Great Persons of History

Introductory Thoughts

Alexander's importance cannot be compared with Plato's. Both had enormous impact over the centuries, but in entirely different ways and it is best to consider separate categories. My list is based, of course, on my subjective appreciation, limited knowledge and a rather arbitrary cut-off; it is not necessarily what experts in their fields might select as the top names. The absence of a name in the list reflects more likely my ignorance or bias, and must not be taken as an absolute value judgment. On the other hand, I am listing these persons with deepest gratitude and admiration in my heart for their tremendous efforts, courage, example, and lasting achievement.

I believe, the judgment of greatness must take into consideration the person's lasting effect on the human community. While Napoleon clearly deserves to be held a great man, Attila, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pots, and similar personalities cannot by any measure be included. They have left behind only suffering and bottomless hate without making contributions to offset their immense guilt for the horrific human misery. On the other hand, the overall effect of their actions, because they "were not the right thing" to do, is surprisingly quickly wiped out in the realities of the chaotic events of human history - as I believe history shows, in less than one century. Lenin's creation, the Soviet Union, disintegrated after 74 years (1917 -1991). Hitler's "Reich " that he intended to last one millennium, was destroyed after twelve years (1933-1945). However, the work of the truly great people does persist for millennia because it is not grounded in delusions but is in conformance with reality.

As we know, the importance of mere individuals for human progress is being denied by some circles with the reasoning that it is the circumstances that bring about the changes, and individuals are just executors of a development that is in the air. My long and various experience leads me to believe that this is a very wrong idea. It is undeniable that the circumstances exert an enormous influence and it is also clear that great persons appear when they are most urgently needed. While this reasoning is applicable for political developments and war, it still neglects the role of personal initiative and responsibility. It is a one sided view that leaves out the most important component, personal motivation. How could we ignore this, if all of us experience the sometimes overpowering desire to rest and do nothing? There has been no pressure to generate the need for great poems, great music, beautiful art, great thought, understanding of nature. Perhaps it is best to distinguish more clearly the motivations for a higher culture of man from the material exigencies with their urgent pressures, and to say that in those areas where no pressing need has been the motivation, the individual accomplishment is greater because the motivation has been more noble. But beyond all this, personal courage, initiative and energy are traits and a virtue which is not appreciated among the believers in equalitarianism.

In this regard, I must mention the noted work of K. R. Popper (1945), The Open Society and its Enemies. (Routledge & Kegan). Popper is one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century, but my central point of disagreement is that he is mistaken in putting down the importance and role of leadership. This is likely due to Popper's background and the fact that his life was only spent in quiet academic environments and never in an executive role, or as leader of men in war. This way, he could afford leaning toward equalitarianism. Nobody who has absorbed Ortega's great work The Revolt of the Masses, or who has an extensive life experience should have doubts about the decisive importance of superior people to lead their fellow beings. Voltaire and Bertrand Russell take the same position. Still, the critical benefits of good leadership will be doubted again and again by all those who have never seen a great leader in action even though, it should be obvious.

It is ironic that we can summon even the noted Italian Antonio Gramsci as a witness in support of the crucial importance of leadership. In his The Modern Prince, Notes on Machiavelli’s Politics, G deals with the problem of building a capable political party, the Italian Communist Party, and he discusses the crucial importance of the Generals of an Army. It is, he writes, easier to create an army than to create generals. While an army is destroyed if the generals disappear, a group of competent generals without an army will not be slow to form an army where none exists! The great importance of leadership is so obvious (except for equalitarians) that we only need to point at a few towering examples: of Churchill as leader and savior of liberal democracy in Europe; or Gerstner as a successful top executive in the commercial world who saved his company IBM from collapse. Great leaders of the recent past with a well known decisive effect are Adenauer, DeGaulle, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Without Mandela's admirable strength of character it is very likely that a bloody upheaval in South Africa would have been unavoidable, instead of a peaceful transition. Similar critical contributions have been made by each of the above mentioned examples, all outstanding in their character. Of course, Popper is not alone in his opinion, because equalitarianism must hold that leaders are like other people and in no way more important. But this is just one more wrong idea that is promoted by this doctrine. It weakens leadership and it leads to a low expectancy that the people have of their leaders which reduces the benefits that we need to derive from them. For additional aspects see the noted work by Huxley, Brave New World Revisited.

My observation of leaders in various kinds of action (over more than 70 years) has convinced me of another point that has been ignored or insufficiently covered in discussions: The real superiority of a very few gifted individuals who can see more clearly the situation and the various arguments, compared with the reigning confusion (McNamara's fog of war) during critical situations. Without doubt, the great majority of leaders lead with success more because of their energy and firmness of character than because of superior vision. (I ignore here the pseudo leaders whose only talent has been their charisma while otherwise they have been disasters).  But among the great leaders, quite a few have shown a vision that bordered on divination. This allowed them to anticipate their adversaries or coming developments.  Or, among the intellectual leaders, those gifted few who have shown an insight that was penetrating the general confusion and allowed them to teach their associates and followers how to solve the problem, even if the followers failed later to have a similar insight. For this reason, I think great persons have been of crucial importance for the advance of the human race.

An important point is made by Paul Fussell in his moving self-biography in which he recounts his life as an American Infantry Lieutenant in the battles of WWII against the Germans in France (Doing Battle : The Making of a Skeptic). The crushing experience of battle in which he was wounded and almost lost his life, in major part due to insufficient training and poor leadership, caused him to mistrust forever all authority. The book ought to be read by all who talk loosely about war, but have no valid idea about how terrible it is. But Fussell stops short with his conclusion. To be a skeptic is not enough. We do need capable leadership, the best we can get because chaotic anarchy is worse. These experiences only strengthen the argument that leaders must be selected with utmost care, be trained, and be held accountable.

Regarding these leaders of the public and of armies, it is important to consider the virtues and capacities that are needed to develop for being able to play the role of the rare ideal type of leader, the classical hero. Heroes in the ancient legends usually belonged to a princely class, hat a special education, and they transcended ordinary men in strength and courage. They excelled in war and dangerous adventures. The ideal hero is magnanimous and is a man of action, but noble action, rather than thought. His important characteristic is that he lives by a personal code of honor with predictable responses (Eugene E. Jennings (1960), An Anatomy of Leadership).  The very opposite of the genuine leader is the pseudo leader who gains great influence by his charm or charisma, but other than words, has really nothing to say. He has a disastrous effect unless he can be unmasked in time.  Of course, if a real leader has charisma, this will give him extraordinary power.  Alexander the Great is an example.

Thomas Carlyle’s classical work (1840), On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, is famous, if somewhat exotic because C in his spirited, lofty, and nearly Miltonic tone includes even the old Norse mythical figures. Anyway, it is best to overlook such details and concentrate on the unique value of his work. He paid tribute to the decisive influence of the great person in history (history has great women, too!). C’s world view differs radically from the views today, many of which are extremist equalitarian aberrations and, therefore, reading Carlyle is a useful corrective experience: The one thing needful for a man is to be brave and his first duty is still that of subduing his fear. We cannot act, and we cannot lead until we can get rid of fear. Until we do, our acts are not true, our very thoughts are coward and false. The root of the hero's strength is the unshakable self-confidence that he gained in the successful execution of great deeds. He is the ideal opposite of an ineffective timid chief in a bureaucracy. As far as this hero concept is realistic, it suggests an important and neglected factor for today's executive selection and preparation.

Many people think mistakenly that every executive is necessarily a "power" type. Moreover, "power" has become a catchword with a wrong meaning. Naturally, no program can be executed if the leader can be deposed at the next opportunity. For this reason and in this sense, every competent executive and leader must be power conscious. The important question is whether this concern is his primary motivation, or a tool in the service of a mission which goes beyond the power aspect. One has to be honest and critical in making this completely clear in his own mind. The destructive effects of the behavior of the "power" type who has no ulterior motives are not all obvious. The difference in motivation causes vastly different priorities, and this is why we must be concerned about these types. The power type tends to focus on short-term goals: he needs quick results because his standing is not influenced by an uncertain future. Beyond this, his influence distorts, even poisons, the interpersonal relations between his associates. And finally, with his excessive concern about his own standing, he is unable to be objective which will prevent his organization to find the objectively best approach.

Many of the greatest advances of the human species are due to unknown authors. We do not know the inventor of the wheel (ca 4000 BC ?) who has caused the greatest advance of man. But, although it is possible that the wheel would have been invented sometimes anyway, it was unknown in America, even in highly developed civilizations such as the Inca, and that must mean that this invention is much more unique and a much greater accomplishment than we might think. I mention in essay #1 the problem of overcoming the error of Aristotle regarding inertia - that it took almost 2 millennia, for thousands of thinkers until they could see it finally with Galileo the right way. What I am trying to express here is that the individual mental capacity for real advance is much more limited in the vast majority of us than we might think. The tremendous advance in the West during the last 500 years of history is almost completely due to the greatly improved potential for collective improvements. Two events come to mind as triggers:  the invention of print (and now of electronic data storage and transmission), and the relaxation and removal of the intellectual suppression by the church in the West - which signaled the beginning of the modern age.

Where this removal of intellectual suppression has not yet taken place, people are still in a medieval frame of mind, and until the minds can be freed, the backward state of the culture in these areas will change only spot wise.  In summary, I think that the individual genius and personality of a great person play the decisive role in human affairs, because we others can only do the equivalent of regurgitation of the original thoughts of the select few. To recognize this amounts not to the oftten feared "elitism" that we may have when the so called elite is only in a leading position, but cannot really lead. A genuine elite is superior and important, not because of intellectual superiority, or the display of money, or of the parents; - but because of the culture, tradition, and development of a superior character. This is a very old insight, Confucius
and Hsün-tzu repeated it over and over again. We must conclude that, if a genuinely superior individual can be identified, he should be aided and encouraged, not held back by envious, little minds who cannot stand a superior individual. For a proof, one has only to listen to the gloating, sneering comments made in ordinary gossip. It is not only a sin, but becomes the cause of a serious problem in politics since it hinders the finding and selection of good people. How can we find them? See (How to meet) !


Thinkers and Teachers of Mankind: 
Lao-tzu, Confucius, Hsün-tzu, Buddha;  Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicuros; Lucretius; Paracelsus, Montaigne, Giordano Bruno, Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Thomas Hobbes, Locke, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, David Hume, Leibnitz, Voltaire, Kant, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Sigmund Freud, Albert Schweizer . . . .[4]

Drama & Literature:
Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes  . . . .

Military Excellence:
Miltiades, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Julius Cesar,  Prince Eugene of Savoy, Lord Marlborough, George Washington, Nelson, Napoleon; H. von Moltke, Robert Lee, Wm. T. Sherman. U.S. Grant, Rommel, Douglas MacArthur . . . .

Erik the Red, Marco Polo, Prince Henry the Navigator
, Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, John Cabot, Father Eusebio Kino, S.J.,  James Cook, David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, Fridtjof Nansen, Shackleton , Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Alfred Wegener. . . .

Solon, Pericles, Augustus, Machiavelli, Empress Catharine II the Great of Russia, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln,  Edmund Burke, Talleyrand, Metternich; Bismarck, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Churchill, Truman, Reagan, Adenauer, DeGaulle, Mrs. Thatcher, Gandhi, Mandela, Deng Xiaoping , Martin Luther King . . . .

Science & Engineering:
Thales of Miletus, Aristarchus of Samos, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Archimedes, Euclid, Leonardo [1], Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Gauss, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac  (Gutenberg, James Watt, Diesel) . . . .

Art, Architecture, Music:
Pheidias, Praxiteles, Vitruvius, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Alberti,  Palladio, Raphael, Titian, Dürer, Veronese, Rubens . . .  
- Palestrina, Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Couperin, J.S. Bach, Händel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Rossini, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Bizet, Puccini . . . .

Founders of a major Religion:  [5]
Ikhnaton, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed.

Notes & References
[1]  Listing Leonardo as an exceptionally great person, but not Martin Luther is contrary to the judgment of Jacques Barzun, the Doyen of the Literary Intellectuals in our time, in his magnificent work, From Dawn to Decadence. 1500 to the PresentHis review of the last 500 years of Western Cultural Life is almost indispensable for gaining an understanding of our roots. But it is more. B’s essay on the importance of the Reformation is, to mention one example, the most insightful description of the roots and essence of any true revolution. The essay A Digression on a Word (pp. 82) is the clearest and most objective explanation of the problems that are caused by tampering with language for political purposes. The whole work is the crowning achievement of a long, illustrious residence in the "House of Intellect". Regarding details, it is to be expected  that persons with different background, such as natural philosophy, will see them differently.

I find his comparison of Luther and Leonardo simply shocking. It is true that Leonardo designed fortresses, but this is nothing compared with the century of bloody wars of religion to which Luther’s teachings have inadvertently contributed the fuze. Or take the debates on theological subtleties (in my view about nothing) which have brought only hate and dispute into the world and sapped its cultural strength. Hold these against the genius that is revealed in Leonardo’s Notebooks on art and technology - man’s highest activities. Leonardo and Galileo are spiritual fathers of the new age, not Luther, Calvin, and consorts. To disagree with Barzun is significant, but it does not detract from the immense value of his work. I like to say more because it also reveals a most important fact.

In his very first paragraph B states that Western culture is coming to an end, when we can claim that we have not yet reached the peak of understanding and control, the essential drives of Faustian man. Undoubtedly, one half of C.P. Snow’s "Divided Culture" [2] has disintegrated with dire consequences (Patrick Buchanan, The Death of the West), while the other, the scientific - technical - medical core, achieves huge triumphs. Decadence in the elite is not new, it has been noted by Voltaire; it is an error to take the sick part for the whole and declare an end of Western culture tout ensemble. The sorry cultural state that B notes (with all justification) involves a non essential part, while B overlooks the significance, value, and role of the vital part. What for B is The Culture is not at all at the center of Faustian man’s drive, and it has indeed been reduced to a decadent residue. The core culture of the West is as successful as ever, it evolves, is now global and has moved beyond the Earth! Is this terminal illness? The time is now to ignore the bad part as now meaningless and renew the vigor (following Math. 18, 8 - 9) of the true Faustian culture, trusting that eventually a new spirit of genuine humanism of a transformed culture, now the Global Culture, will return. This hope is justified because exactly this has happened before - in the great Renaissance!

[2]   C. P. Snow (1964), The Two Cultures: And A Second Look. Mentor. See p. 36 ff. CPS was in charge of British scientific research recruitment in WWII. A scientist by training, he became a noted novelist, in addition to his successful management career. He was uniquely qualified to write about the cultural and communications gaps between the scientists, including the technologists; and the literary intellectuals (artists and those who control the tone of society which we take as culture in the narrow sense). The text was written quite a while ago, but it is as pertinent today as it was then. The gap has widened and one can even say that we face a cultural collapse on the artistic-literary-cultural side, while the scientific - technical - biomedical part is gaining unprecedented triumphs. An ignorance of the intelligentsia regarding nature and science is now even less excusable. This ignorance is displayed by some as an ornament, instead of it being admitted as a disgraceful deficiency, especially because the core of the culture, the Faustian Side, has made Western culture the dominant culture on the globe.               

It is tempting although risky to speculate about the reasons for the collapse of the “Liberal arts” sector (see also Essay #4). That the decay of this part of culture affected the tone of the whole, is obvious. But it did not stop the progress. Amazingly, a decline has been predicted in the 19th century by Arthur Schopenhauer. A neglect of the classical, Greco-Roman heritage would, in his opinion, inevitably bring about a return to barbarity. The beginning of this process has been the unbelievable misuse of concepts and words in Hegel’s philosophy which has nearly fatally corrupted philosophy; and it is a major reason for a shameful confusion in basic concepts even today. Moreover, since the learning of the old languages and the familiarity with their literature and concepts has declined, the civilizing and disciplining influence of the classics has receded and some of the barbaric heritage of the wild past has returned in everything: customs, style, taste, values and entertainment. One might smile about all this as mere coincidence, but when we hear of the scandalous conduct of a huge mob in London in May 2000, or the notorious violence of British visitors at foreign football scenes, we are inevitably reminded of the holocaust in Germany, and of all the earlier horrors committed by the Vandals, the Goths, the Vikings, and other migrating Germanic and Nordic tribes which, before they were civilized and integrated into the Roman and Medieval world, senselessly destroyed everything that fell into their hands. Exactly this appearance of a new Vikingism was described by John Lukacs as the New Dark Ages. What Julian Benda has to say about the failure of modern intellectuals to stem this return to cultural backwardness merges exactly with the above.

Again, the Faustian culture has brought about the greatest human advance of all times, with unimaginable progress in all material ways. Where it has not held up is in keeping the standards that made it great. If people complain about the state of the world, they must put the blame where it belongs, the failure to keep the standards. With Irving Babbitt and others, I blame foremost J. J. Rousseau and the surrender to the soft spirit of Romanticism for this failure. Could a cultural turn around be attempted, and how? An excellent answer has been given by Albert Schweitzer (Essay #14 and #12). Man needs an optimistic philosophy that is not in conflict with science. Benda, however, is more pessimistic (Essay #10).  I would add that the most urgent effort seems to be (after population control and education) to work toward a broad consensus to reduce animosity, hate, and violence.

[3]  A curious article, "A Crisis In Leadership
", has appeared in the new google service KNOL ( I think, it is completely mistaken. Or, perhaps, its merit is to show us why and where the problem is, if it is really a totally new problem in history. See 

I do not think that one can explain the present situation as the result of poor leadership. People and their talents have not changed, while the culture of the West has changed profoundly since WWII. The situation is not yet sufficiently serious to allow capable persons to take effective control and this gives rise to complaints about missing leadership, when the fact is that we have no good followers in times of luxury and extreme expectations. On the day we elect a new leader, we oppose him and demonize him at every step. Of course, I can also be mistaken, but the appearance to me is one of a growing chaos due to the cultural changes mentioned above, while we still have enough blocks in our political system to prevent most measures to be taken by resolute persons. Such leaders lose control quickly because any effective action to affect change must, by nature, be against the desire of many people. Not one of the great heroes of the past could have succeeded under the present conditions of the current American and other Western democracies. Real change will quickly come as the result of a major catastrophe when a shocked population will be ready to accept severe emergency measures. Remember the effect immediately after the 9/11 attack, when two buildings were destroyed. What would happen when a whole city is destroyed?  Or a severe mass epidemic arises? One can perceive here why great leaders appear more in very hard times.

[4]  Doubts: With the great Benjamin Franklin I have the problem that I cannot decide whether his contributions in science, as a popular writer, or in politics are the most important and far reaching, which deserve to be listed.  He certainly was one of the most outstanding persons of his time. -- 

A very different case to argue is Mao. He has caused untold suffering for his people and one cannot possibly accept this.
He faced a huge nation with an explosively growing population that could not be supported with the traditional primitive agriculture and execute his plans. By forcing them through anyway, he created a tyranny and effectively caused the death of tens of millions of Chinese. Yet he is the only one of the revolutionary leaders of the last century whose thinking went beyond the "doctrine". His "little red book" with excerpts of his speeches has ideas that sound great (e.g., that communists must tell the truth) which in practice, however, he replaced with "consequences" and ruthless power.  Nevertheless, at an extremely high price of national suffering, real progress became later possible for Deng who removed the most essential features of communism and restored at least economic freedom. I believe it is justified to list Deng, but certainly not Mao. --

With great scrouples, I deleted
Nietzsche from my list because I am convinced that his view about power as an ultimate value is fundamentally harmful. True, without the old metaphysical basis, we are left also without our old values (but see essays #14 and 11). But to see power as a value for an advanced humanity, power that is to be cultivated as such is senseless. Power to do what ?  To rule over others?  This is the wish of world "reformers" who ignore the all important insight that the human fate can only be improved by individual efforts in freedom and not in a slave societiy.  But power over oneself is not, as I read it, what Nietsche meant. Moreover, his fundamental error as a philosopher is to think on the basis of his strong emotions.  Tbey must not be left out, but thinking must give the first importance to objectivity which is impossible as long as we are under the command of our feelings.

[5]  An extensive "List of Founders of a Religion" can be found in the Wikipedia. In contrast to its aims to be comprehensive, the aim with my list is to give those names that in my information and judgment have had the greatest impact on human culture.  I have included Buddha, Confucius, et al. as Teachers of Mankind because they have not created a religion but a philosophy. Buddha specifically is reported to have instructed his followers not to make a religion of his teachings, a wish that was clearly not effective and with time, he was given divine status with a vast amount of stories added. We know very little about Zoroaster, but his influence has been apparently enormous. He recognized the supreme importance of truth. 

Copyright © 2007  Gernot M. R. Winkler,               Last Correction   03-20-2010.