Who do I think were the top five geniuses in history who (and this is important) contributed their gifts to humanity in a very significant way? After all, there are closet geniuses who go mad or die in anonymity, the depths of their understanding of things never to be known. And then there are great contributers to humanity, like Edison and Bell, who to me while obviously extremely bright individuals, don't rate up there with the "top shelf" geniuses*.
In fact, true, pure genius coupled with the appropriate circumstances of birth, the right temperament to get their ideas out, and generally to not isolate themselves in their own island of insight would seem to be a rare thing, with one not in any way implying or needing the other. That's what makes this list so special. Here they are, for me. And not in any order, that would only make me tear my hair out!
Leonardo da Vinci
You'll notice my list isn't politically correct. All five are white. There are no women. There are three Brits (what are the odds?), one German, and one Italian. All Western Europeans, in other words. And three are outright scientists, one is a man of many trades including what we now call science, and only only is a master of humanities (writer) and not a scientist at all.
Still, I stand by them.
Is cultural bias a factor is my determination? Oh, without a doubt. I speak English and four of these five did too. I was brought up indoctrinated in Western concepts about science and literature, and my choices reflect that. That women seldom had a chance to make a truly large impact on society is one of the great tragedies of history, but that's how it happened and I can't change it, even if I do deeply regret that is was so. The same goes for non-Western peoples in general. I know relatively little about China's long, glorious and tumultuous history. I know about Sun Tzu. Similarly, I don't know as much about other cultures whose peaks have already come and gone, nor do the fickle pages of history. We are looking through a lens, darkly, and there is no way to be "fair."
But here you'll get many an argument, and many good ones. The person I had the most trouble leaving off the list was The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, for I believed he did truly change the world in as profound a way as anyone who has ever lived. Buddhism is a hugely influential philosophy (I refuse to call it a religion) which has had an enormous impact in India, China, Southeast Asia, and nowadays all over the globe, as it grows and gains favor in Europe, the United States, and just about everywhere else. But was The Buddha a genius? That is my reason for ultimately leaving him out. He was almost an anti-genius, in the sense that he had to unlearn everything he had learned as a well-educated prince and get back to the very seed of what it means to be human, what existence means or rather, how to unask that very question and simply live. In this way, he enlightened himself and millions of others, but in our rather narrow view of 'genius' in the West equating to great thought and ideas, he actually deliberately moved away from that paradigm entirely. For "genius" as a concept inherently implies a dualism within human beings - some must be smarter than others. That is anathema to The Buddha's vision that we're are all waves on one big ocean, parts of a whole, not things in and of ourselves, separate from existence, but part and parcel of it. Existence itself is unity and since one cannot get outside of it, it can never be understood. The act of even trying to "understand" is actually folly and self-deception, and true contentment comes when the Self lets that idea go and then ultimately, lets the Self go as well.
THEN, depending on your bent, there is Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pascal, Descartes, Lavoisier, Hammurabi, Imhotep, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes, Democritus, Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Camus, Galileo, Von Neumann, Turing, Cantor, Leibniz, Euler, Riemann, Hilbert, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Schumann, Bach, Debussy, Mohammed, Lao-Tzu, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Paine, Roger and Francis Bacon, Chaucer, Fermi, Feynman, Flemming, Goddard, Watson & Crick, Goedel, Hubble, Keynes, Salk, Picasso, Gutenberg, Adams, Hamilton, Adam Smith, Lincoln, Marx, Mandela, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Ford, Mao, Schroedinger, Heisenburg, Bohr, Boyle, Preistly, Maxwell, Mendeleev, Gordon Moore, Tim Berners-Lee, and even some of my own personal favorites, Isaac Asimov, JRR Tolkien, Sylvia Plath, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, Edward O. Wilson, Martin Rees, Bob Marley, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Drake, Thom Yorke, Morrissey, Robert Smith, Brendan Perry, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon!
As you see we could keep going on like this endlessly. I inevitably left off dozens or hundreds of equally brilliant or influential people, some of whom might be amongst your own personal icons. I know I gave short shrift to religious figures. There's no doubt they influence many, many people (the Pope, for example), but are they geniuses? I say no. A few - Thomas Aquinas comes to mind - come close to being extraordinarily bright and influential. Yet how to tell who is "smarter" than another, or who had the most true impact, rather than just riding the crest of a wave whose time had come, and receiving the most credit. And notice I still didn't name any women (except Plath). This was deliberate, because there have been lots of great, brilliant, influential women, and to mention any few of them (like Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Ada Lovelace, Margaret Sanger...) would be to do a disservice to them all. So I leave that long list out, just because making more and more lists isn't getting back to my point.
My point is, we live in a world dominated by Western thought, technologies, and lifestyle, whether we like it or not. Yes, China is on the rise, but largely because it has Westernized itself economically and somewhat socially. Japan certainly has become a 'Western' nation since WW2 in everything but geographic location. Islam and Catholicism sadly have the Middle East and Africa living largely in medieval conditions, surpressing any great thinkers or doers that may arise from there. And Latin America has had its share of great leaders (Simon Bolivar for one), but has always struggled with poverty, political upheavals, and the inability to unite to form a true continental identity, the way America's "Manifest Destiny" triumphantly and tragically did for North America. Great Britain led the way for the colonization of most of the world in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and Germany playing their parts, and thus in a sense "Westernized" nearly the entire globe in some way. "Idea-flow" certainly went more from Europe into the third world than the other way around. And in the 20th century, especially the latter half, it was the United States who ascended and exported its culture to the rest of the world, and continues to do so to this day (much to the dismay of many).
So, in this climate, it's not a question of cultural relativism or who would be such-and-such in a hypothetical "fair" world. It's a question of looking at the real world as it is, the only one we've got, and deciding which figures in history have, by dint of their extraordinary original ideas and their successful application to and propagation within society in general, contributed the most to that world which we now inhabit, physically, culturally, socioeconomically, philosophically, and in every other way.
And my contention, though I've a supremely open mind on the subject and would love to hear YOUR lists, arguments for and against my choices, and so one, is that the five people I named above have "netted," if you will, the largest totals of pure genius + extraordinary impact with regards to their continued influence on our modern lives.
*Nikola Tesla did in my opinion, but he didn't have the same kind of impact as did Edison did at the time due to being somewhat blacklisted by that man; although he did invent radio (though Marconi used to get the credit), X-rays (though Roentgen still gets the credit), radio controlled devices, alternating current (AC) power (the kind used throughout the world; batteries use DC or direct current power, which cannot be transmitted far), and many, many other things that are still not appreciated to this day because he seemed also to have no head for business, unlike Edison, and failed to patent many of his inventions. He was pretty true to the stereotype of "the absent minded professor."
Wednesday, April 7
- Can we answer every question?
- Horror movies.
- Anyone want to learn Elvish?
- I've been ill, but I think I'm getting better.
- "The best argument against democracy is a five-min...
- Substitute teacher: Followup.
- Substitute teacher.
- More U2 videos, then onto more serious things (sor...
- One of Jackson's relatives,
- 1 millisecond.
- Brendan Perry.
- Five most influential geniuses.
- Wish List.
- Dream staircase.
- No title.
- My amazing mom.
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