There has always been a debate regarding whether people or events moved history. This lesson looks at the differences between personalistic theory and naturalistic theory, defines each, and provides an understanding of how they coincide.
Great Men vs. Great Movements
Drive anywhere in the United States, and you will see them.
Interstates crisscross the country, based on the brilliance of German engineers, connecting people and places along corridors that promise a speedy trip. This autobahn of the U.S. was envisioned and signed into law by Dwight David Eisenhower.
He was the 34th president of the United States and the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. Truly, he was a great man.The Great Depression was bad enough, but then the Dust Bowl happened. The Midwest and large parts of the Southwest experienced a drought and winds that lifted millions of tons of topsoil off of the ground and sent it winging toward the Mississippi River over a period of several years.
The loss of farmland sent people into even deeper poverty. It was a natural disaster that caused many to emigrate from Midwestern dirt farms to the West Coast.These two scenes from history are examples of two different theories of human historical progress.
Personalistic theory states that great men within history were either endowed by supernatural forces or had tremendous willpower, and they moved history forward. On the other hand, naturalistic theory states that it was forces of nature that caused societal change. Both are credible, but they arrive at the present very differently.
The Great Man Theory
Throughout history there have been people, whether men or women, who have a significant impact. Moses, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Joan of Arc, Hitler all had their moment in the historical sun, and the effects of their time on Earth can still be felt to some degree. These individuals are part of what has come to be known as the Great Man Theory. This theory can be divided into one of two beliefs, spiritual or personal, which determine how the individual influenced history and society.
Some think that people were endowed by a supernatural force with the ability to become great. This belief is prominent in religions and was seen as the reason people such as Moses and Joan of Arc rose to prominence. This idea crosses cultures in that many different spiritual traditions point to specific people whose exploits were fueled by a spiritual force or god.The other side of the personalistic theory coin is those who believe that great people had great personal motivation.
Whether it was Lincoln rising from ignorance and poverty due to his educational ingenuity or Alexander the Great promising himself that he would be greater than his father, Phillip, greatness can be ascribed to the individual rather than a spiritual force. This theory speaks to willpower, desire, and personal qualities.
Change Caused by the Natural World
Social history is also replete with events that caused great movements. The need for food drove people from the seat of human existence, the northeastern plains of Africa, to locations around the world. The Black Death in Europe thinned out the population and brought about changes, such as the need of sanitation services.
Both of these historical factors were due to natural forces that were beyond the control of individual people. No matter what the event, some believe that the overriding reason for social evolution in history stems from naturalistic causes.Besides natural events, naturalistic theory is also built on something called zeitgeist. This is the spirit of the time and is best explained through examples. The civil rights movement on the 1950s and 1960s or the move toward European enlightenment in the fourteenth century that ushered in what is known as the Renaissance period.
Where the Two Theories Collide
People also look at history and try to determine if it was the natural occurrence that was instrumental in producing people to deal with the change or people who caused the natural event.
Nature can cause people to react, and it can also cause certain men and women to rise to prominence. Think of the Great Depression as connected to the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, sometimes people can be seen as the primary cause of great naturalistic events. Climate change is attributed to the rise in CO2 levels caused by the expenditure of various industries. Whether an individual believes primarily in personalistic or naturalistic theories, evidence of both can be seen in history.
Personalistic theory says that people, often called ‘great men,’ were the primary motivators of discovery and change.
Naturalistic theory states that the cause of change was great natural events. An important feature of naturalistic theory is zeitgeist, which is the spirit of the times that propels men to greatness. The personalistic side led to what is termed the Great Man Theory. The great man can either be selected by a spiritual power or be motivated by personal desire. Both theories hold weight in history, and it can be seen that both could have been the cause for many of the discoveries and actions of people throughout history.