A few weeks ago on Deadspin (on Left Handers Day, of all things), writer Clover Hope asked, “Who Is The Most Famous Person Ever?” To me, that’s a fairly nebulous question that requires some definition.
- Are they known for their actions, works, or influences?
- Were they famous in history and will remain in the future?
- Is famous among living people important?
- Are they known worldwide, even if their actions were not?
- Do they have celebrity, or notoriety?
Working backwards, the last three are the easiest to answer.
To my mind, notoriety matters. World famous opera singers and ballet dancers of the 19th century are long forgotten. The only celebrities of the past who are still widely known are those whose works continue to influence others: composers and artists (e.g. Mozart, Picasso). Today’s musicians and athletes are passing fancies.
They need to transcend society. I don’t care how famous pop singers are or were (e.g. Michael Jackson), they only affect those who know them. Even actors in movies that rake in a billion dollars have a limited shelf life – and none at all if the media ceases to exist.
Fame among the living also isn’t that important. Aesop was reportedly a real person, and the life of Homer is questioned. But both were unlikely to be famous in their time. It was only as centuries passed and their stories handed down that people heard of their names.
The second question is where I question things because a person’s notoriety can change over time. In his time, Martin Luther was infamous, the catholics wanted his head while the protestants celebrated him. Five hundred years on, he’s a historical footnote. If practical use of things like string theory, quantum mechanics or any other hard-to-grasp science becomes possible, the scientists who worked on them could become far more well known than they are.
Which bring me to the first, the only one that really makes a difference because actions, works and influences are what change the world and what people remember. For better or worse, for good or bad, it’s those who are remembered for how they affect the world that are the most famous. Alexander Parkes and Leo Baekeland may not be household names to most, but if the world dies choking on plastic, people will be cursing their names.
I have two “most famous” lists, the “good or less than awful”:
- Pythagoras of Samos
- Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato
- Cleopatra VII Philopator
- Claudius Ptolemy
- Charlemagne aka Charles I
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Nostradamus (*)
- Nicolaus Copernicus
- William Shakespeare
- Isaac Newton
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Albert Einstein
(* Michel de Nostredame is more noteworthy for his Black Plague cures and changing attitudes toward hygiene.)
And then there’s the reprehensible:
- Alexander the warmonger (nothing “great” about that)
- Julius Caesar
- Genghis Khan
- Lucrezia Borgia
- Queen Victoria of England
- Adolf Hitler
These lists are far from complete, primarily because of my limited knowledge, personal and cultural biases (too Euro-centric), and because of how women have been written out of history. Any suggestions?