Home General Studies Historiography: Theory & Method

Theories of history (Random, Cyclical, Great Man, Great Mind etc.)

Share this
Jul 10, 2022 , Updated: Jul 17, 2022 · 3 min read

Theories of history are theories for why things happened the way they did (and possibly what that means for the future).

1) Random Theory

One popular idea today is that history is random - that the interaction of billions of humans and their choices with all the other natural factors in the world creates history with no perceptible flow or path.

This seems to be demonstrated by the fact that history often turns upon the smallest factors.

One lost order, and an entire battle is lost, one unwise interview, and a politician falls.

2) Cyclical Theory

Cyclical Theory is socio-philosophical concept according to which the periodicity of history is based on the repetition or recurrence of social processes.

These concepts gained considerable currency in "ancient China" and "Egypt" and in "Babylon", as well as among the classical philosophers and historians-a fact associated with society's extremely slow pace of development.

The idea of historical cyclicity was further elaborated by Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-to 15th century Arab philosopher.

3) Great Man Theory

Another idea, which was expressed most clearly in the 19th century, is that history is driven by great men, like the heroes of Greek mythology.

The history of the world is but the biography of great men", - wrote Thomas Carlyle, one of the men who formulated this theory.

The idea is that the world is changed by great men - that India would not have gained its independence without the great freedom fighters, or that "Karl Marx" changed the world forever with the creation of Marxism, and without him, it would not have happened.

4) Great Forces Theory

In opposition to this is what we can call the Great Forces Theory, that the world is not shaped by a few men, but it is changed by factors in societies as a whole.

It holds that the great men are formed and given the opportunities to succeed by the movements of the societies in which they live.

This idea suggests that the important men do not shape the forces and movements in history, but the forces and movements of history create the great men.

That Karl Marx did not change the world with the creation of Marxism, but that the movements in the world created the situation where Marxism would take hold, and Marx just happened to be the man to rise to fill the void.

The Great Forces theory takes many forms.

Some say that history is driven by economics, or technology, or the struggle for human rights, or a hundred other factors.

5) Divine Providence Theory

There is another philosophy of history, which has fallen out of favour in recent times - that history is controlled by God.

Many figures in history have held this view including "George Washington".

It is this system of history that is put forth in the Bible.

It says that at times God uses kings, whose hearts he "turneth it whithersoever he will," or he chooses "the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty."

Although men are used by God in history, he does not rely on them.

If the person you might expect to do something does not fulfil their role, than God has planned for someone else to take their place.

6) Great Mind Theory

A more sophisticated and philosophical variant of the Great God-Man line of thought is the notion that history is drawn forward or driven ahead by some ideal force in order to realise its preconceived ends.

Hegel was the foremost modern exponent of this theory that the progress of mankind consisted in the working out and consummation of an idea.

The Great Mind Theory easily slides into the notion that some set of brilliant intellects, or even one mental genius, supplies the mainspring of human advancement.

Thus some 18th century rationalists who believed that "opinion governs mankind" looked toward an enlightened monarch to introduce the necessary progressive reconstruction of the state and society.

A more widespread manifestation of this approach contrasts to the unthinking mob some upper stratum of the population as the exemplar of reason which alone can be entrusted with political leadership and power.

Read next

Ancient Indian Historiography (Sources, Tradition, Itihasa, Puranas, Charita)

Historiography: Theory & Method
Jul 18, 2022 · 12 min read

Historiography: 19th Century (Romanticism, History as Literature & French Historiography)

Historiography: Theory & Method
Jul 18, 2022 · 10 min read

Historiography: Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Voltaire, Robertson, Gibbon)

Historiography: Theory & Method
Jul 18, 2022 · 4 min read

Historiography: Renaissance (Petrarch, Biondo, Machiavelli & Guicciardini)

Historiography: Theory & Method
Jul 18, 2022 · 6 min read

Historiography: Medieval historiography (Augustine, Bede, Otto, Al-Biruni & Ibn Khaldun)

Historiography: Theory & Method
Jul 18, 2022 · 17 min read

Operations in Historiography (Preliminary, Analytical & Synthetic)

Historiography: Theory & Method
Jul 18, 2022 · 7 min read