History is full of legendary figures who transformed their eras. Julius Caesar. Genghis Khan. Napoleon Bonaparte. But if we step back and look at the whole of human history, who are the true revolutionaries who transformed not just their eras, but the entire course of human history thereafter?
A look at the Top 8:
8: Albert Einstein. The 20th century witnessed a revolution in science, with the advent of quantum mechanics by Max Planck in 1900. The subsequent 117 years have witnessed an explosion in scientific discovery that has transformed humanity more than all previous generations could have imagined. There are too many contributors to this revolution to name them all: Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Francis Crick, James Watson, Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, Nicola Tesla. If nothing else, Albert Einstein stands as the symbolic leader of this group, whose theory of relativity revolutionized a scientific establishment that had been lulled into a complacent acceptance of Newtonian mechanics.
7. Isaac Newton. The original scientific revolution dates to the 16th century, when Nicolaus Copernicus overturned Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe by proposing that the Earth and planets rotate around the Sun. Galileo advanced this revolutionary model, while Sir Francis Bacon introduced empiricism as the forerunner of the scientific method. At the forefront of the scientific revolution stands Sir Isaac Newton with his discoveries of calculus, gravity and the laws of motion. Newton’s classical mechanics still stand to this day alongside 20th century quantum mechanics as the two main schools of physics. In addition to being one of the greatest scientists of all time, Newton wrote extensively on religion, delving into alchemy and Neoplatonism.
6. Aristotle. In some ways the inventor of physics, Aristotle’s rational look at the universe marked humanity’s first real break from superstition. No longer afraid of disturbing the spirits, Aristotle took a hard, objective look at the physical world and developed rational conclusions free of myths and legends. Although his immediate following was relatively small compared to that of his teacher, Plato, Aristotle’s ideas were recognized by Greek, Arabic and Latin scholars in the Middle Ages as the fundamental basis of physics and logic. His teachings on physics endured for 2000 years until they were overturned by Newton, and his teachings on logic endure to the present day.
5. Moses. A good case can be made that Moses is the most influential person in history. A majority of the world’s population (Christians, Muslims, and Jews) trace their religion back to Abraham, whose revolutionary religion of monotheism was codified for the Jewish civilization by Moses. Moses transformed the world’s fundamental understanding of God, creation and reality. The idea that God was not to be found in statues, the stars or any other natural object, but stood outside the universe as its creator, was revolutionary. Equally revolutionary was a morality based on love of God and neighbor, rather than sacrificing one’s greatest possessions (even children) to whichever spirit best served your interests.
4. Buddha. In many respects, Buddha is to Hinduism what Jesus is to Judaism. Buddha transformed the local sacrificial religion of ancient India into a quest for enlightenment that transcends cultural boundaries. His ideas spread both east and west, from China, Japan and southeast Asia to ancient Greece, where his ideas helped lay the foundation for the Roman Empire’s stoicism that ultimately gave way to Christianity. Despite Buddhism’s universal appeal, we must still note that there remain more Hindus than Buddhists in the world today, as Islam and secular atheism have made greater inroads in parts east Asia where Buddhism formerly dominated.
3. Mohammed. There are nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world today, dominating the tropics from Morocco to Indonesia. The spread of Islam is perhaps the fastest revolution in human history. There were no Muslims in the world in 600 AD. 100 years later, Islam had spread from Spain to western India. Within three more centuries, Islam had spread as far as southeast Asia, where it today accounts for a majority of the population in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Teaching on the fringes of the Roman Empire, where people were struggling to understand conflicting versions of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, Mohammed proclaimed the simple message of submission to the one God. With instability in the Middle East creating a wave of Muslim migration today, the rest of the world finds itself for the first time trying to reconcile cultural tensions with a religion that had largely been confined to the eastern hemisphere's tropics for most of its history.
2. Plato. “All philosophy is a footnote to Plato.” While Plato severed the grip of polytheistic superstition on the western world and gave us the rationalistic worldview of his student Aristotle, even a casual look at this man’s writings shows that religion was at the forefront of his concerns. From the eternal existence and reincarnation of the soul in Phaedo to the Form of the Good in The Republic, Plato laid the foundation for many religious principles that have crept not only into Christianity, but into perhaps every world religion. An emerging scope of academic discipline is examining who influenced whom: ancient Greece or ancient India. The fact that many religious doctrines are spelled out for the first time not in the Bible but in the writings of Plato makes this man a must read for the religious and philosophical alike. When it became clear that Christianity was overtaking stoicism as the primary ethos of the Roman Empire, antiquity’s greatest intellectuals turned back to Plato to try to salvage a non-Christian worldview in the school of Neoplatonism. The rediscovery of Plato in the Renaissance marks the true revolution in western Europe from the Middle Ages to the modern period. Nearly all of western civilization’s (and perhaps a great deal of eastern civilization’s) ideas find their origins in the writings of this man. At the same time we must acknowledge that Plato's morality, with his vision of a caste society governed by elitist philosophers, where physicians exist to help the strong become stronger while the sick are left to suffer and die, and babies deemed unfit are murdered, is fundamentally abhorrent.
1. Jesus Christ. Call me biased, but no human being has transformed the world to the extent that Jesus Christ has. Ancient Greece and Rome are glorified by modern culture to an extent that we forget the world was truly a barbaric place before Jesus Christ. Just 400 years before Jesus, ancient Greece was fighting for its life against the Persian Empire, and those 400 years were marked by horrific violence amongst Romans, Carthaginians, Gauls, Seleucids and the Ptolemies. 400 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman Empire was overrun by barbarians, and the following centuries would see ravaging conquests by Arabs, Slavs, Bulgarians, Vikings and Magyars. Aside from the Arabs, they were all tamed by Jesus Christ. Every other person on this list was either born into status or achieved widespread temporal recognition in their own lifetime. Jesus Christ lived most of his life as a manual laborer in the backwater of the Roman Empire, where he then preached for three years and was summarily executed when he went to the local capital in Jerusalem. And yet the simple story of his life, death and resurrection has transformed every civilization in the world. The Roman Empire briefly converted to Christianity before being overrun by pagan barbarians, and those barbarians were then overrun by Christianity. Ethiopia converted to Christianity in the Book of Acts and hasn’t looked back for 2000 years. The Church of the East spread Christianity from Persia to India and China in the first millennium, and it declined in the 15th century just in time for Portuguese and Spanish explorers to introduce Catholicism. North and South America have remained devoutly Christian since the Good News first arrived here. And in Jesus Christ we find the strongest rebuke to Plato: "They that are strong have not need of a physician, but those who are ill." The heart of Jesus Christ isn’t a quest for enlightenment, sacrificial oblation or conquest, but the gift of self in love.