Thomas Carlyle, the proponent of the Great Men theory of history,
famously argued that ‘the history of the world is but the biography
of great men’. Where the decisions and actions of great men (and
women) significantly affect the direction of events, then biography
becomes an essential means of historical understanding. By
understanding the personal background, cultural and intellectual
context of historical agents we can hope to gain an insight into why
things were done or not done.
Biographical approaches to history also help to personalise the
past. It is often easier to understand events if they are presented
at a personal, human scale. History is often presented in the
abstract though major economic or social factors, what TS Eliot once
described ‘as vast impersonal forces’. Biography with its concerns
with the human and small scale acts as a useful antidote to this.
All biographical accounts are subjective and in this
respect suffer from the same problems as
eyewitnesses. Events are
always relayed from the perspective of one individual and this can
skew the relative importance of this individual in the event.
Although not hagiographic (as in the life of a saint who does no
wrong) there is a tendency for biographers to admire and sympathise
with their subjects or less commonly the opposite. Writing a good
biography takes a lot of time, why spend this time on a character
you do not feel strongly about?
Biographies tend to be about influential people and can therefore
result in history that is overly focused on ‘Great Men’ or history
from ‘above’. In addition, it can tend to over-simplify complex
events into tangible, personal accounts. EH Carr once complained
that ‘we all learned this theory, so to speak, at our mother's knee;
and today we should probably recognize that there is something
childish, or at any rate childlike, about it.’