Enter the Little Man Theory of Future History

Photograph Source: JD Hancock – CC BY 2.0

Where once there was robust, enduring debate about the so-called Great Man Theory of History – from Carlyle to Spencer to William James, with bows along the way to HegelNietzsche, and Jacob Burckhardt – today there is nary a word to such effect. More than anything, I suspect, this is due to the fact that there no longer are any readily identifiable great men (or women) among us; they have been summarily displaced by legions of little men and women, who now surround us in virtually every walk of life. This gives life to an emergent Little Man Theory that defines our present and promises to dictate our future.

Where today could we find the likes of Lincoln, Washington, MLK, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, George Marshall, Edward R. Murrow, Tecumseh, Robert Jackson, or Ralph Bunche, to name but a few, who rose to, oversaw, and took control of the great challenges of their time with unsurpassed dignity, while elevating, reassuring, and lighting the way for the rest of us? The answer is, we can’t. They’re nowhere to be found – because they no longer exist. Smallness – of mind and character – is the order of the day in our public figures.

The heroes, icons, and role models of our past were, and remain, worthy of the utmost respect and emulation because of the example they set. What we have in their place today is quite the opposite, exemplified most emphatically by a twice-impeached, four times criminally indicted former President who is the quintessential Little Man – large in physical size, but small in spiritual and intellectual stature. When the Leader of the Free World spends the lion’s share of his time tastelessly bad-mouthing and castigating others, it’s not only bad form, it’s undignified, unworthy of the office, an insult to professionalism and the conduct of statecraft.

Regrettably, this archetypal Little Man isn’t alone; he is, rather, only the most visible, loudly outspoken exemplar of the qualities that define today’s Little Men, most notable for the oppressive regularity with which they disparage, denigrate, diminish, disenfranchise, disadvantage, depress, deceive, divide, and destroy all – human or material – that comes within their ambit.

Irony of ironies, whereas leadership has traditionally been defined in terms of the followership it elicits, the little men and women of today almost universally attract followers from the masses without demonstrating an iota of legitimate leadership; they are, simply stated, anti-leaders whose words and actions are the very antithesis of the characteristics we commonly ascribe to true leaders: myopia where there should be vision; cluelessness where there should be discernment; ineptitude where there should be competence; cowardice where there should be courage; shamelessness where there should be dignity; totalistic selfishness where there should be empathy and altruism; greed and grift where there should be sacrifice. Yet cultish herds of unsuspecting, wishful-thinking, blind sheep persist in bowing to them unsuspectingly and unquestioningly.

For 19th-century Britons Carlyle and Spencer, the times they inhabited actually produced some Great Men – Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli (and, yes, Queen Victoria) among them – individuals fully capable of shaping the great events of the day. Little wonder that Carlyle would be moved to observe: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

James, straddling 19th and 20th century America, also could be said to have been surrounded by a wealth of real-world exemplars of great men – those who both shaped and were shaped by events: Lincoln and Grant; Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois; Edison, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver; Emerson, Whitman, and Twain; even Gilded Age “robber barons” like Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt (whose greatness owed to innovation, jobs, and philanthropic largesse).

Today, it takes great events to make otherwise congenitally little men great; and that just isn’t happening. This lends weight to Spencer’s contention that men are made great by their surrounding societies. There are manifold great challenges before us today that demand greatness in response. But neither pandemics, nor global warming, nor endless war, nor rampant militarism, nor catastrophic natural disasters, nor violent crime and substance abuse, nor hordes of displaced and dispossessed humans the world over have thus far seemed capable of elevating the most prominent individuals in our society to greater heights of achievement. No. Rather are they stuck in, and prefer to remain in, an infinite loop of unfettered self-absorption, self-promotion, self-interestedness, self-indulgence, and self-aggrandizement.

One could easily identify the many Little Men in our midst by name, but it would be petty, catty, and tasteless to do so, even if that would extricate us from charges of unsupported generalization.  Simply look around – most notably in the fields of politics, governance, and diplomacy, but no less in business, science, education, religion, medicine, military affairs, and the arts. Littleness is everywhere evident among those who grab the headlines, demand recognition and deference, and seek the perquisites and privileges of power by promising grandiosity in place of greatness.

If this Little Man Theory is to be acknowledged and ultimately accepted, it must measure up to the call of any theory for testable hypotheses or postulates. These postulates take form in the attributes that seem so clearly to characterize littleness:

+ Narcissism: the unadulterated admiration of self that, ultimately, is the centerpiece of, the motive force behind, the Little Man’s every word and deed.

+ Arrogance: the self-anointed superiority the Little Man considers his rightful standing over all other people and circumstances.

+ Ignorance: the preferred state of cultural, historical, and situational illiteracy the Little Man embraces as a reflection, in his mind, of the superiority of belief and assumption over knowledge.

+ Deception: lying as the norm the Little Man consistently employs to manipulate truth to his advantage.

+ Intolerance: the Little Man’s persistent rejection of difference and diversity as somehow giving the undeserving many unfair advantage over the deserving few.

+ Insensitivity: the empathy-challenged absence of feelings for others the Little Man considers appropriate testimony to his strength and their weakness.

+ Disloyalty: the Little Man’s expectation that others unconditionally give their unreciprocated allegiance to him as an expression of their intrinsic worth.

+  Ambition: the projection of narcissistic motivation by which the Little Man constantly strives, as effortlessly as possible, to get ahead, claim credentialing and privilege, and achieve status and recognition.

Little Man Theory remains mere theory, to be sure, possibly no more than an inchoate proto-theory, because it is yet hypothetical, speculative, and assumptive. It nonetheless warrants our serious attention. Social psychologist Kurt Lewin once famously said: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” It is perhaps ironic that Little Man Theory and the Theory of Evolution seem to have converged on the downside of the latter, thereby signaling that human beings are now in a state of decline that robs us of our pretention of being a superior species.

The little men and women who occupy and seek to occupy the key positions of influence and authority in our lives are society’s, if not humanity’s, hemlock. They do nothing but drag us down to their lowest common denominator level of desultory mediocrity, jealousy, mendacity, dishonesty, and entropy. They force upon us, or we force upon ourselves, division rather than unity, dissensus rather than consensus, self-loathing rather than pride, ungreatness rather than greatness. Why do the words of Woody Allen seem so resonant here: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens”?

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses are his own.