The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Do Great Men and Women Change the World?

Most of us, when we were young, were taught history as a series of events, with the names of important men and women attached. In effect, we were taught the “Great Man” theory of history, that history is the result of the actions of great individuals.

Do the great matter? Do they make a difference?

Sometimes, I think.

In some cases, a person we call great fills a role someone else would have filled, and does it no better than anyone else would have. Sometimes they fill a role someone else would have filled and perform it so well it makes a huge difference.  And sometimes they wrench history about, in a role someone else would not have filled.

Let us start with a man who filled a role someone else would have, but did it brilliantly, and it mattered.


The Revolution almost inevitably ended with a dictator. I don’t think, given the sort of revolution France had, that could have been avoided.

That it was Napoleon, one of the greatest generals in history, mattered. He didn’t have to be a great general to get the job, he had to be in the right place at the right time. A competent general could have gotten the job.

Napoleon almost never lost a battle. Other French generals lost often. That mattered. Napoleon, wherever he went, changed everything: from ending the Holy Roman Empire, to shattering various other bonds of feudalism, Napoleon changed Europe far, far beyond France. A man who lost even a few more battles than Napoleon did, wouldn’t have.

Let us take two modern great men who, I think, changed little. Start with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Someone was going to win the “social friends” space. For a while it looked like it would be MySpace, and there were contenders before Facebook. Indeed, Facebook is not dominant in every country in this space.

All Zuckerberg did was win a space someone would have won. The details are different, sure, but not enough to really matter to anyone. Having won it he has done nothing particularly different anyone else would have done in that space.

Though still worshipped as a genius, I think Bill Gates is in the same category. MS DOS (in which I was an expert) was little different from any other OS that IBM could have chosen at the time. Windows (like the Macintosh) is just Xerox Park tech, which if Gates had not been around, would have been stolen/co-opted by someone else (aka. Jobs).

Gates was very good at creating a near-monopoly for a couple decades, but other businessmen in the same situation might well have done the same thing.   Perhaps they wouldn’t have, and he made a difference. If so, that difference was negative, it seems to me.

If something is inevitable, someone will do it. The specific individual Who does it only matters if they are extraordinary. If they are just very good at what they do, well, someone else very good could have stepped up and the difference would have been minor.

I suspect this applies to a lot of earlier “Lords of Industry.” Ford, for example.

In the “inevitable” but it mattered who it was category I’d slot, say, Genghis Khan. He wasn’t the only one trying to unify the Mongols, but his degree of success rested on his own particular genius, which, oddly, was mainly that he was an extraordinary judge of ability and character in other men and women. Temujin’s generals and administrators were extraordinary, and he made loyal followers out of people he had been enemies with. Similar to Shaka (but much more succesfully since he didn’t have to face 19th century weapons), he was also able to turn his society into an extraordinarily efficient war machine.

So who came out of nowhere and changed the world? Who forged a position which wouldn’t have existed otherwise, then did something extraordinary with it?

I find it hard to think of anyone. In the intellectual sphere, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for example, came out of a specific time and place where philosophers and teachers were very highly valued because they taught people how to argue.  (Read Plato’s dialogues and tell me, for all his sneering at “sophists” he is not an amazing debater.)

Perhaps one can make a case for Newton, but Leibniz created calculus almost at the same time. Were the rest of his discoveries made much sooner than they otherwise would have been?

Or perhaps the great religious figures? Buddha, Christ, Confucius. Does a Buddha have to happen? Certainly the circumstances are there for one in the newly urbanized cities of northern India with their loss of faith in the old Vedic religion. Indeed, modern Hinduism really comes out of that period as well, for all they claim the Vedas they have little in common with that religion.

Someone would have done what Buddha did, but I think a strong argument exists that how well he did it, and how he did it matters.

So, what do my readers think? Who would you nominate as coming out of nowhere and changing the world? Who is the great one who did not fill a slot someone would have filled?

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


“Voltaire’s Bastards” by John Ralston Saul: The Death of Purpose at the Hands of Reason


Is Hypocrisy Preferrable to Honesty?


  1. V. Arnold

    Change the world?
    No, just the regions they effect.
    Einstein had a huge affect on the western world; but the Yanomami in the rainforest of South America were oblivious.
    I guess it depends on how far one wants to chase this question into the esoterics of philosophic thought/mysticism.
    I can see many corners, aka, arguments, which lead to the myriad possibilities of connections.
    There is a case to be made that everything is connected and by that reasoning, then yes, great humans can change the world; the butterfly effect…
    In fact, I do not know…

  2. Robert Dudek

    I would nominate FDR. It seems to me that no other country produced his kind of leadership in response to the crisis of capitalism. In some countries, perhaps Canada, that meant a longer more painful depression than needed; in other countries the resulting leadership took on a much nastier tone.

  3. Perhaps Marx? Lenin?

    Much depends, I think, on how broadly we define the social role a person occupies. Every individual is embedded in a society, and no one pops out at 18 and simply bends all of society to their will. Obviously, Marx fulfills the existing social role of philosopher and critic, so we could argue that someone else would have criticized capitalism; Marx just did it especially well. On the other hand, consider Napoleon: he was a very good general, but he was just a very good general: he didn’t redefine what it meant to be a general. In contrast, I think Marx was a very good philosopher and critic, but he redefined philosophy and criticism, linking these fields to political action in a novel (and, as yet, unduplicated) way.

    I could make the same argument for Lenin: yes, someone was going to overthrow the impotent Kerensky government, but Lenin redefined what it meant to be revolutionary in an entirely novel (and, alas, yet unduplicated) way.

  4. Ian Welsh

    Yes, how well in the details could set the course. The slot was open to be the great US depression leader, but FDR filled it in a different way than many others.

    And England, for example, did not get a great leader out of the depression (only out of the war).

  5. DZ

    America- World’s Policeman- Teddy Roosevelt’s order to attack the Phillipines as Assistant Secretary of Navy and subsequent Cuba fiasco- a rationale for USImperialsim? combined with progressivism- a way to get the reform movement away from foreigners and working class people in the hands of the elites- not my idea of a good but great -long lasting effects?

  6. Seas of Promethium

    Had Gates not come along it seems probable that the business-PC sector would have continued its nascent standardization on CP/M, and things would have developed similarly but with a less exclusive role for IBM in the early stages and a somewhat less monopolistic corporation (Digital Research) filling the Microsoft niche.

    A double monopoly over office and OS software likely wouldn’t have developed, which would have been all to the good.

  7. Dan Lynch

    Huey Long. Huey was practicing fiscally stimulative economics and social democracy before anyone on this side of the pond had heard of Keynes or Polanyi. True, there would have been populist movements in response to the Great Depression regardless, but few politicians could have pulled it off in one of the most backward and socially conservative states in the union.
    If not for Huey, FDR would not have won the nomination at the contested 1932 convention.
    If not for Huey, there would have been no 2nd New Deal. FDR reluctantly adopted a watered-down version of Huey\’s platform to \”steal his thunder.\”
    Henry Wallace vs. Harry Truman. As Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have documented so well in their \”Untold History,\” the fate of the nation changed course when party bosses conspired to steal the 1944 V.P. nomination from Wallace and give it to Dixiecrat Truman, instead. If Wallace had become president, the A-bomb would not have been dropped, there would have been no cold war, and the post WII prosperity would have been used to expand the New Deal social and economic policies, rather than to expand the military industrial complex. America\’s owners chose the little man rather than the great man.

  8. Ian Welsh

    As I recall, FDR preferred Wallace.

  9. nihil obstet

    FDR didn’t insist on Wallace, much to Eleanor’s distress. And since then, all of ours.

    I’d say Mohammad changed his world. His adoption of an Abrahamic religious approach and developing it into a reasonably enlightened basis for governing the societies that followed the Islamic conquests in the Middle Ages was something that might well not have happened without him.

    I find it a little weird that no one mentioned him, even after the consideration of other religious founders.

  10. markfromireland

    @ Ian:

    Someone would have done what Buddha did, but I think a strong argument exists that how well he did it, and how he did it matters.

    Who is the great one who did not fill a slot someone would have filled?

    Your argument anent Buddha is not an argument you can make about Mohammed who was sui generis.

    Perhaps you should consider the “great” as being people who create the slots that others fill. Such as for example the slots filled by the four caliphs who followed Mohammed.

    You could however make it about Gregory the Great.


  11. bruce wilder

    This idea of greatness turns on how you conceive the nature of “inevitability” in history.

    Our storytelling instinct leads us to want to tell history as tales of great heroes (and great villains). Even if we have a more than vague sense that history should be the collective doing of great numbers in the dynamic development of social systems, we don’t have easy templates of language for that, let alone many of the necessary social and economic facts. From the perspective of decades or centuries, we can barely make out the outlines of political anacyclosis and long-term trends in a history of one damn thing after another.

    I hope you will consider venturing an essay on “inevitability” and what made a dictator “inevitable” for Revolutionary France. The Ancien Régime had some debilitating problems, which a decade of revolution seemed unable to remedy by either ruthless expedience or following useful examples. And, yet, this most expedient General was able intervene politically in ways that replaced expedience with stable institutions. He resolved France’s relationship with the Catholic Church with the Concordat which lasted until 1905. He established a Banque de France under statutes that remained in effect until 1936. And, most remarkably, he moved the long stalled legal codification that bears his name. There’s a real paradox there, that someone who moved with remarkable ruthlessness to seize power for himself, could and did use that power to establish a rationalized system of law and justice.

  12. bob monaghan

    I like your concept of people who filled inevitable roles, but then resolved their issues in unique ways. I think Mahatma Gandhi is a great example of this. Someone was going to raise up to be the spokesman for Indian independence, but he fulfilled the role in a way that no one would have anticipated (or considered possible of leading to success).


  13. highrpm

    i think chomsky’s ideas of language as being a built in structure/ facility of the humanoid species sets him apart amongst his peers. and he has other powerful observations — media propagandizing a well known one — which have helped many others of lesser rational IQ formulate and crystallize their feelings of what/ where/ why/ when / how things are not quite right into sensible structured reasoning.

  14. Very interesting question. How about George Washington? A good general and a trustworthy president. What if he hadnt been around to hold the colonial army together? What if a lesser man had become our first president, and turned the office into a warmed-over monarchy, which would have been easily done?

    Another name that comes to mind is Charles Martel, the French king who raised an army to halt the Arab invasion of Europe. Maybe that invasion was going to peter out eventually, but maybe not. Plus he begot Emperor Charlemagne.

    How about Scipio Africanus, the general who picked Rome up off the mat after Hannibal KO’d its army, and ultimately defeated Carthage?

    How about Guillaume of Normandy, the minor French nobleman who conquered all of England in 1066? England was ripe for the picking, sure, but no one else picked it.

    It’s easy to say something was inevitable. But look at democracy, for instance: after it faded in Europe, you could say its reappearance was inevitable…but it took a thousand years to happen!

  15. EmilianoZ

    One thing I’ve noticed is that the Theory of Great Men is the historical equivalent of the economic principle of Winner-takes-it-all.

    In physics, the great men theory makes progress look discontinuous, a bit like quantum mechanics. Progress comes in big leaps made by great physicists. In fact, if you look more closely, the progress of physics seems much more continuous than what we’ve been told. I once read somewhere that at Cambridge, Newton had a mathematics professor who was pretty close to formulating the integral. But I cant even remember the name of that guy. Newton did say that he was merely “standing on the shoulder of giants”. Of course, those giants are not giants, they’re made of an army of innumerable ordinary men whose individualities have been forgotten.

    I’ve wondered why the great man theory was the officially accepted narrative. It could just be practical. It could be a gross but necessary simplification. History could take much too long to teach if we were to go into the details. But it also occurred to me that the reason could also be ideological. After all, in the West we’ve mainly been living in bourgeois societies that value individualism and the Winner-takes-it-all principle.

  16. Shh

    I tend to the notion that people who end up with lasting fame and legacy are, by and large, and expression of the cultural subconscious. A momentarily amusing variety of this question is: How many superbly qualified people failed to achieve greatness because they lived in a time that couldn’t appreciate their unique gifts?

    I don’t ascribe to “greatness” though. It’s a pretty silly notion really and has caused significant grief in and of itself over the long years. Most of these people were dangerously deranged and unbalanced, so what’s so great about that?

  17. Jaimie

    He hasn’t done it yet, but I feel like he may be in the process of doing it: Vinay Gupta. I feel a touch mad typing that. But it’s the way I feel.

    And I hope I’m right.

  18. shah8


    Most important dude who actually shifted history is Cortez. And it’s very easy to see how people with less talent would have done, as per some of the Portugues guys in Africa and Asia.

  19. Ian Welsh

    Some good suggestions.

    I’m not so sure about Scipio, mind, I’m not sure Carthage /could/ defeat Rome. But maybe… if Hasdrubal hadn’t been destroyed, and Hannibal had been able to get together the equipment and supplies to siege Rome.

    The problem was the general before Scipio, the delayer, who refused to go out and meet Hannibal. He fortified in tough terrain and dared Hannibal to attack, Hannibal declined.

    That said, you can’t decline if Rome is genuinely endangered.

    I think Guillame got kind of lucky, frankly. The Saxons had just defeated the Danes, and Hastings could have gone the other way fairly easily, minus Harold’s death, which was sheer luck.

    I also happen to think that the Norman conquest was mostly a bad thing. But to be great, you don’t have to do good.

    Mohammed is a good pick. Mixed feelings there, as well. A lot was destroyed in that Muslim conquest, and I am fond of Zoroastrianism, in particular. That said, high Islamic culture was high indeed, and when discussing “times to live in the past” the height of Islamic culture ranks up with the best periods in China or Rome.

  20. Francois Tremblay

    Just curious, where would you put Hitler in these categories? He was no Napoleon.

  21. bob mcmanus

    I try very hard to avoid Great Men or Individuals as causal agents in history. Instead of asking how Napoleon changed the world, I tend to ask questions like how and how much did the world change, say 1790-1820, for the bottom 70% 1st, then the next 20% petty bourgeois military non coms etc, than then finally for the top 10 5 1% Napoleon and Bismarck. And note the question is how the world changed Bismarck and his possibilities rather than the other way around.

    And the post below is about valuing reason too highly, and for history for me than means trying to pull a long way out and a deep way in before looking for anything like causality. You “discover” sufficient social cause, be that Napoleon or newspapers, as a consequence of ideology and inevitably lose sight of other pertinent facts. Saw a Christian say WW II was caused by Wilson’s adultery, and he used King David as evidence. His argument was very rational, assuming God works his will in history.

  22. bob mcmanus

    Stuff like Skin of Our Teeth, Ulysses/FW, and The River Fuefuki made me.

    Battles rage, Generals and kings come and go, ideologies are worn in season, and the family plants the rice fields twice a year for centuries until the steel plow and hybrid rice and lucky climate and new cities allows the eldest son to go to the new college. He dies in the next war, but makes a minor carburetor improvement or sends his military pay or death benefit home for a tractor

    It ain’t pessimism, but a really radical materialism doesn’t see individuals. They’re particulars, types in a class. Singularities, like Napoleon or albinos or the platypus (?), aren’t really what is interesting or useful.

  23. Compound F

    Darwin & Wallace were inevitable, I think, because they were contemporary. There was something in the air, long after Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Von Neumann, while probably of outstanding cold-cranking amperage, wasn’t in their class of contribution, amazingly.

  24. The Tragically Flip

    Da Vinci (yes, there was support for sciences at this time, but he’s called the “universal genius” and is considered “great” in so many distinct fields that it goes well beyond being a regular great early scientist or artist).

    Einstein is another obvious pick just from how original and unprecedented Relativity was. Tesla is another genius for which I don’t think we can account as merely “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    Simón Bolívar may also fit the bill. Was he “inevitable”?

  25. Another Anon

    One thing that I think is common amongst most
    “great men/women” is that they see opportunity
    where others don’t. For example, when Lenin returned
    to Russia in 1917, he was met by his colleagues and they thought
    with the czar gone, he would approve of the current situation.
    Instead, Lenin was angry that his fellow Bolsheviks were slacking
    off and not seeing that now was the the time for seizing power.
    Without Lenin there, perhaps Kerensky’s government would have
    time to become better established.

    Opportunity could also be in the strategy adopted. Nelson Mandela
    saw that making economic concessions was probably the only way to
    end Apartheid relatively peacefully. He was not the only one who saw
    that, but he had the stature and charisma to convince others.

  26. Newton – four theories of kinematic Equations (aka Principia Mathematica) and theory of UG. Partially because they were not discovered, and Newton did not bother to publish them in full form until he had made good use of them. He did invent a new name for his work, and everyone recognized for who it was instantly. Which is the greatest compliment and innovator knows.

    Hitler was a genius, just one who had another genius working against him – Turning.

  27. John von Neumann was, he got everyone to sing on the same page – the operator theory and cellular automata.

  28. Tom W Harris

    Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order. Some Dixiecrat.

  29. The set now being recognized is Gôdel, Turning, Nash. Paul Cohen, Codd and Date, K & R.

  30. The Norman conquest relied on stirrups. we do not know the genius is that got them

  31. Robert Dudek

    I nominate whoever invented agriculture. In Eurasia at least, knowledge of agriculture spread by contact, suggesting that it was far from inevitable. There might be parallel worlds in which we still haven’t developed it.

  32. Jeff Wegerson

    Great thread here Ian. Without you this thread would never have happened.

    I’m kinda with mcmanus here. Simple great stuff, sorry Sterling, like stirrups are inevitable and when they arrive someone will make use of them, so yeah like Gates right place right time. Complex great stuff, standing on shoulders great stuff, Newton and Einstein stuff, again a lot of right time right place someone is going to do it.

    As for Hitler, well the way WWI was concluded made II very likely. The German version of white racism meant someone was likely to take that ball and combine it with the mass rally and the newly invented loud speaker technology. You could argue that his astrology stuff and his personal racism and mistakes like invading Russia actually prevented a worse world wide corporate take over with a different German leader. Instead we could have had what we have now by now.

    Here’s why I lean more towards the mcmanus direction. Lets shift the focus to music. No one has yet mentioned Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Why? Because, I would argue, music so very much so obviously seems a standing on shoulders sort of thing.

  33. S Brennan

    Ptolemy I [who created the modern western world with prodigy such as Eratosthenes ];

    Einstein [who opened our eyes to the universe];

    FDR [saved the world from tyranny Hitler/Hirohito, because…he was able to domesticate* capitalism].

    *Please don’t lecture me about people who were “better” but unable to “turn the trick” fine words don’t impress, only actions matter… and yes, yes capitalism’s run feral for 40 years.

  34. Steve Gunderson

    Francois Trembla – I think a Hitler type person was inevitable given the situation in Germany after WWI.

    Hitler was important, because, unlike Napoleon, he was a terribly inept general.

    My pick for a German would have been Kaiser Wilhelm. He destroyed not only his dynasty in Germany, but also the Romanov’s in Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austrian- Hungarian Empire.

    Not only did it totally reshape Europe, it lead to the raise of Communism and the Cold War, in fact legacy of this is the direct cause of the situation in the Middle East.

  35. grayslady

    While I agree that FDR was one of the greats, some of his success was certainly due to his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. In my opinion, Eleanor turned out to be one of the great diplomats of all time, although she had some rocky moments along the way. Her success in overseeing the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demonstrated a personality unafraid to use every advantage in her arsenal to achieve her goal. She invited Declaration dissidents to “tea,” never caring that she might look like just a foolish old lady. She knew that the individual wasn’t going to refuse a social invitation from the former first lady of the U.S., and that she could take advantage of the tete-a-tete to reach a private agreement with the dissident that couldn’t be achieved in group meetings. At the same time, she never denigrated anyone, regardless of the political environment that person represented. I can’t think of many diplomats who were as successful in promoting the general good without a monetary carrot attached.

  36. DMC

    Great American hero who is almost wholly unheard of: Maj. Gen Smedley Butler, USMC. By me me there could be 20 foot bronze statues of this guy in every town square, with the motto “He saved us from Fascism”. It was Butler who single-handedly thwarted the coup against FDR that was to be staged by a cabal of reactionary industrialists. Foolishly, they had approached Butler(who was enormously popular with veterans at the time and had a spotless reputation) to be their “front man”. He played along with them and gathered evidence that resulted in a Congressional inquiry, that hushed the whole matter up, though the ringleaders got a very stern talking to. He’s also rather a hero to American anarchists and anti-militarists, both for his short book War is a Racket and his public speaking tours denouncing American military adventurism, “I was a Gangster for Uncle Sam” being a typical title.

  37. anonone


  38. Like others here, I’ve been thinking FDR and I can’t talk myself out of it.

    My second suggestion is less mainstream. How about Henry VIII?

    In petulance the Trump of his day (though far better educated), he exploded a right royal hissy-fit into the English Reformation. Pretty much at a stroke, which was his way of doing things.

    A few schismatic churchmen had a head start on him, but only a few years (apart from Hus in remote Bohemia), so Henry wasn’t riding on anyone’s coat-tails. Yet his fully equipped Anglican model was soon the world’s biggest piece of Protestantism.

    This strikes me as a one-off, even though largely accidental. What think you?

  39. Cloudshadow

    My choice would be Martin Luther. Here was a man at the top of his calling, a doctor of theology in the Catholic Church, honored professor at university, but he could not let the truth he saw go. He spoke up and lost every worldly position and had a death penalty the rest of his life. He was the right man, being a doctor in the church was not required to swear allegiance to the pope, at the right time for the Germanic people were ready to break from Rome. The reformation happened and the fire spread through Europe by the spark of Luther.
    Just try to imagine the world today if Rome would have stayed in control. Yes the enlightenment may have happened and other events but they would have been much further down the road of history.
    Galileo found out what science in a catholic country was like.

  40. DMC

    Note the two fellows who invented Humanism: St. Thomas More and Erasmus (a Catholic priest). The role of the Reformation, though important for breaking the spiritual monopoly of Rome, has been much overblown in the history of the Enlightenment. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox were selling the same old zombie-worshipping death cult as the pope, just with some ammendments to appeal to a more contemporary audience(like divorce and not sending the pope a bunch of money every year).

  41. I understand you are a DOS guy, Ian, so you tend to focus on Gates, but seriously, it is impossible to imagine the personal computer without mentioning Jobs. When Jobs died, people around the world rushed out to create these little shrines. They will not do that for Bill Gates. So the question is why?

    I think the reason is quite obvious. Gates always thought of the computer as a machine, a tool. Jobs thought a computer should be a buddy, a helper, a companion. Jobs thought a computer should be on your side. It should be ridiculously easy to operate. It should be reliable. It should make your work look better. It should be artful. And all the while, it should be beautiful. The DOS world looks at the Apple world and shakes its head. Apples are overpriced. They are SLOWER. They have far fewer options. All of which is important for gaming and accounting. But if you want to compose music or make videos, or create a newsletter, you have already devoted a bunch of energy to your art. You don’t have time or energy to tinker with a computer. So for making a computer for the “liberal arts” crowd, Jobs changed the computing world in ways not even the folks at Fairchild or Intel or even Xerox could begin to imagine.

    And yes, it will always be the artists who build shrines to creative genius. Some of the shrines to Jobs were amazingly ingenious and beautiful. It matters.

  42. @cloudshadow

    Luther is a superb choice. There are ZERO countries that have higher living standards, honest politics, educational performance, etc. than the historic Lutheran countries (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland). Luther insisted on cultural things like universal literacy. He brought highly intellectual music into the church—just remember, for a good Lutheran, Bach is supposed to be sung by CHILDREN (See St. Matthew Passion). He insisted his clergy be family men—hard to imagine the Nordic countries without their Lutheran preacher’s kids. And in the end, it matters very little what someone’s theology is if it does not lead to just societies.

  43. Ian Welsh

    People worshipped and loved all sorts of people. I started on an Apple 2+, I currently own a Mac Air, I had 3 iPods.

    I actually think Jobs added quite a bit of value, for various reasons. I’m not sure he makes it into slot 3, however. Better case than for Gates, which is why I used Gates as my example.

  44. V. Arnold

    Rosa Parks certainly made a difference.

  45. anonone

    Interesting that most here have chosen political, religious, or military figures. I would argue that it is great artists – those who created something unique and unprecedented – that changed the world. They did not fill a role that somebody else could fill or use power in a way that somebody else could have.

    Instead, they created something that nobody else could have because nobody else could be them. Their contribution was not because of what power they had or title or role they played or scientific discovery they made. They were great because of who they were as creative human beings, and how they used their artistic genius to create something unprecedented in their field.

    These are people who continue to have their works performed, displayed, emulated, copied, and admired to this very day, in many cases centuries after they lived. They continue to be highly influential, both within their own artistic spheres as well as on human culture as a whole. Their impact transcends time, politics, borders, religion, and science.

  46. S Brennan

    “…most here have chosen political, religious, or military figures. I would argue that it is great artists those who created something unique and unprecedented” – anonone

    Ptolemy I was indeed Alexander The Great’s general and closest friend outside of Alexander’s lover Hephaestion, but he also created the first and largest public international research library/University; it was unique, unprecedented, the list of human accomplishments that fall out of publicly accessible universities is indeed “unprecedented”

    Einstein’s theories were unique, unprecedented and predicted UNOBSERVED/UNKNOWN phenomenon; unlike all that came before, almost all satellites today have to take into account relativity in order to provide high resolution output, be it navigational, GIS, weather et al.

    FDR, falls into your depreciating characterization, but to say “art” is the key human development puts the cart before the horse, only societies that produce an abundance through either nature’s bounty or human endeavor produce much art. Indeed, much of what is today considered art, are in fact, well made artifacts of artisans engaged in commercial activity. Michelangelo, arguably the world’s greatest artist was also an architect and engineer. Art is indeed important, but to state that those who’s creativity finds finds expression in other endeavors lacks “uniqueness and is therefore predictable” is little more than personal hubris.

  47. Ian Welsh

    Rosa Parks was very carefully chosen by a movement, and the actual episode was planned in advance. If it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone else, though perhaps they would not have been as good as her.

  48. anonone

    @S Brennan:

    My comments were not intended to be “depreciating” in any way; I am surprised you interpreted them that way.

    Certainly there are brilliant and unprecedented acts in all the realms of human endeavors. But, as Ian writes:

    “In some cases, a person we call great fills a role someone else would have filled, and does it no better than anyone else would have. Sometimes they fill a role someone else would have filled and perform it so well it makes a huge difference. And sometimes they wrench history about, in a role someone else would not have filled.”

    Great creative artists – not artisans or craftsmen or stylists or imitators or even virtuosos – have changed the world because they created something new that only they could create. They wrenched history about in a way that nobody else could have filled.

    So my answer to Ian’s question, “Do Great Men and Women Change the World?” is yes – but it isn’t just or only political, religious, scientific, or military figures – great artists like Shakespeare, Bach, Di Vinci, Van Gogh, Chopin, and Stradivarius also changed the world and how we, as human beings, see it.

  49. S Brennan


    I’m pretty sure that you are claiming the persons presented above your comment to be interchangeable when you say:

    “They [artists] did not fill a role that somebody else could fill or use power in a way that somebody else could have.”

    After prefacing the interchangeable statement with:

    “I would argue that it is great artists – those who created something unique and unprecedented – that changed the world.”

    Now, in some cases the people are interchangeable, as Ian states, even though they contribute something unique at the time, but your wholesale dismissal is very different from Ian’s point.

  50. Thomas Midgley, Jr. ?

  51. different clue

    What is the opposite of inevitable? Evitable? Perhaps a “great person” who changed history by his/her actions is one who had a choice at a very particular choice-point, a choice which could have been made either way, and the way chosen led to the world we have and the other way . . . not chosen . . . would have led to a different world. Or at least a part of the world.

    So given all that, I would suggest the Fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet ( the so-called Great Fifth, whose name I don’t know). I read somewhere that the ruler of the most organized part of Mongolia at the time approached the Great Fifth with the following offer: that Mongolia and Tibet join forces and conquer all of Inner Asia for Lamaistic Buddhism. Had the Great Fifth agreed, all of Inner Asia (at the very least) would have become a Killer Lama Buddhist Empire, and all the Inner Asian countries which are Muslim today ( the ex-Soviet Ickystans and perhaps others) might well be parts of a great Lamaistic Killer-Buddhist Civilization even today.

    But it was not to be. The Great Fifth declined the Mongol ruler’s offer and great swathes of Inner Asia are Muslim today. And the Tibetan Buddhist clergy spent the following centuries developing the science and practice of Deep Mind. A Killer Buddhist empire might never have bothered to do that.

  52. Larry Y

    Claude Shannon. Sped up the telecom and computing by decades. Most brilliant American.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén