apart. What they have in common is the fact that they have fashioned the culture they come from and have endowed it with a focus and a super-ego.

 

It can be said that the great man is precisely the authority for whose sake the achievement is carried out; and, since the great man himself operates by virtue of his similarity to the father, there is no need to feel surprise if in group psychology, the role of the super-ego falls to him. So that this would apply too to the man Moses in the relation with the Jewish people. (Freud: XXIII, 117)

 

Or at least as far as our own culture is concerned. That is why it is so important, if we are to understand men of that kind, to be aware of how he developed, shaped the character of his people for thousands of years and became great for their sake. But we must not aim too high. In such cases, scientific knowledge can give us a fragment of the truth, but it entails neither the necessity nor the possibility of a total one.”