Do Great People Shape History?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

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 F├╝hrer 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:1

  • 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.

  • Hammurabi
    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.

  • Moses
    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.

  • Aristotle
    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.

  • Jesus
    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, since 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 way 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 exist 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.


  1. 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. So there are only two women on my list. Women such as Hypatia, Joan of Arc, Sophie Germain, Harriet Taylor Mill, Hedy Lamarr, 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.