Uploaded by Rowan Heaton


Philosophy: Zeitgeist
Rowan Class 12
Since the beginning of philosophy, philosophers have been asking questions about human
nature, what makes a person the way they are? What truly makes us tick? Eventually they
started asking the question of whether a person is more greatly influenced by their environment
or by their own nature. Nature vs Nurture. Or in the case of this essay, Zeitgeist or Great Man.
The Zeitgeist theory, credited to German philosopher Georg Hegel, although the word “zeitgeist”
was never used by him, Goethe and Herder popularised the term. Zeitgeist theory suggests that
every person is influenced by their place in time and space, and none can surpass it. This
means that no one can imagine or think outside of what makes sense in their context. We
essentially have no control of how we think as we can only think thoughts that we have been
taught to think. This gives excuses to inhumane acts as the person committing the offence is “of
their time”.
In contrast to this, Thomas Carlyle, a scottish philosopher had another idea. This was the “Great
Man Theory. He believed that one or more “great men” would live during a period of time, and
that they would define how that period of time would play out. This gives us an idea that we
have some control of our fate, or at least some people do. When a “Great” person rises, people
follow them, thus a general theme, as such is set for a time period.
People have argued back and forth about these theories, Nietche, Tolstoy, Spencer and
Kierkegaard to name a few, all had their say on the subject, however none came to a generally
accepted conclusion.
Though i may change my views many times in my life, and even within the course of writing this
essay, i propose my own take on these theories:
Every person is a product of their time and place. Culture is important to spiritual well being,
whether it is family culture or national. No one can sit outside the spirit of the time, and be
“beyond their time”. No one is independent from their context and environmental influences. If
humans had developed this way we would have not survived this long, as a matter of fact if any
living thing could be “beyond” its time, it would have simply died, as it wouldn't have met it’s
environmental needs. Humans are no different. There is no possible way for a human to reach
adulthood without being influenced in some way or another.
On the flip side, despite so far agreeing with zeitgeist, I also believe that there is choice. Though
sticking with whatever the majority believe is the easiest, and sometimes most profitable path to
choose, there is always choice. Though the option to educate oneself is not always available,
there is always compassion. If you are exposed enough to an idea to have any opinion on it,
there is enough exposure to learn another perspective, thus leaving the individual to make a
choice on their own beliefs through their morals. This is the choice that is less often taken, but it
is always there. It takes more effort and thinking outside the thoughts that have already been
presented to an individual, thus making it less appealing, and rarely even considered as an
When looking at the zeitgeist and great man theories, it is important to note, that zeitgeist
applies to everyone, and the great man theory describes some individuals as exceptions to the
rule. Zeitgeist is reactionary, where people and culture just bounces off itself in reaction to
previous experience, and great man is active, describing someone actively changing the
entirety of society, as a single being.
When looking at social movements in history, it is often clearly lead by an individual or a few
different individuals in different branches of the movement, for example Martin Luther King Jr
and Malcolm X from the civil rights movement, or Greta Thunberg from the climate movement,
and even people like Alexander The Great, who took over Persia and the mediterranean, and
even invaded parts of India. These people according to the Great Man theory would be
considered “Great people”. They sparked a movement across the world, however their actions
are reactionary to the world around them. A world plagued by the enslavement of black
individuals, destruction of the natural world, and the world ruled by prowess in battle.
This implies the events during the lives of these individuals were a part of the zeitgeist theory.
Humans by nature are adverse to change. Change means uncertainty and social rifts forming
where there used to be unity, for instance between the miners in Thatcher England and the
scab workers. And new and daunting alliances forming, like that formed between the miners on
strike and the LGBT community. Change only seems to occur when it is absolutely necessary
and unavoidable. When oppression and segregation, or even new inventions come about lead
to no other option.
Today we can see the change between Millennials and Generation Z, with the invention of the
internet, millennials began to navigate this in their teen years and evolve with it, but generation z
from a young age have had access to the internet. This has affected education, as they have an
enormous amount of information about the world, both true and false at their fingertips, and this
can lead to how they view the world in later life. It is easier to find community, leading to more
acceptance, but it can also lead to hate being much more prevalent and more information about
negative things in the world being just as accessible. The internet has become a necessity and
practically unavoidable, this has led to the gen z that has developed today.
It will be interesting to see how the world developes the ideas of zeitgeist and the Great man
theories. The world is constantly changing and filled with interesting people. To sum up an
opinion on these theories, neither are correct. Human conscience can’t be put into a box with
every single person conforming to the rules. Zeitgeist may be a more powerful force, but the
great man theory certainly has its place.