How is it that history is so commonly reduced to lists? Perhaps it’s our need to organize the incredible breadth and complexity of the past, which is no easy task. Or maybe we’re just impatient. Recently, I’ve come across three examples of historical list-making, all of which have the potential to spark really stimulating historical discussions, if we take them seriously.
Just today, for instance, I ran across a Time article called “Who’s Biggest?” It’s aim is to calculate the “100 Most Significant Figures in History.” Authors Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward, on whose book Who’s Bigger the article is based, freely admit they are not approaching the question of the significance of historical figures like historians, but rather as data geeks–those are my words. As they put it, “we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.”
Skiena and Ward don’t expect us all to agree with their choices, but argue that they’re reasonable, though with the caveat that they’re based on Western, English sources. Here’s their top ten:
4 William Shakespeare
5 Abraham Lincoln
6 George Washington
7 Adolf Hitler
9 Alexander the Great
10 Thomas Jefferson
What jumps out from the beginning is the preponderance of political figures: six of the top ten and just about half of the 100 (alongside 25 philosophical or religious figures, eight scientists or inventors, and 16 from the world of art, literature, and music). Overall, I’m not certain the composers ought to rank as high as they do, and there are certainly too many British monarchs and US presidents on the list, but it does serve to raise some important historical questions: How important are individuals in the making of history? Is a political leader more important than a cultural figure? In what ways do religious and philosophical figures exercise their influence (Jesus, #1; Muhammad, #3; or Aristotle, #8)? Would you trade a light bulb (Thomas Edison, #40) for great music (Beethoven, #27)?
There are no end of debates to be had. John Calvin at #99? John Locke at #100? Henry VIII at #11? Ulysses S. Grant at #28? Hmmm.