Do Great Individuals Shape History?

Great People

Is human history driven mainly by the actions of “great men”?

It’s called the great man theory of history.

Of course, the problem is that word “mainly.” Lots of things cause historical events. To say that a specific person was a “main” cause is quite a leap.

But it got me thinking about who I might choose as the great people of history.

In turn, that got me thinking about how to make such choices.

Who gets on the Top 10 List, and why?

Would it be people who were extraordinarily good? That should be a factor, but there are many good people of whom nobody’s ever heard. My religious tradition (Judaism) says that in every generation, there are at least 36 “hidden righteous people” whose meritorious lives earn God’s support for the world. Even so, if nobody knows who they are, then there’s no practical way to put them on a Top 10 List.

Would it be people whose actions had large effects on historical events? That gets us into two other problems, one moral and one logical.

The moral problem is that the list would include some very evil people. Adolf Hitler is everyone’s go-to example, but he’s got lots of company: Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and so on. They had large effects on historical events. But our conscience revolts at the idea of including them on such a list.

The logical problem is that hardly any effect has only one “cause.” Would the list claim that such people, by themselves, caused great effects on history? That’s absurd. No matter how evil Stalin was (and Russians seem to be reassessing that issue), he could not have done the evil things he did without thousands of accomplices and a boatload of circumstances that made his actions possible. The same applies to Hitler.

Consequential people might be necessary conditions for the events they “cause,” but they’re not sufficient conditions.

I’m not even convinced that they’re necessary conditions: does the man make history, or does history make the man? Probably a little of both. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a science fiction novel about a man who travels back in time to 1890s Vienna. He befriends the young Adolf Hitler and turns him from evil to good. But he discovers that history is not thwarted so easily. By the 1930s, another man has become der Führer and Hitler becomes a freedom fighter. I’m probably never going to write it, so if you’ve got the interest and talent, you’re welcome to do it yourself.

But the bottom line is that any list of history’s great people is subjective and incomplete.

If I were forced to give a Top 10 list, it would be this or something like it. It’s based on my evaluation of the people themselves as well as their historical influence. The order does not indicate priority; it’s more or less based on the timeline:*

Adam and Eve; Gilgamesh

Metaphors, since the people themselves are legendary. Adam and Eve were the first people to be self-aware and morally conscious. Gilgamesh was the first person to realize his own mortality. They were, arguably, the first people to be truly human.


Ancient Babylonian king (ca. 1750 BCE) who usually gets credit for the first written legal code, and whose code might have influenced the Bible. As far as I know, Hammurabi was actually the fourth Babylonian king to produce a written legal code, with earlier codes produced under the kings Lipit-Ishtar, Bilalama, and Ur-Nammu, who lived in the three centuries before Hammurabi.


Might be legendary: his birth story parallels the earlier story of the Sumerian King Sargon. In any event, he was the first person known to advance the idea of a single, moral God who defined a transcendent moral order by which even He would be bound.


Influenced almost every area of Western thought that came after him. Economics has been described as “a set of footnotes to Adam Smith.” Similarly, Western civilization can be described at least partly as a set of footnotes to Aristotle. From politics to physics, biology to religion, Aristotle’s influence is visible.

Gautama Buddha; Confucius

Founded the religious and philosophical traditions of China and much of Asia. Buddhism emphasizes spiritual development to cope with a world that is often hostile and cruel. Confucianism also emphasizes spiritual development but is somewhat less pessimistic about the world; it emphasizes the social order as a way to maximize human happiness.


Whether or not he was Divine, as Christians believe, Jesus inspired the religious tradition that shaped Western civilization. Little is known for sure about “the historical Jesus.” However, the Jesus of the Christian Gospels taught an enlightened morality that, even in human hands, has done more good than harm.

Theodora (Byzantine Empress)

Theodora was an improbable savior of the Byzantine Empire. Since she was both a commoner and an ex-actress, the Emperor Justinian had to change the law to marry her. But they were well-matched, both of them brilliant and usually courageous. When Justinian lost his nerve during the Nika revolt of 532 CE and prepared to flee the capital, historian George Ostrogorsky says that “he was prevented by the indomitable courage of the Empress Theodora.” Pop historian Lars Brownworth wrote a fictionalized version of the incident that gave her a good speech: “Every man who is born must sooner or later die; and how can an Emperor allow himself to become a fugitive? If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: royalty makes the best shroud.” They defeated the revolt and neither of them ended up needing the shroud.

Isaac Newton

One of the greatest geniuses in human history, he pioneered the science of optics, discovered much of what is still taught in undergraduate physics courses, and invented calculus. He justly gets credit for calculus, though the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus at about the same time and the two men were bitter rivals. That wasn’t unusual for Newton: he was an unpleasant and rather paranoid person who suspected Leibniz of stealing his ideas. Newton developed calculus from earlier ideas of Isaac Barrow, one of his teachers at Cambridge University. In a rare moment of humility, Newton told the truth when he said that if he saw further than others, it was because he “stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Albert Einstein

Einstein is best known for his theories of special and general relativity, which changed our ways of looking at space, time, light, and gravity. Less widely known is that his 1905 paper on Brownian motion convinced many scientists for the first time that atoms really existed and were not merely a useful assumption. He also wrote extensively about philosophy and religion.

Winston Churchill

Churchill was a soldier, Nobel prize-winning writer, statesman, and an inspiring leader without whom Great Britain might not have survived World War II. Most of all, he was an English patriot and an unapologetic imperialist who loved his country and believed in its values. Those qualities made him a great man but, like all people, he had many flaws.


  • It’s hard to identify great women: not because they don’t exist, but for two other reasons. First, feminists are right that women have often been denied opportunities and historians have neglected their contributions. Second, and I think more important, is that women typically affect history in less obvious and direct ways than men. They are more likely to be “the power behind the throne,” with the result that few people realize the extent of their influence. Women such as Hypatia, Joan of Arc, Sophie Germain, Harriet Taylor Mill, Hedy Lamarr (no, it’s really not “Hedley”), Rosalind Franklin, Hannah Arendt, and Ayn Rand could easily go on the list, but there are only 10 slots. To my dismay, the top 10 format also required me to omit Srinivasa Ramanujan, who is one of my favorite people.
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Don’t Pass Over History

Who are you? What are you?

The answers define your identity and give you a sense of place in the universe.

The “who” question has a simple answer: your name.

But the “what” question has many answers. You are a son or daughter. You might be a lawyer, homemaker, software engineer, or painter. Some of the answers touch your soul more deeply than others. Those are important ones. Many of them come from history.

People often think that history is just about facts. Facts are part of it, but only a part. History weaves facts into an intellectual and emotional tapestry that tells us who we are, what our lives are about, and what kind of people we should strive to be. History:

  • Helps us understand the past by telling us what happened and when.

Even if the “why” is often ambiguous, some explanations are more consistent with the evidence than others.

  • Helps us understand the present by comparing it with the past.

The same problems tend to recur in different societies and historical periods. We can learn from what worked or didn’t work in past situations.

  • Helps us be good people by telling us stories of heroism and villainy.

Morality depends on both reason and feeling. No matter how sophisticated we get, our moral sense begins partly with “I want to be like him / her.” History provides examples that help us develop both the rational and emotional sides of morality.

  • Helps us maintain a strong sense of personal and group identity.

Inspiring historical stories encourage us to identify with our group’s heroes and to feel a personal connection to events in our group’s history.

  • Helps us maintain successful communities by legitimizing the social order.

To survive, any group or society must believe that it is good (even if it’s imperfect), and that it deserves to survive. Inspiring historical stories about the group’s origin, leaders, and ideals provide that foundation.

History’s various jobs sometimes conflict with each other.

For example, tonight is the first night of Passover, a Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom by commemorating the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. But it does more than that. In the Passover seder (meal), families ritually affirm their identity as Jews, their people’s relationship to God, and the moral ideals they should follow. Historical evidence is scant, but factual accuracy isn’t relevant to the stories’ main jobs of supporting morality while reinforcing personal and group identity.

The stories associated with Christianity’s Easter holiday are similar. Historical evidence is scant, but the stories’ most important jobs are moral and spiritual.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Two Views of Life — and Government

Your parents lied to you. So did mine.

They told us:

“You can do anything if you make up your mind to do it.”

Nope. Not true.

Don’t be too hard on parents. It’s a well-meaning lie. It’s arguably even a justified lie. Children shouldn’t prematurely limit their aspirations in life.

We can do a lot of things, often more than we believe we can. Positive thinking is helpful. Determination and persistence make a difference. There’s an adage I like:

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option.”

Even so, what we can actually accomplish is limited, both by our circumstances and by ourselves.

For example, I was on the cross-country running team in high school. I’m an unlikely runner, since I’m short, stocky, and barely on speaking terms with the bathroom scale. But the school required sports participation, and cross-country was the only sport that didn’t require calisthenics, which I hate.

At the first practice, I set a record for the longest it had ever taken anyone to run the cross-country course. At the end of the season, I got a varsity letter on my jacket for only three reasons: I worked hard, I always showed up, and I always finished. Not everyone did. Some of the better runners coasted on their natural ability, and they got letters, too. They won cross-country meets, so they earned them. On the other hand, at final exam time, they crowded into my dorm room in the evenings because academic subjects are where I had the natural ability.

So two factors both affect what we accomplish:

  • What we do, and
  • What we are.

The same applies to systems of government. Many of our political problems arise from grabbing one alternative and denying the other.

If government is just something that we make up — a rationalistic social contract — then we can make it any way we want. But if it grows naturally from the history, values, and traits of a specific group of people, then our options are more limited.

That’s why, for example, imposing “democracy” on Iraq at the point of a bayonet was always a fool’s errand. Democracy is a Western value, derived from our long history that goes back to Ancient Athens. It has no roots in the history or character of most Middle Eastern peoples or the rest of the world, for that matter. Iraq and Middle Eastern countries other than Israel are undemocratic because that’s what’s natural for them. We can try to persuade them that greater civic participation and individual freedom are good ideas, but such ideas do not survive easily in their soil.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Cher Channels Ambrose Bierce

Cher, a pop singer who I loved for her 1990s music video featuring the animated characters Beavis and Butt-Head, has a new talent.

Her April 14th statement channels the spirit of the 19th-century American writer Ambrose Bierce. His book The Devil’s Dictionary includes this definition:

“CHRISTIAN: One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

Cher wants migrants as long as she and her city don’t have to deal with them.

Well-meaning individuals can support a policy of open borders or oppose it.

But it’s hypocritical to support open borders as long as it only affects other people.

That attitude is common, but it isn’t particularly Christian (or Jewish). We can do better. So can Cher.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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Don’t Wait: Be Happy Now

Empiricism is the idea that beliefs should be based on observable evidence. It’s one of the main reasons that our civilization has been successful.

Empiricism has given us science, medicine, and technology. It’s given us choices and luxuries that people in previous centuries couldn’t even imagine. It’s enabled us to reduce extreme poverty around the world.

Even so, you can take it too far. Philosophers sometimes joke that “empiricists never have a nice day.” Empiricists can’t know if their day is nice until they have all the evidence. But by that time, their day is over and they don’t have it anymore.

The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus told a more serious version of the joke. In his Histories, he wrote about an encounter between the great Athenian lawgiver Solon and the Lydian King Croesus, who was the richest man of that era.

Croesus asked Solon who he thought was the happiest man in the world. Obviously, he expected Solon to answer “you are.”

But Solon surprised him by saying the happiest man was Tellus of Athens, an obscure person. When Croesus asked why, Solon replied:

“Because his country was flourishing in his days, he had good sons, he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up. And further because, after a life spent in comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. He defended his country and died on the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours.”

Croesus wasn’t too pleased by that answer, so he asked about the second-happiest man in the world. Solon replied that the second-happiest men were the brothers Cleobis and Bito.

He explained that their mother had to travel to a religious festival six miles away, but the family’s oxen weren’t available. Cleobis and Bito yoked themselves to her carriage and pulled it to the festival as fast as they could run. Once inside the temple, the mother prayed to the goddess to bestow on her sons “the highest blessing to which mortals can attain.” And then:

“Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never awakened, but so passed from the earth. The Greeks, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues of them to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi.”

Croesus was furious. Here he was, the richest man on earth, and he didn’t even make the top two? He demanded an explanation. Solon replied:

“Human life is subject to the vagaries of chance. The longer the span of one’s existence, the more certain he is to see and suffer much that he would rather have been spared. Right now, you are fabulously rich and king of a great number of people. And yet for all that, I will not be able to say [that you were happy] until I have learned that you died contentedly.”

So it’s true: there are some things we can’t know until all the evidence is in hand.

But at other times, we need to get out ahead of the evidence.

We can’t control “the vagaries of chance,” but we can control how we handle them. We can choose to be as happy as our circumstances permit. We can look for ways to turn adversity into advantage. We can work to improve ourselves. And most of all, we can have faith in the essential goodness of the universe. Even if we don’t see how, things will work out.

Don’t always be an empiricist. Make the right choice. Be happy now.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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How To Be Crazy — Constructively

A while back, I wrote about “How Not To Be Crazy.”

And if you must choose between being totally crazy and being totally sane, it’s better to be sane.

But let’s face it: total sanity is kind of a barren landscape. It recalls Ambrose Bierce’s definition of realism:

“The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.”

Toads are not known for their scintillating conversation. We are not meant to be toads.

Is there a way for us to be just a little crazy in ways that are constructive rather than destructive?

I’m glad you asked. Okay, okay, so you didn’t ask. I’m pretending that you did. Call me crazy.

Terry Newman, a sociology graduate student at the University of Montreal, raises a similar question in her article “In the Culture Wars, Be a Sancho Panza, Not a Don Quixote.”

In the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote is a rich man whose safe and secure life bores him to insanity. After he goes crazy, he imagines himself as a knight sent to fight monsters and protect the innocent. Sancho Panza is a farmer who accompanies him on his quest. Sancho isn’t crazy, so he sees the world as it really is.

As her article’s title implies, Newman thinks it’s better to be Sancho.

One of her points is that whether we are politically left, right, or elsewhere, we crave simplicity in our view of the world. We want everything to be nice and clear. “Our side” is that of the angels, while anyone who disagrees with us is the Devil’s henchman.

That attitude often causes great harm. To see the world that way is to be crazy: seeing things not as they are but as we want (or fear) them to be. We ignore ambiguities and uncertainties. Those people are just plain evil, while our group is pure of heart and does only good things.

And people can be crazy regardless of their viewpoint. As Newman puts it:

“Racists succumb to a version of Don Quixote’s delusions when life becomes overwhelming or tumultuous, and spuriously organize society into binary categories of us and them. But progressives do this, too. This notion of white nationalists and neo-Nazis skulking everywhere seems to result from the urge to streamline society, neaten it up, clarify its ideological categories, make everything luminously simple. Either you are an ideal citizen, or you are out. Either you are an active knight in the progressive cause, or you belong on a list.

But the real world, as Cervantes knew, is not that simple.”

And there’s the trouble: the world might not be that simple, but in some ways, we are.

Our distant ancestors lived in constant danger from predators, disease, and starvation. Evolution adapted them to survive in that kind of situation. We inherited their need for danger, but not the danger itself.

Somewhat like Don Quixote, we suffer from “first-world problems:” our phone’s battery is low. Someone used the wrong pronoun. Someone else has an opinion we don’t like.

Phone batteries? Pronouns? Differences of opinion? Can that be all there is?

Sancho Panza would say yes. But something deep in our souls cries “no!” There must be more. There must be danger. And if it doesn’t exist, we make it up — just like Don Quixote.

Recognizing our need for challenge helps us satisfy it without causing harm.

And how can we do it? In 1865, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln gave the right advice:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who has borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.

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Advantages of Getting Older

I got some reading glasses today.

However, they’re not actually for reading. I can do that fine except with paperback Hebrew dictionaries, whose print is almost microscopic. I gave up on those a long time ago, and got a magnifying glass for them.

The reading glasses are for a tablet computer whose small screen gives me eyestrain. Apart from that problem, it’s a nice little gadget. Hence, the reading glasses. I’ve got another pair for distance.

But the milestone made me realize that getting older has advantages.

I won’t kid you: it’s not all good. Lately I’ve had tennis elbow, and there’s not much to do except ice it. The gym seems to tire me out more than it used to. As for those damn kids and their awful music, I just want them to get off my lawn!

But I’m an optimistic person, so I try to look at the bright side of things. Here are some advantages of getting older:

  • You’ve been wrong often enough that you’re skeptical.

You want to see evidence before you’ll believe outlandish claims. The exception is politics, where unless you’re careful, you’ll be as gullible as everyone else.

  • You’ve been wrong often enough that you’re more forgiving of others who get things wrong.

If someone as rational as you could make ludicrous mistakes, then you’ve got to give other people a break, too.

  • You remember how stupid and ignorant you were when you were younger.

You understand why a lot of Millennials are the same way. You grew out of it. You hope that they will, too.

  • You remember how stupid and ignorant older people seemed when you were younger.

You understand why a lot of Millennials see you that way now. As the American novelist Mark Twain said: “When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

  • You realize that humanity is a giant, roaring furnace of emotion topped by a tiny, flickering candle of intelligence.

People who scream and jabber usually aren’t trying to convince you of anything. They’re just venting their anger about Heaven knows what. They direct the anger at whoever’s handy. To them, that person or group symbolizes all the unhappiness in their own lives. You’ve got to calm them down before you can reason with them.

Seriously, it’s a miracle that the human race has survived this long. But it has. Either God loves us, or we have incredible luck, or we have hidden virtues.

In any case, it’s cause for optimism. Even if you need glasses to read it.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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