Nowadays it may be easy to recognize certain figures. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates will go down in history as hard working and magnanimous individuals. Vladimir Putin will be infamous to Western onlookers for the invasion of Ukraine after the 2014 Winter Olympics. Others, however, have had a huge impact on their respective epochs but just aren’t recognized today. We may call someone “Hitler” for having an austere and malicious character or “Caesar” for their megalomania, but who are those historical figures that we’ve forgotten along the way?
This list is devoted to historical figures that you may find in a textbook, but would have never heard about if it wasn’t for that friend that took too much of an interest in historical French economic systems or ancient Greek poetry; people that may have been famous in their own time, but just don’t get the recognition they deserve today. These figures may have been emperors, contributed important scientific theories, or they may have even wrote books you can find in your local store, but for some reason we’ve forgotten how much they truly influenced contemporary society.
10. Cesare Beccaria (1738AD-1794AD)
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m glad I didn’t arbitrarily lose my feet today at the hands of the state”? Neither have I, and the reason for that is a man named Cesare Beccaria. In 1764, Beccaria’s essay “On Crimes and Punishment” not only identified the problem of disproportionate sentences (like dying in the stocks for stealing a loaf of bread), but expounded his idea of proper sentencing procedures and appropriate punishments as well. He was also a crucial proponent against capital punishment. We can thank our not-so-bloody stars for that.
9. Cardinal Richelieu (1585AD-1642AD)
If you’ve never taken an early modern history class then chances are you haven’t come across this name. Cardinal Richelieu was the closest confidante and minister to King Louis XII who, among other things, began consolidating France into an absolute monarchy. This was a big deal to the French who, a century later, would spit on it with derision during the French Revolution. Richelieu was indispensable in his role of developing the iron hold of Louis’ state because, well, the King was only a teenager at the time. With extensive reliance on Richelieu, Louis was able to crush the Huguenots, squelch the overbearing Austrians, and bring France to its most glorified state since Charlemagne. Why is all this important for us? Well, Richelieu was two things — ruthless and tyrannical; both of which allowed him to suppress the impoverished French citizenry in a way that, once King Louis XVI comes along, crumbles quickly. If the French Revolution gave birth to the modern state, Richelieu’s iron-fisted statesmanship is one of its main catalysts.
8. Bernard Mandeville (1670AD-1733AD)
Many people attribute the individualistic nature of modern society to free-market capitalism. No wonder then, some of the most highly esteemed thinkers of the enlightenment were the likes of John Locke (who placed life, liberty and property as the heart of human rights) and Adam Smith (the “father of modern capitalism”). However, another figure did much more to encourage and propagate individualism. Bernard Mandeville, an 18th century Dutch physician wrote “The Fable of the Bees” in which he propounds the argument that human beings are naturally rational and selfish… but mostly selfish. In fact, humans are so selfish that any person who, say, gives to a beggar does so only with the intention of getting them to bugger off (or impress their girlfriend); but they would much rather “cane [them] with much greater satisfaction.” Does this pragmatic doctrine sound familiar? It should. Its modern counterpart is summarized in the saying “this is business, it ain’t personal.”
7. Hesiod (c. 750BC- c. 650BC)
Sure, we’ve all heard of Aristotle and no doubt you’ve at least seen a movie based on Homer’s epic poems (does anyone remember Brad Pitt’s butt in Troy?). But there was another figure that shaped ancient Greece and who had a strong influence on our world today. Hesiod was an early Greek poet acknowledged for writing “Works and Days” (you ever heard of it? Me neither). Before the Protestants had their own work ethic, Hesiod prescribed a life of diligence and simplicity. Before Charlie Harper, Hesiod’s misogynistic rants flooded the lines of his writing. Hesiod personified the underrepresented half of ancient Greek poetry, the Boeotian school, who preached a much more practical way of life. Keep that in mind the next time you come across a person who tries to tell you that individuals have to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. That’s not a new idea. People have been thinking it for thousands of years.
6. Marcus Aurelius (121AD-180AD)
Who hasn’t heard of the names of the Roman Emperors Augustus and Julius Caesar? They’ve already “gone down in history.” There are months named after them! Even Caligula may be recognized due to his bat-s**t insanity. However, Marcus Aurelius, another emperor of Rome, shares a much less powerful spotlight. Aurelius’ most well-known work “Meditations” made a strong case for the ethic of Stoicism, a philosophy based on repression of emotion and the primacy of reason. Furthermore, Aurelius was a huge proponent of the “if your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it too?” camp. His philosophy placed at its center, the need for a person to act to their fullest, regardless of the beliefs of the general public, a belief that is accepted by many ancient and modern thinkers alike. In fact, this kind of philosophy should be very familiar to the modern person. It’s exactly what you can find in the self-help section of any bookstore. Not to mention you’ve been quoting him in your tweets and on your Facebook wall for years and didn’t even know it.
5. The Q Source (???AD)
Amittedly, it’s impossible for anyone to actually know who this figure really is or if they existed at all. As a matter of fact, the Q source is surrounded by one of the most prevalent mysteries in the Catholic Church — why do the Gospels of Matthew and Luke look so much alike? They share the same stories and are even in the same order. The “source” of the Q sources is even more baffling. It may have been derived from the earliest writings of the followers of Jesus or it may have been directly from Jesus himself; it also may not even exist. Whatever the case may be, this source has a profound impact on Christians and non-Christians alike. What does it say about the validity of the works themselves? Who, or what, is this mystery writer? God himself?
4. Leif Erikson (c. 1000AD- c.1100AD)
The old song goes “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and then he discovered North America in 1492, right? Well it’s difficult to discover anything when there are already inhabitants living there I suppose. Alright, but let’s just say the natives populating North America weren’t there; then it would’ve been Columbus who laid claim to the new world, right? Wrong again. Before our fearless founder, there was Leif Erikson and his merry band of Vikings. As a young explorer, Erikson was commissioned by his father, Erik the Red, to voyage to Greenland and proselytize the natives as Christians. Upon completion, his boat sailed off course and landed on modern-day Nova Scotia, naming it “Vinland” (likely due to the wild outgrowths of grapes). However, Erikson never colonized this new land and promptly left, never to return. So much for a new and triumphant founder’s story.
3. Thucydides (c.460BC-c.395BC)
If you’ve ever looked at the political (or really any) system and thought, “what a power-seeking game,” then you have shared in one of the oldest ideas around. Thucydides was a 5th century thinker who believed that, because human nature was to be acquisitive and megalomaniacal, politics is often driven by a struggle for power. In other words, humans are inescapably wretched creatures. In modern times, this is best illustrated in the realist school of thought that views the human condition as a constant fight for dominion over others in an anarchic world. Accordingly, any action of altruism is, in truth, done for one’s own self-preservation or advancement. I suppose we’ve all come to these sad conclusions at one point.
2. Pierre Bayle (1647AD-1706AD)
Pierre Bayle is perhaps one of the most interesting figures that we often overlook when studying the enlightenment. Not only was he a huge influence on both George Berkeley, the 18th century idealist, and David Hume, the 18th century skeptical empiricist (both of which are still gargantuan names in contemporary philosophical study, among other things), he also pioneered the encyclopedia. That’s right, before Wikipedia there were books that people used to flip through (by hand!) to find information. That means all of the comfort and ease of quick wiki searches about Putin’s cranial diameter or Kim Kardashian’s bust size is due, in part, to this man’s work. You’re welcome world. Bayle was also a devoted skeptic who, through his wit and poignancy, revealed many flaws in old religious doctrines. This was no small feat since the Catholic Empire was still large enough to make your legs buckle.
1. John Dalton (1766AD-1844AD)
Atomism, the idea that all things are composites that can be reduced to a single, indivisible substance, has been around for millennia. However, modern science, as it is today, did not adopt such a position so strongly until it was forwarded by a man named John Dalton. Like any scientist will tell you, proof for a phenomenon must be quite substantial for it to be accepted, and problematically, many atomic theories were no more than conjecture. The corpuscularians, contemporaneous with Dalton, posited that atoms are differently shaped and bind by bumping into other atoms with complementary curves and edges. Dalton, however, advanced the argument that what sets atoms apart is their dissimilar weights, a theory that is widely accepted by the contemporary scientific community. So, what’s the upshot of all this? Well it’s simple really. Without Dalton, we wouldn’t even be able to say what we’re made of. Seems like kind of a fundamental question, no?