The Great Man Theory of History says that history can be explained by the larger-than-life supermen at the helm of world events. These men aren’t only made by their times, these men make their times.
In many ways, the theory of a ‘Great Man’ at the heart of each historical era is a preposterous oversimplification but I think there’s an important truth at the heart of it: you can understand history by studying these people. After all, John D. Rockefeller is meaningless in a vacuum. Looking back, these men and their times make sense when studied as a whole. They were the focal point on which newsworthy events centered. The figureheads of mighty industries. Retrospectively, dozens of fantastic books have been written that explore these men within the context of their time and place, to the point that the two seem inseparable. Some suggestions, in roughly chronological order:
Read about Socrates to learn about ancient Greece and philosophy.
Read about Jesus Christ to learn about ancient Rome, religion and celebrity.
Read about Michel de Montaigne to learn about medieval France and to ponder what it means to live a good life.
Read about Abraham Lincoln, General William T Sherman, and “Stonewall” Jackson to learn about the intricacies of the Civil War (reading about Lincoln will also teach you something of clinical depression).
Read about Charles Darwin to learn about Victorian society and the power of ideas.
Read about Samuel Zemurray to find out about United Fruit, shipping and commerce.
Try to understand Hitler and what it means to be evil.
Read about Winston Churchill because he’s a hilarious badass and mobilized the English language for war.
Read about Robert Moses to understand why New York City is such a clusterfuck. More lastingly, you’ll learn something about the mechanics of politics and what it takes to get stuff done.
Of course, this selection suffers from a massive selection bias (“Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”) but that’s the point of the theory. The stories of the great outliers of the time describe their times. these aforementioned men are a great starting point for grasping the vagaries of Western civilization.