Over the next 30 months, I will count down the 30 most influential people in Western history. (Attempted once before.) My qualifications are not overwhelming, but what I lack in prestige I make up with moxie. My bachelor’s degree was in history and my master’s in American Studies. I’ve also taught various courses of Western history for the last 11 years. Perhaps my most important qualification is that I obsess over lists and rankings, creating them for just about every speck of my existence, including historical figures, athletes, movies, Star Trek episodes, the founding fathers, months, colleagues, Star Trek movies, Doctors Who, breakfast cereals, Star Trek series, you name it. I live for rankings. I even rank my rankings!
So here we are — the 30 most influential people in Western history. I will deliver each entry once a month. The March entry will be #30, then April hosts #29, and so on.
To whet your appetite, below are a dozen parameters, caveats, and other pieces of criteria. 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.
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 — 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 the colonies that most seamlessly adopted the culture of those founders. Figures who are not of these origins but still heavily impacted Western history — think Zoroaster, Attila the Hun, Mohammad, Genghis Khan, and Mao, among many others — do not make the list. A figure must hail from one of history’s “Western” territories. The reason for their exclusion is because I only feel comfortable ranking Westerners, as the West has been my area of study and teaching. I wouldn’t presume to measure the importance of Confucius, the Buddha, Emperor Qin, Emperor Meiji, or Mohandes Gandhi on their regions of the world.
3) I was not kind to monarchs. Of the 30 figures, I have only 6 autocrats, which isn’t a lot considering five-sixths of the list did not have their political power. Moreover, no autocrat made the top half of the list. 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.
4) Similarly, I disqualified any leaders who coincidently 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 king left holding the bag of IOUs 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 or her own crown, I say nay.
5) I had enormous difficulty weighing the importance of artists, musicians, and authors. Ultimately, no artists or musicians made the list. Aside from one exception, no authors made the cut, either, unless that vocation was not their primary one. (Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton are published authors, for example, but they’re much better classified as something else.) While I have enormous appreciation for the arts and adore classical music, I simply could not make the case that any one artist or musician changed the West’s development. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that they are superb reflections of an era. They’re essential when studying a period, like an archaeologist unearthing artifacts to draw conclusions about a culture, but they do not shape their era or future ones as much as others on this list.
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 (remember, #30 is a tie) has 11 political and military leaders; 10 that were either scientists, inventors, or both; and 7 who are best described, nebulously, as philosophers or thinkers. For the arithmetically challenged, that only leaves three people who do not place into one of those categories. (Are you keeping up with all these clues??)
7) This list, in some ways, is American-heavy, but in other ways it’s not. Five Americans and a German-American make the list. No other country received more love. Some might resent the heavy American presence, 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 only the German-American made the top dozen, so while they might win the quantity contest, other countries have more quality. France and England, by the way, have five each in the top 30, but whereas France doesn’t sniff the top 10, their old rivals across the English Channel own 30 percent of it. The other represented countries are Germany with four; ancient Greece, ancient Rome, modern Italy, and the medieval Frankish kingdom with two each; and we have one Scot, one Pole, and one Russian. Spain didn’t place anyone, but what can you expect from a country that takes a siesta every day?
8) Keep in mind that beyond the Top 30, I will probably mention about a hundred more names that missed the cut. With many entries, I will frequently dedicate some space to others of the same field or era who one could argue should have made the list.
9) Only two women made the list. The truth of the matter is that men dominate Western history, especially before the last hundred years. Until recently, women were rarely in position to effect change on any macro level. Only five Top 30 figures saw the twentieth century, so it was unlikely that many women made the cut (though both women lived centuries earlier).
10) Regarding that twentieth century number, one might think that having five relatively recent people is too many, considering the grand scope of history. One might argue that someone from early in history created more ripples over the centuries than someone alive in the 1900s. Perhaps. However, I wanted to avoid the “earlier is more consequential” 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 and surely had one other effect on something else, does she now supersede Newton in influence? And, by the same logic, what about her mother?
Thus, the trap. I hope you’ll agree that identifying the laws of gravity and motion is more important than expelling Isaac Newton out of one’s birth canal. Earlier is not necessarily more influential just because of the added ripples across time. I merely try to identify whose actions are most responsible for the modern state of the West. As such, yes, five twentieth century figures do make the list. (None are alive today, however. Sorry, Mr. President.) Moreover, another five saw the nineteenth century, four the eighteenth, four the seventeenth, and 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.
11) One reason why so few are so early is because we know less and less as we examine earlier and earlier history. 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 deserves the credit for being the first to propagate the belief system now practiced by a majority of the world. Because these developments happened so early, it’s impossible to feel as confident discussing the people behind them. 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 further 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. We just can’t know how much they are to thank for each of their contributions.
12) 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 their own country or even their own century, I tried to consider what impact they had on the West’s development. As stated, I tried to be careful about 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? Probably not a lot. Moreover, almost of all these figures had help, working with them everyday or doing the 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. Author-historian David McCullough described history as “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 soul, 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 hope to see you tomorrow for #30, where two inseparable ancients clock in at the only tie on the list.
I’ll admit now that there are actually 31 people on the list, as there’s a tie for #30. There are no ties afterward, though, so the list’s integrity is maintained. There won’t be, for example, a tie for #18, which would mean I skip over #17.
Many, like the Thomases Edison and Jefferson, were influential across centuries. In almost all cases, I “rounded up” their centuries in that paragraph. (If I had more Thomases, I would have listed them. Hobbes just missed.)