In a society where the top 1% of households control over a third of America’s wealth, power and influence are often equated to riches. Those who run for presidency spend inordinate sums to gain power – in 2012 Obama and Romney spent $2 billion on their election campaigns – so it often seems that the rich donors are the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. Money talks; those who can afford to slip a few extra bills in the right direction are more likely to get what they want. With the odds – and the notes – stacked in the favour of the rich, is it possible to be both powerful and poor in the modern world?
Religious figures, such as Jesus and Mohammed, proved that you don’t have to be wealthy to make an impact on the world. Despite the emphasis on things other than wealth and personal gain, the influence of figures like these spans the globe, affecting lives worldwide even thousands of years later.
Figures such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama are held up as modern examples of the power of ideology over wealth. Of course, they are figureheads of institutions which have developed their sphere of influence over thousands of years. Indeed, in the case of the Catholic Church, the institution itself is hugely wealthy despite the Pope’s formal vow of poverty (the Church is often frequently critiqued for its ornate displays of wealth, although this is something Pope Francis has been keen to move away from since his inauguration).
There are, however, secular and non-spiritual examples of those who have significantly altered the way in which we view the world without gaining vast wealth. Although Albert Einstein, for example, did not make it onto this list as he died moderately wealthy, his earnings within his lifetime are in no way comparable to the effect his theorems had on the world (and much of his now $12 million fortune was accrued after his death).
The following 5 people indisputably changed or strongly influenced the modern world, yet lived lives of poverty without ever benefitting financially from the power they, knowingly or unknowingly, held.
5. Mother Teresa (moral and spiritual)
Mother Teresa’s power arguably transcended the Christianity she preached. Although she was at heart a missionary, her work went beyond religious doctrine to inspire change in the way in which we view charitable giving and works. Specifically, she founded the ‘Missionaries of Charity’ to run hospices and homes for sufferers of HIV, leprosy and tuberculosis which helped to change the way in which the victims of these diseases (previously vilified or feared by many) were viewed and treated by the world.
However, although her influence was positive in many ways, she remained a highly controversial figure due to her campaigns against contraception. Proving that even good intentions are not enough when in the public eye, the hospices which she founded have also come under scrutiny for their substandard conditions. Ultimately, though, Mother Teresa has become an icon in Christian and secular culture for her kindness and charity. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church (the third step towards sainthood) and in 2003 won a Nobel Peace Prize for her works.
4. Vincent Van Gogh (artistic)
Perhaps the embodiment of the penniless artist, Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime (to the art-collecting sister of one of his friends). Although his painting ‘portrait of Dr. Gachet’ sold for $82.5 million in 1990 (worth a whopping $149.5 million now, when adjusted for inflation) Van Gogh died penniless, his work unrecognised. His expressionistic style has influenced countless prolific artists, including Jackson Pollock. Over 60 years after his death, Francis Bacon would base a series of paintings on Van Gogh’s ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’. Bacon frequently cited Van Gogh as a ‘haunting’ inspiration for his work, identifying with the troubled artist as a recluse alienated from society. Every year around 1.5 million people visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, demonstrating the enduring influence of his work even over 100 years after his tragic suicide.
3. Gregor Mendel (scientific)
Gregor Mendel gained fame posthumously and is considered by many as the father of genetics. Due to financial struggles, Gregor became a friar to fund his studies (originally in Philosophy). A keen gardener and bee-keeper, Mendel was fascinated by the phenomenon of certain traits being passed between generations of plants and animals and investigated the way in which this could be manipulated.
Mendel began his studies using mice. However, when this was seen to be improper by his bishop (due to the need for sexual reproduction between the rodents) he switched to the study of plants. Through his meticulous analysis of hereditary traits in pea plants, Mendel developed ‘The Law of Segregation’ and ‘The Law of Independent Assortment’. His work would not be recognized as significant until the turn of the 20th century and, as a monk, Mendel never made any money from his theories. However, his contribution to our understanding of biology is considered intrinsic to the way in which we understand genetics today.
2. Rosa Parks (political)
‘The first lady of civil rights’ refused to accept inequality in spite of having neither money nor power. By refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger in Alabama in 1955, Rosa was the catalyst of one of the pivotal civil rights in the US.
Although Rosa was selected by civil rights activists to be a figurehead for their campaign, meaning her individual fame is largely constructed, she remains a hero in the hearts and minds of many. Rosa stands as an important symbol of defiance against injustice and inequality during a time when racist segregation was, for many, a commonly accepted norm. Rosa was incredibly powerful but she did not use this power for financial gain; upon her death she achieved national recognition as the first woman to lie in honour at the Capitol Rotunda. Following her powerful stand against authority, Rosa’s financial position worsened as, due to economic sanctions against activists, she lost her job. Despite her frequent public speaking engagements, Rosa was not a wealthy woman, as she gave most of her earnings to civil rights causes. Eventually she would be forced to rely on the financial aid of church groups and admirers to fund medical treatment for herself and her husband in their old age.
1. Anne Frank (literary and cultural)
Like Rosa Parks, Anne Frank represents a key moment in history. Gerrit Bolkestein (an exiled Dutch government official) called for sufferers under the Nazi regime to keep their diaries so that a public record of the German oppression of the Dutch could be made after the war. This was heard by Anne and she began to revise her diary, which she had kept whilst her family hid from the Nazis in a (now infamous) secret attic.
Although Anne did not survive the war, her story did. Her confessions to ‘Kitty’ (the name she gave to her diary) reveal what life was truly like for Jews under Nazi rule. Although thousands of Holocaust narratives have now been told (including the critically acclaimed graphic memoir, ‘Maus’) Anne’s diary is the most famous and she is now one the most discussed victims of the Holocaust. Her story is known to be accessible to young people the world over. The diary lends a young, human face to the atrocities and helps other young people empathise with the victims of the holocaust. Although Anne’s father, who edited and published her diary, was lived to see the fame and riches accrued by her tale, Anne died only a few weeks before her camp was liberated and therefore never experienced the power her words have had across the globe.