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Back in 1978 Michael H Hart published a book called The 100. It’s a listing of important people in history, and it’s distinguishing mark is that the criteria chosen for the ranking is “the most influential persons”.
Influence can be measured, to some extent at least, so Hart’s criteria can be objectively evaluated by his readers. Best, or greatest, or most talented, or top, lists are much more subjective: every time you see one you wonder how they could have picked half the contenders (and they wonder the same thing about your list). Influence of course shouldn’t be overrated as a selection criteria. The man who panics during a fire in a theatre is more influential in killing people by starting a rush than the man who quietly finds the nearest phone and calls the fire brigade is in saving them.
The thing I like about the criteria of influence is that it is debatable. The list isn’t by any means final, and lots have to be omitted. Many influential people are anonymous; many influential discoveries have been made collectively, or by several different people at the same time; many large groups have been influential but not acknowledged, most obviously the female sex.
In addition, how you measure influence is variable. Influence on contemporaries, on particular nations, on what we can grasp of all recorded history, on our estimate of the way future history will develop. Is depth of influence measurable? Is it more important than breadth of influence?
This uncertainty about how we measure or evaluate influence alerts us to the fact that the whole exercise is just a debate whose main aim is to get us thinking about important people, our history, and the world we live in. We can’t be too dogmatic about it, but we can at least think about it. Following is my reflection on some of Hart’s top 100.
It was controversial in 1978 to choose Muhammad as the most influential person in history. Perhaps less so now. Or the grounds of controversy would be different then to now. Hart gives top ranking to Muhammad because he excelled in two different spheres. He was one of history’s greatest generals. And the founder of one of its widest spread faiths. I’d quibble at this double ranking. Islam would have affected as many lives had not circumstance led Muhammad and his successors on a path of war and conquest, as it is an extremely attractive religion for the uncertain. It is a faith in which you find freedom through abandonment, through submission, islam. However, Islam, like Judaism in Canaan, was spread by conquest. This raises the question of whom was most responsible for Islam’s military success. Abu Bakr and Umar were also great generals succeeding Muhammad. Muhammad proved to be a very astute politician as well, and though his period of success extended only for the last two or three years of his life, it seems probable he was most responsible for the negotiations that created and consolidated his party. Muhammad was most probably responsible for most of the Koran also, one of the world’s most influential books. It only takes a slight familiarity with Islamic history though to see that many people contributed to its success, perhaps most of all the Arabic idolators who could not unite against it and the division racked empires of the Greeks and Persians whose armies could not stand against it: those who lose are just as influential as those who win. Overall I’d say Hart slightly overrates Muhammad’s achievement as he attributes all success to Muhammad and downgrades the influence of his associates and his enemies both. However I’m not going to start my own list and give Muhammad an alternative ranking.
Number two on Hart’s list is Newton, which is surprising. Surely Newton influenced only a few hundred scientists, in his own day and since, and most people now go right on living as though his discoveries had not been made. We all act as though the sun rotated around the earth, for instance, talking of sunset and sunrise, no matter what Galileo, Copernicus and Newton demonstrated. Hart’s thesis is that as a result of Newton’s discoveries, changes in technology and the way society was organised eventually changed the way people live their lives, eating different food, wearing different clothes, doing different jobs than they had done before Newton’s discoveries. This seems superficially plausible. But in fact most people today have a worse diet than in the 17th century, surfeiting on junk foods, spend their entire lives saddled with a mountain of debt and are in effect wage slaves, and are at the mercy of irresponsible politicians and other power mongers. We have a technology based health system which doesn’t work, and we can’t recover easily from natural disasters. How different is that? More influential than Newton I think would be Aristotle, who is number 14 on Hart’s list. Aristotle was at the head of a research institute which employed hundreds of scientists. Although his works have not survived, we do have what appear to be notes summarising his and his associates findings, perhaps lecture notes of Aristotle himself, or notes taken by some of his students. These summaries dominated thought in every major Western culture, Jewish, Arabic and Christian, for hundreds of years, and changed the way we think. When we talk of history, mathematics, philosophy and other subjects, we are utilising classifications that Aristotle invented. He created the way of seeing the world we still use. Even more influential than Newton and Aristotle, while we are talking of scientists, was Albert Einstein, number 10 on Hart’s list. True, his theories of relativity have influenced only a few scientists. Ordinary people can’t understand them, but many scientists think they are the greatest intellectual achievement in history. But this is not a great list but an influential one, and Einstein influenced the dropping of the atomic bomb, which has made subsequent history as uncertain as Heisenberg.
Number three on Hart’s list is Jesus, placed there (and not first) by Hart because there is some doubt as to his role as founder of Christianity, that role belonging more properly to Paul of Tarsus. I would tend to leave him off the list entirely, as there is some doubt as to his existence as well. The gospels show Jesus to have been a Jewish rabbi expounding the Judaism of his day, and a member of the sect of Pharisees, placing great emphasis on the scriptures, not Temple sacrifice. However these gospels were documents produced by gentile churches, following the doctrine of Paul of Tarsus, that Jesus was god, who had died to save mankind from the consequences of sin. This of course was blasphemy to Jews, so the picture of Jesus as a rabbi is suspect, and may be a fabrication. However there is little doubt that Christianity has influenced millions of people, and over thousands of years. Against that one has to offset the huge proportion of Christians who are merely nominal and have only the vaguest ideas of the teachings of Jesus or Paul and wouldn’t practise them if they knew more. Other influential people who may not have existed whom Hart lists are Buddha, number four, Moses, number 16, Lao Tzu, number 75 and Homer, number 94. I’d exclude them all. Here’s a listing of relative values for major religions: http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html.
Ts’Ai Lun and Gutenberg
The inventor of paper and of moveable type are numbers 7 and 8 on Hart’s list. As he justly says, ideas have been spread by these two inventions in ways that have transformed the world. In fact, in my view they are far more transforming than more recent inventions in computing and the internet. These later inventions have not led to the spread of any new ideas, merely the duplication of already existing ones, perhaps the signs of an already exhausted culture.
Christopher Colombus was influential in discovering and colonising America, and in destroying native American cultures and is number nine on Hart’s list. One wonders why Amerigo Vespucci, his contemporary and fellow Italian, who played an important part in the colonisation of South America, is not listed. Does Hart believe South America was not as influential as North America on the course of history? In any case genocide became one of man’s favourite sports from the 15th century on, with the destruction of native South American and Central American cultures, then North American, then the introduction of slavery.
Karl Marx is number 11 on Hart’s list, a sign of the age of the book. The collapse of Soviet Communism was not suspected in 1978. Marxism seems overrated in Hart’s survey, even though it has continued to develop. But in effect it has merely led to the spread of totalitarianism over a large part of the world, a phenomenon that has had nothing in the slightest to do with any theories of Marx, but is an outcome of man’s desire for power. In the same way corporate America is able to ride roughshod over Jeffersonian democracy. Lenin, though able to utilise Marx’s ideas in the political field, eventually ended up a stooge for Stalin, the totalitarian leader par excellence.
Hart’s book is an entertaining exercise that can engender a rethink of historical figures. The list itself is as significant as a crossword puzzle. One notices Hart’s bias towards scientific figures (he worked as an astrophysicist). And you have to accept a history based on personal accomplishment with a lot of qualification. Marx, for example, would not like to be on such a list, but would consider that capital had a place there. I’d question the omission of fantasy figures such as film stars and singers on Hart’s list. These probably mean more to average people than famous scientists or politicians. The influence of these later figures is indirect, and quite pervasive at times. Yet the former are part of our dreams, and are with us a very long time indeed.
Here is Hart’s top 20 of the total 100.
2. Isaac Newton
3. Jesus Christ
6. St Paul
7. Ts’ai Lun
8. Johann Gutenberg
9. Christopher Colombus
10. Albert Einstein
11. Karl Marx
12. Louis Pasteur
13. Galileo Galilei
17. Charles Darwin
18. Shih Huang Ti
19. Augustus Caesar
20. Mao Tse-tung
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.