Among students of leadership there is a timeless debate: does man (or woman) make history or does history make the man?
A nineteenth century writer, philosopher and “prophet” by the name of Thomas Carlyle, was, famously, extreme in his position. “Universal History,” he wrote, “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”
Herbert Spencer in contrast, an English philosopher closely associated with Darwin and his theory of evolution, took strong exception to Carlyle’s view. “If dissatisfied with vagueness,” Spencer wrote, “we demand that our ideas shall be brought into focus and exactly defined, we discover the hypotheses to be utterly incoherent. If, not stopping at the explanation of social progress as due to the great man, we go back a step and ask whence comes the great man, we find that the theory breaks down completely.”
It was left to the great American philosopher, William James, to play the part of diplomat, to reconcile the extremity of Carlyle’s view with the extremity of Spencer’s. “Thus social evolution is a resultant of the interaction of two wholly distinct factors – the individual, deriving his peculiar gifts from the play of physiological and infrasocial forces, but bearing all the power of initiative and origination in his hands; and second, the social environment, with its power of adopting or rejecting both him and his gifts. Both factors are essential to change. The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”
We have no way of knowing, of course, whether in another set of circumstances Nelson Mandela would have emerged a great man. What we do know is this: that in his particular circumstance, in South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, he was among the rarest of men. He was a hero in history whose name now is forever etched in the annals of time.