The Great Man Syndrome

In our globalized age, vast impersonal forces are supposed to determine events. Globalized markets, unfettered trade, militant Islam, China’s awakening: these are the things historians and strategists usually portray as the key forces shaping our destiny. But most people don’t see things this way.

Instead, most people still instinctively look at “great men” as the agents of history, the men (and women) who seem to forge events through their political vision, personal charisma, and the force of their moral claims. By sheer force of conviction and personality, such figures, many of us believe, can carry the day, bringing a glimmer of hope to an otherwise detached and impersonal universe.

This yearning for providential men or women in our global age results from at least three factors. The first concerns the complexity and vulnerability of our world. The second, paradoxically, reflects our growing cynicism towards politics and politicians. And the third is the result of our media culture, obsessed as it is with putting a “face” to events.

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