ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In the 19th century, the Scottish philosopher and historian, Thomas Carlyle, who wrote about the French Revolution, came up with a theory of history: The Great Man Theory. The history of the world, he wrote, is but the biography of great men. Other philosophers and historians took issue, and the modern sense of history has been very much about economic and social forces, not heroes. But the idea that history is biography retains some of its appeal. And the memory of Nelson Mandela that we're all indulging in today brings the idea of The Great Man into the realm of discussion.
Walter Isaacson has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, and he joins us now. And, Walter Isaacson, Mandela, was he a great man, perhaps the great political figure of our times?
WALTER ISAACSON: Absolutely. And what you just said, Robert, is so interesting because if you were to argue Carlyle's case, that history and the arc of history is sort of influenced by great people, Mandela would probably be your primary example because he's somebody who, by his very existence, history would have turned out slightly differently or maybe very differently had he not been around.
SIEGEL: That the circumstances of apartheid and the stage at which South Africa had developed at that point would not necessarily have produced someone who would have made key decisions that Mandela made.
ISAACSON: We have a lot of data points. We have a lot of countries, both in Africa and around the world, in which our great leaders who can help make a transition like that and some where there aren't. Not only does he help make the transition but he becomes a leader of reconciliation. And thirdly, he steps down after one term. Nobody else in Africa has done that and the continent has been the poorer for it.
SIEGEL: There were many people who were against apartheid, and Mandela was supposed against apartheid but also very much for constitutional democratic rule. And actually, he did influence that development in South Africa.
ISAACSON: And he did with F.W. de Klerk, a moral man sitting across from de Klerk with a great respect and a great authority. And people like de Klerk said, OK, we are going to have to make this transition and we can do it in a peaceful way with a person like President Mandela.
SIEGEL: Herbert Spencer, the 19th century critic of Carlyle's, said that great men are simply products of their social development.
ISAACSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, surely, when you write history, you have to look at social development, you have to look at great cultural trends, and you have to look at people. But there are times when people come along, had they not been there, history would have been different. And I don't think you can really argue that. We can look at various places where a really great statesman or stateswoman has been there. And, by the way, we're lacking those people on the world stage now.
If you look in the Middle East, there were times when a Sadat or a, you know, Bagen(ph) or people like that could rise above what Spencer may have called a social and cultural background to do something as individuals. And history is, indeed, made by individuals.
You know, there's a wonderful line of Henry Kissinger's. Kissinger said, when I was a professor at Harvard, I thought that history was made by great social trends and cultural forces and I was taught that individuals did not make much of a difference. But now that I see history up close, I know what a difference individuals can make.
SIEGEL: Nelson Mandela, of course, has been out of government for some years now, but he remained a living presence in South Africa until this point. Does the great man typically leave behind a great residue, or when it's left to mere mortals of average stature, his legacy might be squandered all too quickly?
ISAACSON: I think that if you're trying to define a great person or a great man in history, leaving behind that residue is part of what makes greatness. Not only are you able to bend history in a certain way, but you're able to change the whole culture and the whole mindset so that the people who follow you will understand the moral force that you exerted.
SIEGEL: Walter Isaacson, thanks for talking with us today.
ISAACSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Walter Isaacson, who used to edit Time magazine, is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.