Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

The 30 Most Influential People in Western History

The 30 Most Influential People in Western History

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Over the next 30 months, I will count down the 30 most influential people in Western history.{{1}}

My qualifications are not overwhelming, but what I lack in prestige I make up with pluck and desire.{{2}} My undergraduate degree was in history and my graduate degree in American Studies. I’ve taught Western history for seven years, the last five of which have been to honors students who demand as much of me as I do of them.{{3}} Perhaps my most important qualification is that I live for lists and rankings, creating them for just about every speck of my existence, including historical figures, athletes, movies, Star Trek episodes, months, religions, colleagues, Star Trek movies, breakfast cereals, Star Trek series, you name it. Not only do I live for rankings, but I even rank my rankings!{{4}}

To round out this introduction, below are a dozen caveats and hints. IMPORTANT: Embedded throughout them are clues as to which historical figures comprise the list, so feel free to play along at home. I encourage you to make your own list or, perhaps, see how much of my list you can guess based on the considerable evidence to come.{{5}}

1. This ranking is a list of influential figures. I considered making a “Greatest Figures” list, but I didn’t want the wording to be confusing or misleading. People of questionable character can make this list. Adolf Hitler did make this list. I’m looking for influence here; it doesn’t have to be positive.

2. This ranking is a list of Western figures. Unfortunately, the Western world is not a specific term. For the purposes of this series, the West consists of civilization from the Greco-Roman world, its European descendants, and their colonies that most seamlessly adopted the culture of those founders. Figures who are not of these origins but still heavily impacted Western history—such as Zoroaster, Attila the Hun, Mohammad, and Mao, among many others—do not make the list. A figure must be a citizen of one of history’s “Western” territories. The reason for their exclusion is because I only feel comfortable ranking Westerners. The West has been my area of study. I wouldn’t presume to measure the importance of Confucius, the Buddha, Emperor Qin, Genghis Khan, Emperor Meiji, or Mohandes Gandhi on their regions of the world.

[pullquote_right]Is King John influential because he was forced to sign the Magna Carta?[/pullquote_right]

3. I was not kind to monarchs. Of the 30 figures, I have only six autocrats, which isn’t a lot considering five-sixths of the list did not have their political power. Moreover, no monarchs made the top half of the list (though one just missed). Colossally famous and reasonably important kings like William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, and Louis XIV did not make the cut. Still, I’ll surely mention dozens along the way.{{6}}

4. Similarly, I disqualified any leaders who coincidentally presided over enormous sociopolitical change. For example, is King John influential because he was forced to sign the Magna Carta? Is Louis XVI influential for being the Bourbon king left holding the debt bag when the French finally had enough? In both cases—and in many more where an embattled leader is powerless to stop events much larger than his position—I say nay.

5. I had enormous difficulty weighing the importance of artists, musicians, and authors. In fact, no artists or musicians make the list. Aside from one exception, no authors made the cut, either, unless that vocation was not their primary one. (Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther are published authors, for example, but were also much more.) While I have enormous appreciation for the arts and practically mainline classical music into my veins, I simply cannot make the case that any one artist or musician changed the West’s development. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that artists and musicians are superb reflections of an era. They’re essential when studying a period, like an archeologist unearthing artifacts to draw conclusions about a culture. However, they do not shape that and future eras as much as others on this list.{{7}}

6. Instead of artists, I hedged toward leaders and those with big ideas. These are the people that influence, rather than merely reflect, the West’s development. To that end, this list of 31 figures (there was a tie for #30, as you’ll see in January) has 11 political and military leaders, seven philosophers, six scientists, and four inventors (the last two of which were hard to delineate, I grant you). For those who struggle at math, that leaves only three people who do not place into one of those categories. (Are you keeping up with all these clues?)

[pullquote_left]I simply cannot make the case that any one artist or musician changed the West’s development.[/pullquote_left]

7. This list is, in some ways, American-heavy, but in other ways not. Five Americans and a German-American make the list. No other country received more love. Some might cry havoc over those numbers, considering the United States has existed for less than 10 percent of Western history, but I’ll try to make the best defense I can with each figure. For now, I’ll say that no Americans are in the top dozen spots, so while they might win the quantity contest, other countries have more quality. France and England, by the way, also each have five, but whereas France doesn’t sniff the top 10, its old rivals across the English Channel own 40 percent of it. Following those three countries are four Germans and two each from ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Italy, and the Frankish kingdom, and one Scot, one Pole, and one Russian.{{8}} Spain doesn’t make the Top 30, but does get several “honorable mentions.”

8. Speaking of honorable mentions, beyond the Top 30, I will probably mention about 100 more names throughout the series. With each historical figure, I will dedicate some space to others of the same field or era that one could argue should have made the list.

9. Only two women made the list. Unfortunately, men dominate Western history, particularly before the last hundred years. Until recently, women were rarely in position to effect change on any macro level. Since only five Top 30 figures saw the twentieth century, it was difficult for many women to make the cut. A handful of women just missed, though, and will be given “honorable mention” status.{{9}}

10. Regarding that twentieth century number, one might think that having five relatively recent people is too many, considering the grand scope of history. To wit, shouldn’t someone from early in history create more ripples over the centuries than someone alive in the 1940s? Perhaps. However, I wanted to avoid the “earlier is more important” trap. For example, Isaac Newton is an extraordinarily influential figure—perhaps the most important scientist of all time and surely in anyone’s top 10 historical figures list. But without his mother, there’s no Isaac Newton. And since his mother created Newton, does she now supersede Newton in influence? And, by the same logic, what about her mother?

[pullquote_right]Which Phoenician deserves our credit for the alphabet? Which proto-civilization the wheel?[/pullquote_right]

Thus, the trap. Expelling Isaac Newton out of one’s birth canal is not as impressive as identifying the laws of gravity and motion. Earlier is not necessarily more influential just because of the added ripples across time. I merely try to identify whose actions are most to thank (or blame) for the modern state of the West. As such, yes, five twentieth century figures do make the list (though none are alive today). Moreover, another five saw the nineteenth century, another four the eighteenth, another four the seventeenth, and another three the sixteenth. In other words, the most recent 21 figures on this list are almost evenly spaced out across the last five centuries. Only the remaining 10 had their hallmark achievements in the two millennia before the year 1500.{{10}}

11. One reason why so few are so early is because we know much less about them. Which Phoenician deserves our credit for the alphabet? Which proto-civilization the wheel? History scrutinizes and calls into question the stories and perhaps existence of Abraham and Moses, so to which Biblical patriarch do we credit the beginning of the unbroken chain of Judeo-Christian ethical monotheism? Or perhaps it wasn’t a Biblical Hebrew at all, but the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton whose revolutionary one-god doctrine ushered in the monotheistic belief system now practiced by a majority of the world. So often, it’s impossible to answer these questions. Even a beloved grammar-school fact like “Hammurabi was the first one to write down a law code” has been obliterated by further study. In sum, the farther back we go, the less we know. Thus, the ancients, though perhaps the most impressive people to ever walk the West, are underrepresented in my ranking.{{11}} We just can’t know with relative certainty how much they are to thank for each of their contributions.

12. Finally, it goes without saying how difficult it is to measure influence. In fact, it’s immeasurable. There are many pitfalls to avoid. While someone can be colossally important to his own country or even his own century, I tried to consider what impact each person had on the West’s development. As stated, I tried to watch out for earlier figures necessarily having more influence, and I tried to think about how the West would be different without each figure.

I also acknowledge that none of these figures could do what they did without contributions from earlier men and women. What could Washington have accomplished without the musket, Einstein without harnessed electricity, and Shakespeare without paper, the pen, an education, a literate and cultured West, and the welcoming political climate of Elizabethan England? Very little, probably. Moreover, almost all of these figures had help, people working with them every day or doing their menial work. These friends, co-workers, employees, subordinates, and acquaintances were imperative in the operation, but mostly forgotten by history.

Therefore, each of the 31 figures on this list is ultimately just a mosaic; look closely enough and the tesserae emerge, each a smaller piece of the larger picture. The famous figure is merely the face on the poster; his or her collaborators are listed in small print at the bottom.

Finally, throughout this series, I will try to keep in mind one of my favorite quotes about history, this from author-historian David McCullough: History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” Who shaped the West to make it look like it does today? Who gave us our ideas, our borders, our thirst for knowledge, our generosity of spirit, and everything else that makes the West what it is? Who made us who we are and why we are the way we are?

With this series, I’ll attempt to answer those questions and more. I’ll see you on the first Monday of January. Two ancients clock in for a tie at #30, the only tie on the list. Who will they be?

[[1]]I’ll admit now that there are actually 31 people on the list, as there’s a tie for #30. This still keeps the integrity of the rankings afterward. There won’t be, for example, a tie for #18, which would mean I skip over #17 the following month.[[1]]

[[2]]That sounded awesome in my head and looks absolutely pathetic on paper. That will undoubtedly be a theme of this series.[[2]]

[[3]]An amount which, I assure you, is not inconsiderable.[[3]]

[[4]]This one’s #4.[[4]]

[[5]]Do you accept the challenge? Or do you skulk away, tail between your scrawny little legs?[[5]]

[[6]]I mean, I could probably do a top 100 European monarchs list. (Hmmm . . .)[[6]]

[[7]]I would LOVE to hear someone deliver a cogent argument or two for one particular artist or musician making this list based on their art or music. I mean it.[[7]]

[[8]]So many clues![[8]]

[[9]]Like my wife.[[9]]

[[10]]Many, like Einstein, Edison, and Jefferson, were influential across centuries. In almost all cases, I “rounded up” their centuries in that paragraph.[[10]]

[[11]]My apologies to Pythagoras, Thales, Hippocrates, Archimedes, et al.[[11]]