The Greatest of All Time

As part of my weekly procrastination (yep, papers and grant applications due again), I’ve taken to considering a profoundly ridiculous question: who is the greatest human being to have ever lived?

Obviously, answering this question depends upon the criteria that one believes are associated with “greatness”.  Some factors that come to mind include an impact on society and civilization, perhaps extreme goodness, perhaps genius or courage.

And, of course, in answering this question me must necessarily limit ourselves to the constraints of recorded history.  That means that we know more about people who lived recently rather than a long time ago; more about men than women; and more about representatives of powerful states than about weaker states.  Hence our knowledge of history skews towards white, English-speaking men of the past 200 years.

But this is not a conclusive sort of exercise, merely a time-wasting game to keep me another 30 minutes away from a grant application deadline.

So here are the names that I’ve landed upon:

#5 – Nikola Tesla.  The cult of Tesla has found new life these recent decades, due mostly to the man’s supposed dealings in the occult.  But for most of the time after his death, the world had forgotten him.  Tesla made the modern technological world.  I believe his genius and knowledge of electricity and wireless transmission would still rival that of any living expert.  his genius and imagination were so far ahead of his time that I reel when considering what more he could have done for the world, had he not been hobbled by both mental illness and the small-mindedness of his peers.

#4 – Isaac Newton.  Perhaps the greatest scientist of all time.  In many ways, he singlehandedly usehered in the modern age.  By creating a transformative new mathematics (calculus) and fathoming the laws of physics that govern the whole universe, Newton opened the door to the possibilities of rational, empirical knowledge of the universe.  We all owe him our sagacity and the expanded limits of our communal knowledge.

#3 – Buddha.  Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince who forsook his wealth to literally find the meaning of life.  His humility and honesty shine through in his teachings.  His impact was multifold.  He introduced the world to a new way of considering spirituality within a mostly atheistic context, was unjudging and rational, and never proselytized.  More than any other religious leader or founder, I believe Buddha to have been truly great.

#2 – Leonardo.  I, like some others, believe that Leonardo was the most multitalented human being to have ever lived— that we know about today.  Scientist, artist, engineer, philosopher… anything he did, he did with not only world class expertise, but with such supreme excellence that few others would rival his level in all of human civilization.

#1 – Socrates.  We actually don’t know much about Socrates, except that which was written by Plato.  And even in those accounts, it’s unclear how much was Plato’s fiction and how much recorded fact.  But the portrait we have is of a man so committed to his ideals of reason and rationalism that he chose a horrible death strictly for the sake of sustaining his autonomy in philosophy.  I find this act, and the entire way in which he lived his life, to be emblematic of all that I love in Western civilization.  Socrates, to me, is the father of modern science, rationalism, liberal society and truth in thought.  And so I rate him as the greatest human being who has ever lived.

Clearly, other names could have made my list: Einstein, Darwin, Alexander, Lao Tse, etc.  I have my reasons for excluding these individuals.  How about you?  Who makes your list?