The great movers of history
IT IS a debate that never dies: Do great individuals make history or do they merely ride on the back of a constellation of forces that define their society and age? Was Napoleon Bonaparte a brilliant military leader who shook the European continent in the 19th century or did the class wars of his time make an ordinary mortal, a mediocre, in the words of Marx, “strut about in a hero’s garb”?
The same analogy may be made for titans like Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler, messianic men whose charismatic personalities and demonic egos plunged their countries and a large portion of humanity into prolonged paroxysms of destruction: A proud, defeated Germany, forced to pay what it considered onerous, humiliating reparations after World War I, spawned an explosive generation of angry, alienated individuals clamoring for a savior, which Hitler gladly fulfilled. In that same era, a once-sleeping dragon, China, torn apart by civil war after decades of Western domination, valiantly fought off Japanese imperial forces deep in its heartland. The undisputed leader who came to symbolize the billion-plus Chinese people’s deep hunger for a just and prosperous society and its rightful place in the world was none other than Mao. Like Hitler, Mao would push his people to the tipping point of physical and mental endurance and into great ruin. It would be up to a more pragmatic, less ideological set of leaders led by the diminutive Deng Xiaoping to clean up the mess and usher in China’s dynamic entry into the 21st century.
The widespread destruction wrought on the human landscape by Napoleon, Mao and Hitler established them as great movers of history, herein defined simply as extraordinary characters who appeared at the right time and place amid a tsunami of forces (social, religious, political, technological and economic) prevailing in a particular period. Due to space constraints, this essay will limit itself to nonreligious actors and agents of change.
On the flip side, this definition may equally apply to the “good heroes” that have enlivened libraries and bookstores through the ages because they stamped and defined their generation in unforgettable fashion: strong moralistic men such as the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln; the savior of Britain, Winston Churchill; and the apostle of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi.
It’s quite easy to admire Lincoln, an imposing giant of a man with sad, gaunt features that seemed to be cut from granite. Add a log-cabin home, self-tutoring, a great cause (emancipation of slaves) during a young nation’s crucible (civil war), immortal prose (his Gettysburg speech) and an assassin’s bullet, and you have all the elements of greatness.
Churchill’s historical ascent may be attributed to his bulldog tenacity, flair for the dramatic, and rhetorical brilliance which he combined to inspire his beleaguered people and the demoralized Western allies to fight on.
As for Gandhi, his revolutionary nonviolent civil-disobedience approach to national independence galvanized a dispirited people to great heights and forced Britain to capitulate. His novel way to confront British guns by neutralizing them with the weapons of democratic language and ideals has been replicated many times, in the modern era, thus confirming the adage, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
What about individuals who seemed to have moved outside the “box of history,” persons who were not only the creatures of their environment but who also seemed to have transformed, or even created, a larger, totally different environment?
Here the list is very short. The standouts are extraordinarily gifted individuals like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. Granted both men benefited from countless ideas, theories and experiments about the mysteries of life, nature and the cosmos, such as the invention of the magnetic compass, gunpowder, paper and printing (from ancient China) which, taken together, fueled the West’s age of discovery, the renaissance, and the industrial revolution. But these two men saw reality through radically different eyes, as if they were advanced species from another planet.
Take Einstein’s famed E=MC2. Those four figures, as we now know, were the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe which, at that time (early 20th century), was still in the thrall and grip of Newton’s laws on motion and gravity.
Simply put, it meant that mass and energy were one and the same thing because they are interchangeable forms of matter. Energy is liberated mass; mass is potential energy. It was a revolutionary, heretical way of looking at reality and, like most things new, was ignored and unappreciated by the scientific community for over a decade. But it would prove to be a vision the modern world cannot do without. Even now, a century later, nothing in our civilization and virtually the entire universe is outside the scope of Einstein’s theory on relativity. Everything using nuclear energy, such as submarines, aircraft carriers and nuclear plants, are products of Einstein’s famed equation. E=MC2 explains the invisible forces at work in life, such as electromagnetic radioactivity in cell phones, radio, television, personal computers, x-ray scanners at airports and hospitals—and our very origin, the Big Bang.
Edison is in a similar pantheon as Einstein: His invention of motion pictures and the phonograph, and harnessing light waves to light up homes, the workplace, schools, hospitals, vehicles, trains, planes, ships and entire cities changed the world forever.
It’s hard to imagine our planet without these towering geniuses.
Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author, speech writer, essayist and former diplomat.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.