I have seen several accounts in recent years about how awful different political leaders were. From Pope Alexander the VI hosting orgies in the papacy to Gandhi exposing himself to minors, there is no shortage of the weird, the obscure and the terrible in history. Indeed, many of the conquerors of the world were awful men, and I say men as so many of them were. They subjugated, enslaved, dominated and pillaged— it was their bread and butter.
On the opposite hand, the history of innovation is the history that has granted the Western world it’s indulgences. Paper money led to better accounting which led to greater personal wealth which led to mercantile societies which lead to the Renaissance, along with better ships, caravans and other better ways of securing one’s wealth.
Yet, it is the conquerors and the pillagers and the great rapists of the world who are most praised. I would like to make the claim, that it is because they were so awful that we so often recognize them.
Certainly, no one is going to have any great reverence to The Great Khan, yet, many people do exonerate the great emperors. I myself am a huge fan of Napoleon Bonaparte for his shocking ability to rise from nothing to end up dominating most of Europe. Millions died at Napoleon’s request and hand, yet millions more know of his deeds.
We honor and recognize those figures of history not because of their goodness per se, but because of how interesting and impressive their exploits were. Mother Theresa was a wonderful, caring, and benevolent figure. Similarly, Napoleon was an ambitious, ingenious and charismatic leader. Both have contributed to this world, yet it is because of their profound success in their field that they are remembered, not because they were even close to being “on the same side”.
It is the extreme and radical and intense figures, both benevolent and awful, who remain the most interesting to read about and to learn about. Indeed, there have been countless documentaries on such extreme figures as Hitler, Leopold, and Lenin, yet there also remains a plethora of stories about the great individuals of our world, Nelson Mandela, Jesus of Nazareth (can’t emphasize “plethora” enough here), and Winston Churchill. These individuals are remembered for the power they wielded which profoundly changed the course of human history, and they remain interesting and relevant because of that, not because they were either good or evil.
It is power that changed the course of history, irrelevant of good and evil. Whether that power has come into the world as innovation and trade, or domination and armies is the only question. It is the powerful who changed history, and who thus will be remembered.
Until next time,