Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The Ten Most Influential People in History?

with 6 comments

I saw this question on Yahoo Answers and it got me thinking. So my post about UFOs, Chilean Miners, the American Elections, Robert Gates and gays, and the nightmare in Mexico is going to have to wait. Who are the most influential people in history is a very debatable question, and honestly my knowledge of history simply isn’t what it should be to answer it properly.  Still, I know enough to take a stab at it, so here goes.

First of all, by influential person in history, I mean people whom if they hadn’t lived, history would almost certainly be vastly different than the one we know.  For example, this means Gutenberg isn’t on my list, yes, the printing press changed history. However, if Gutenberg hadn’t invented it, someone else would have. Same goes for the Wright brothers and numerous other inventors. The second codicil is that I’m pretty much disqualifying anyone in the last few centuries simply because it’s too soon to really tell for sure. And lastly I’m leaving off ancient personages about whom our knowledge is to sketchy to be sure. Moses or Abraham for example, since they may not have actually existed and we really know very little about their eras, are not in consideration.

Number one of course is that Jesus fellow. While his contemporary influence was minor, a good case can be made that he set in motion forces that changed history in innumerable ways, and are still unfolding to this day. Mohammad, Martin Luther, and Buddha fall into the same category. Buddha may be debatable, but without him I think Christianity/Islam would have made vastly greater inroads into Asia. So that’s numbers one to four. See, this is easy!

Then there’s the classical giants so to speak. I’m going with Julius Caesar, Alexander of Macedon, and Aristotle. Caesar ended the Roman republic and ushered in an era of Roman history that lasted for a thousand years, without him Rome might very well have been a footnote in history. And the whole history of Europe and the near east would be wildly different. Alexander of Macedon (I can’t in good conscience call one of the bloodiest butchers in history “great”) was possibly the only person in history to personally start a dark age. His destruction of the Phoenician city states alone ended a thousand year period of pirate free trading in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that was just one of many civilizations Alexander destroyed. And Aristotle guided western thought (or wildly constrained it more accurately) until the Renaissance. A case can also be made for Qin Shi Huang, the man who unified China in 221 BC. There might not be a China without him.

So that’s five through eight, only two to go. So many candidates, so hard to chose. Naw, not true. Columbus is a shoe-in for number nine. While the New World would have been discovered sooner or later, the timing of his voyages changed almost everything that followed. If the New World had been discovered a hundred (arguably even a  decade) earlier or later, it’s almost a certainty we would live in a  completely different world.

That leaves the last spot, who is the tenth most influential person in history? George Washington, without whom there would likely be no USA? Ben Franklin, whose invention of the lightning rod dealt a blow to Christianity that rivals Martin Luther’s? Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, without whom the pinnacle of human adult animation would be The Flintstones? Nope. I’m going with Galileo. More than any other person, I think he is responsible for the end of Aristotelian “science” and ushering in the modern scientific era. And there’s no doubt that the modern scientific era has sent history down strange new paths.

To recap, Doug’s Darkworld’s Ten Most Influential People in history, in order of appearance:

  1. Buddha
  2. Alexander of Macedon
  3. Aristotle
  4. Qin Shi Huang
  5. Julius Caesar
  6. Jesus Christ
  7. Muhammad
  8. Christopher Columbus
  9. Martin Luther
  10. Galileo Galilei

And that’s that. What does it mean? Nothing really, since it’s all pretty subjective and depends on exactly how one is measuring “influence” on history. The fact that there are no women on the list is probably the most salient characteristic of the list. I don’t think it’s a reflection on women, it’s more a reflection on human culture in general. And not a nice reflection. The list is almost certainly weighted towards westerners, that’s where my limited knowledge of history comes into play.

Sometime this weekend I’ll post a general post on the past week’s news and events, this little side trip just struck my fancy so here it is. Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the list. I was unable to even locate the copyright holder so sadly I cannot give credit where credit is due. It’s an image of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. He’s the guy with the terracotta army. I selected him simply because he’s likely the least familiar face to my typical reader. How accurate is the likeness? Beats me, while the Chinese in so many cases invented things a thousand or more years before they were reinvented in the west, photography was not one of them.)




6 Responses

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  1. Isaac Newton, Cyrus II, Ramesses II, Plato, Socrates, Charlamagne, Charles Martel, and many others are also probable candidates. However though einstein was still alive recently, i believe he had a very considerable impact on the course of human history. and is tied with Newton for the most influential man in science.

    I’d also like to say Napoleon Bonaparte, but he marched into russia and crushed his chances there.


    October 15, 2010 at 9:48 am

  2. interesting list. One I don’t agree with is Colombus simply for the same reasons you gave for many inventors, if not for him someone else.

    My replacement for him would be Ghenghis Khan. Large empire that changed both Asia and Europe. Revolutionized warfare and commerece. Also the efficient movement of the Mongol empire may have led to the Black Plague.


    October 15, 2010 at 11:36 am

  3. I’m not sure I agree with Martin Luther; as far as I can tell, the Reformation was more or less an inevitable product of the overreach of the Catholic Church and the chafing of the German secular lords within those bonds. Had Luther not come along, the lords would have sought to break from the Catholics before long anyway. Luther probably had a strong effect on the eventual religious makeup of the Protestants; would the likelihood that had he not lived, the Protestant Reformation would have happened, but been significantly different in terms of religious doctrine, qualify him for the top ten?

    Also, what do you mean that Ben Franklin’s lightning rod dealt a blow to Christianity? I’ve never heard that said before.

    Tom Dickson-Hunt

    October 15, 2010 at 12:50 pm

  4. Yeah, I knew Columbus and Martin Luther were weak choices, I tossed this list together more as a framework for discussion than anything else.

    Before lighting rods, church steeples were regularly destroyed by lightning, bell ringers particularly had very dangerous jobs. That a piece of metal and a wire could protect against what was thought to be divine retribution really hurt the notion of an all powerful God. It was a blow to orthodox Christianity, but yes, spurred the growth of more modern liberal branches of Christianity.

    Sadly the orthodox ones have made a huge comeback in recent decades. Jesus wept. —Doug


    October 15, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    • Speaking of electricity and lightning rods, don’t forget Tesla was freakishly advanced for his time, we still use many of his designs and methods for AC transmission/use. His inventions have really changed things, I personally believe much of his tech had a lot to do with the Cold War too. Some of his stuff is still classified, a few 100 years and I bet Tesla will definitely get a spot on the list.



      October 18, 2010 at 6:46 am

  5. An interesting post, which opens up endless vistas of discussion…

    As a point of information on Julius Caesar, he didn’t “usher in an era of Roman history that lasted for a thousand years”. He died in 44BC, the (western) Roman Empire collapsed in 476AD – that’s about 500 years. Of course the empire continued in the East till 1453, but that’s certainly a new “era of Roman history” (if it qualifies as Roman history at all).

    And the Roman Empire would certainly not be a “footnote in history” without Caesar. The rise of the Caesars was actually the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, the vast majority of which was built up under the Roman republic. The only areas added to the Empire by the emperors were Britain (Claudius) and the central Balkans (Trajan). On the whole, Emperors couldn’t afford to leave Rome to lead military campaigns, and couldn’t afford any potential rivals aquiring military power either.

    But I think JC earns his place on the list, not for the reasons you give, but for taking our history into a 1700 year dead-end. As the poster child for militaristic egomaniacs down the ages, he took us towards autocracy and away from the nascent democracy emerging in Athens and Rome. It took centuries to get back on the right track.

    I’d drop Alexander. His career was spectacular but brief, and his empire collasped almost immediately. I don’t think he left much of a legacy, except to inspire a few subsequent military adventurers. I don’t believe the stuff about pirates btw – we can’t keep stretches of coast free of pirates NOW, so I don’t suppose the Phoenicians could do it.

    Buddha is out for the same reason Abraham and Moses are – not being a demonstrably real person. And Luther was just one of many chipping away at the Catholic Church at that time.

    Into those three gaps, I’d put Confucius – vastly influential on Eastern thought and actions (though well outside my area of expertise); Newton – showed us that nature was governed by a set of physical laws rather than the whims of some deity; and Richard Arkwright – who got us to work in factories instead of cottage industries, heralding the modern world.

    But ultimately, I think it’s futile to follow Carlyle and say “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Life’s not like that. People work together to achieve long-term change, and if a few catch the eye, the unseen ones are just as important. As Newton put it: “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”

    Chris Hunt

    November 3, 2010 at 7:25 am

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