The Zeitgeist [tsahyt-gahyst] (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) is the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time. For example, the Zeitgeist of modernism typified and influenced architecture, art, and fashion during much of the 20th century. The German word ‘Zeitgeist’ is often attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel, but he never actually used the word. In his works such as ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History,’ he uses the phrase ‘der Geist seiner Zeit’ (‘the spirit of his time’)—for example, ‘no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.’

Other philosophers who were associated with such ideas include Herder and Spencer and Voltaire. The concept counters the ‘Great Man theory’ popularized by Thomas Carlyle which sees history as the result of the actions of heroes and geniuses.

The concept of Zeitgeist is reflected well in Hindu scripture, in a verse as said by Krishna, a godhead of Hindus, to Arjuna inspiring him to fight the battle of Kurukshetra, which translated into English means, ‘I am Time who wastes and destroys the people; lo, I have arisen in my might, I am here to swallow up the nations. Even without thee all they shall not be, the men of war who stand arrayed in the opposing squadrons. Therefore do thou arise and get thee great glory, conquer thy foes and enjoy a great and wealthy empire. For these, they were already slain and it is I who have slain them; be the occasion only, O Savyasachin.’

According to Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, ‘When the Zeitgeist, God in Time,’ which India calls ‘Kāla,’ ‘moves in a settled direction, then all the forces of the world are called in to swell the established current towards the purpose decreed. That which consciously helps, swells it, but that which hinders swells it still more, and like a wave on the windswept Ocean, now rising, now falling, now high on the crest of victory and increase, now down in the troughs of discouragement and defeat, the impulse from the hidden Source sweeps onward to its preordained fulfillment.’

Hegel believed that art reflected, by its very nature, the time of the culture in which it is created. Culture and art are inextricable because an individual artist is a product of his or her time and therefore brings that culture to any given work of art. Furthermore, he believed that in the modern world it was impossible to produce classical art, which he believed represented a ‘free and ethical culture,’ which depended more on the philosophy of art and theory of art, rather than a reflection of the social construct, or Zeitgeist in which a given artist lives. In the analysis of the arts and culture, the concept of a ‘spirit of the age’ or zeitgeist may be problematic as a tool for analysis of periods which are socially or culturally fragmented and diverse.

The Zeitgeist theory of leadership is often contrasted with Scottish philsopher Thomas Carlyle’s great man theory, which argues that leaders do not become leaders by fate or accident. Instead, these individuals possess characteristics of great leaders and these characteristics allow them to obtain positions of power. However, Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy disagreed with Carlyle’s perspective. Tolstoy believed that leadership, like other things, was a ‘zeitgeist’ and was a product of the social circumstances at the time. Thus, it was not the characteristics of the individual that resulted in a leadership, but societal factors of the time that are out of the individuals’ control.

The ‘Great man’ and zeitgeist theories are two of the main areas of thought in psychology. For instance, great man theory is very similar to the trait approach. Trait researchers are interested in identifying the various personality traits that underlie human behaviors such as conformity, leadership or other social behaviors. Thus, they agree that leadership is primarily a quality of an individual and that some people are pre-dispositioned to be a leader whereas others are born to follow these leaders. By contrast, situationist researchers believe that social behavior is a product of society. That is, social influence is what determines human behaviors. Therefore, situationism is of the same opinion as zeitgeist theory – leaders are created from the social environment and are molded from the situation. These two perspectives have been combined to create what is known as the ‘interactional’ approach to leadership.

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