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Noted Historical Figures; Fame vs Influence

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(This essay was originally published on the History Community site)

We're all aware of great achievers in the past who were celebrated during their lifetimes and beyond; many of their accomplishments resonate today. But fame doesn’t invariably equal influence; the impact of a man’s (or woman’s) life’s work may prove ephemeral, failing the test of time, or judged somewhat overblown by succeeding generations. This essay proposes that each of the four well-known individuals presented here were, in the long term, not as consequential as their contemporaries anticipated.

Of course, these things can be damned hard to predict.




The Egyptian ruler, Cheops, is most remembered for his construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. We learned that his capital was at Memphis and that he had a long reign; little is known of his life. Even in ancient times, the Pyramid was considered one of the Wonders of the World. The perfection of its construction, that included internal chambers and passages, as well as its sheer size, still inspires awe. Roughly 2 million precisely cut blocks of stone, averaging two and a half tons, were used in its construction. A whole fleet of boats must have needed to transport the blocks as well as to feed a vast army of workers.

In sum, Cheops’ achievement was a triumph of sheer will and organization; he truly left his mark on the world. Will Napoleon or Michelangelo be remembered 5,000 years from now? The Great Pyramid has already endured for 4,500 years and will likely still be standing after buildings constructed by modern engineers have crumbled to dust; a direct nuclear strike wouldn’t obliterate it. At the present rate of erosion, it will last for a million years. However, as proposed, fame is distinct from influence. Cheops had, no doubt, a great effect upon the lives of his contemporaries but he doesn’t appear to have had much impact either upon foreign nations or succeeding generations. His influence was only local; he's become famous for being famous.


ferdinand-magellan.jpg <I

>The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.</I>

The Portuguese captain Magellan is celebrated as the leader of the first expedition to circumnavigate the earth; his expedition was likely the most outstanding- and fearless- voyage of exploration in history. His leadership and iron determination were the keys to success; facing mutinies, disease, and starvation, he prevailed. Of the 265 sailors, only eighteen returned; Magellan perished as well, but only after leading the expedition over the most challenging part of the trip. The tiny fleet of five leaky vessels took three years to complete the trip, only one survived to limp into a Portuguese port in 1522.

The actual influence of Magellan’s exploit was negligible. Contrary to the quote above, educated Europeans- including the higher echelons of the Church- knew quite well that the earth was round. His accomplishment, however heroic, shrinks in historical resonance when compared to his contemporary, Hernan Cortés the world-changing conqueror of Mexico. Or earlier, Columbus. Unlike Vasco da Gama’s previous expedition to India, no part of Magellan’s globe-traveling developed into a significant trade route. Magellan's feat brought him undying fame but his voyage failed to make a major impact on Europe or the East.

MARIE CURIE, 1867-1934


<i>A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.</i>

Marie Curie (originally Maria Slodowska) continues to be more famous than many other celebrated scientists. She was Polish and married Pierre Curie; an outstandingly talented scientist. Many have the impression that Marie discovered radioactivity however that was discovered by Antoine Becquerel; his priority is not debatable. The Curies began investigating his theory and, in the process, discovered and isolated the element radium which she called ‘polonium’, after her native land. In 1903, the Curies and Becquerel were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize.

Marie was accorded an additional Nobel Prize in 1911, this one in chemistry, becoming the first to win two Nobels. Marie had two young children and the daughter, Irene, was also an accomplished scientist (and world-class pianist). Irene, in turn, married another scientist, and discovering <i>artificial</i> radioactivity, earned yet another Nobel. Quite a family! Marie died of leukemia 1934, likely the result of radiation exposure.

Marie Curie’s career demonstrated beyond doubt that a female was capable of high-quality scientific research. However, a majority of scientists these days believe that her great fame was derived not so much from the importance of her scientific work but the fact that a woman did it. They also weigh in the balance that her husband and partner, Pierre, was equally important.



<i> I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent</i>

Gandhi was the principal leader of the movement for the independence of British-owned India. Although still nominally loyal to the British Empire, he began to organize nonviolent protests when it cracked down on civil liberties after World War I. Following the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, in which hundreds were gunned down by British soldiers, Gandhi began forming large scale campaigns of civil disobedience that paralyzed the administration. He became a national symbol and his career took off.

Gandhi’s concepts weren’t entirely original; they included a potpourri of Thoreau, Tolstoy, the New Testament, and various Hindu writings. He was also an extreme eccentric. In his ‘ashram’ he would frequently bathe and sleep naked alongside young women (he was married) allegedly a deliberate trial to resist the temptations of the flesh. In 1921 Mahatma ('great soul') renounced Western clothing; his loincloth and cane would make him immediately recognizable, in retrospect, a triumph of merchandising.

In the late 30s, Gandhi sent several naive letters to Hitler, ‘my friend’, urging him to abjure violence and to join him in his peaceful crusade of brotherhood.


British intelligence intercepted the letters before reaching Hitler.

Gandhi’s technique of non-violence was ultimately successful in persuading the British to leave India. However, India might have gained independence with more forceful methods; it’s hard to determine whether his activities speeded up or delayed it. If universally adopted, Gandhi’s policies would change the world but they were not even generally accepted in India. In 1954, his techniques were used in an attempt to persuade the Portuguese to relinquish control of Goa. It failed and the Indian government launched a successful invasion. Since then India has fought three major wars with Pakistan.

As a provocateur, Gandhi was fortunate in his time and place; the forbearance of the British Raj ensured his survival. Given the historical forces tending toward independence, it seems likely that Indian independence would have been achieved if he never lived; imperialism was already losing steam. Clearly, Gandhi's message of peace and comradeship has not, to the present day, been followed; neither in India nor in the world. Was he a failure? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s worth remembering that decades after Jesus died, a well-informed Roman would have considered him a failure- if, indeed, he had ever heard of Jesus at all. However, at this juncture in history, Gandhi's career appears to be an example of fame over influence.

Edited by Childress

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6 hours ago, Childress said:

Clearly, Gandhi's message of peace and comradeship has not, to the present day, been followed; neither in India nor in the world.

Not so fast. Gandhi seems to have had influence both broad and deep on the Civil Rights movement in the US during the '50s and '60s. If blacks led by Martin Luther King, Jr. had not pursued a course of non-violence, it might well have turned into a bloodbath. Much the same can be said about the anti-war movement that came along a little later. Non-violence is not always effective, I doubt that it would have made any impression on the Nazis, but when confronting foes who have any pretensions to being civilized, it can exert strong moral force.


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Gandhi's tactics can only work within the framework of a shaken culture, for example, the crisis of confidence in the United States's that followed the evident failure in Vietnam. Any British viceroy would have made quick work of Gandhi in the 19th Century.

What did you make off the other three subjects?  This essay probably doesn't belong here, but what the hey. ;)

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