June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Most Influential People in History

9 min read

Detail of the Pieta by Michelangelo, of a single piece of marble

Everything that we see today has a history of its own. The electronic devices we use to read this article were made; they are Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates. Our books are Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, the Greeks’ AlphaBeta, the Egyptians’ papyrus.

A replica of the Gutenberg printing press, Bermuda

History is made only by human beings. Nature, if left to itself, simply follows set patterns over and over again. The most influential people in history were all responsible for changes that are still present in our everyday lives. They were thinkers, artists, scientists–but ultimately human beings whose actions changed patterns of thinking and living.

Thomas Edison in his laboratory

Most Influential People in History: Thinkers

“one can resist the invasion of armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.” – Victor hugo

The most influential people in history are those who bring lasting change–in this case, through their ideas. This quote by Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables) says, rightly, that physical armies are easier to hold back than ideas that take root (just look at Inception).

Illustration of Eponine in Les Miserables

Most Influential Thinkers of History: Confucius

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) lived when the Chou Dynasty was falling apart. Along with the crumbling of the dynasty came the crumbling of Chinese principles of society. Confucius developed teachings based on self-discipline and social relationships.

Statue of Confucius at the Confucian Temple, Nanjing

Confucian influence is best seen in neo-Confucian societies, like pre-colonization Korea and Vietnam. Neo-Confucian societies upheld an extremely strict set of social hierarchies. At the same time, anyone could take the civil service exams and advance in society. The influence on education and hierarchy is still evident in modern South Korean society.

Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, South Korea

Most Influential Thinkers of History: Aristotle

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was Greek. He studied under Plato, and taught young Alexander the Great. In his lifetime, he wrote and taught on science, politics, ethics, art, education, and practically everything under the sun.

Aristotle (on the right) and Plato in the School of Athens fresco in the Vatican

We know Aristotle best for spreading classifications of political systems. He described three forms of government: monarchy (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and constitutional republic (rule of many). The constitutional republic as he described it can be seen today in most democracies such as the United States and the Philippines.


Most Influential Thinkers of History: John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) is most famous for his statements on “life, liberty, and property.” They influenced the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” in the American Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence, United States of America

Until now, his ideas come into play. Following the theme of Aristotle’s constitutional republic, he believed that a nation’s leader and its citizens should agree on the way government was conducted. Any nation with a constitution (practically all) is aligned with his ideas.

Two Treatises of Government, the book which spread John Locke’s ideas

Most Influential Thinkers of History: Adam Smith

Adam Smith (1723-1790) is best known for his book, The Wealth of Nations. In it, he describes the Invisible Hand theory. The theory states that buying and selling (demand and supply) automatically finds a balance, and self-corrects. We see this today all over the world: in the free market (or capitalist) economies.

Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh’s High Street

Today, we see the influence of Adam Smith in the number of brand names for basic foods such as bread. We see it in the number of competing advertisements in every major city. Small or starting businesses are also easier to set up because of his ideas.


Most Influential People in History: Writers and Artists

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – maya angelou

These most influential people had amazing talent, and their works of art and literature inspire modern authors and artists. They told their stories through their art, influencing future generations to do the same. The most influential have lasting works, and those works have lasting impressions on those who see them.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Most Influential Writers and Artists in History: Michelangelo

Michelangelo (1475-1564) painted frescoes and sculpted statues during the Renaissance Era. He is best known for the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was a gigantic piece of work. His era was a celebration of the human body and arts. Michelangelo’s works were the standard of perfection at a time when art was at its peak.

Portrait of Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s attention to detail, especially the details of the human body, influenced all artists in his time, and until the present day. It was not at all strange for sketch artists to use his sculptures as models to practice drawing human bodies.

Detail of the Pieta by Michelangelo. The Pieta was made of a single piece of marble

Most Influential Writers and Artists in History: William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) influence cannot help but be felt everywhere in modern society. His plays are on the curriculum in literature courses–Hamlet, Macbeth, and the forever Romeo and Juliet. The themes in the different plays are so relevant to today that his works have become the standard of storytelling.

Portrait of William Shakespeare by Anonymous

Because of these relevant themes, his plays have been adapted in popular media. They can be found in movies (Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1996)); modern re-tellings (West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You), and constantly referenced in everyday conversation–especially Romeo and Juliet.

West Side Story movie poster

Most Influential Writers and Artists in History: Charles Dickens

Look around the working class, anywhere you are, and you will not see children working. They are not behind the counter in McDonald’s, or cleaning the streets, or working in factories. Most of the world has already adopted laws protecting children in that way.

Original Title Page of Oliver Twist, 1837

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was largely responsible for the public outcry against child labor. His book Oliver Twist, about poverty and child labor, woke people up to the evils of the Industrial Revolution. Laws were soon passed in the United Kingdom against child labor.

Most Influential Writers and Artists in History: Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was an Impressionist–when artists were trying to capture more of a scene’s emotion than just what it looked like. His style continues today in Modern Impressionism, with artists like Stefan Duncan, Vitali Komrov, and Lee Tiller.

A shot of Starry Night from Vincent and the Doctor (a Doctor Who episode)

Stefan Duncan’s “squigglism” is directly influenced by van Gogh’s paintings. Vitali Komrov focused on portraits, using van Gogh’s style of doing self-portraits. He even made a version of van Gogh’s self-portrait. Lee Tiller is closer to realism, but his colors are Impressionist.

I Dream of Tuscany, by Stefan Duncan

Most Influential People in History: Scientists

“if i have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – isaac newton

Science is everywhere. Gravity is part of science. Light is part of science. Motion is part of science. We take all of it for granted. The most influential people in history are arguably the scientists: we cannot escape any of their discoveries in our daily lives.

Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory

Most Influential Scientists in History: Galileo Galilei

We learn in elementary science that the earth goes around the sun. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) used the telescope in astronomy for the first time,  to prove it. It was not even convenient for him, since the Church still believed the sun went around the earth.

Galileo’s telescope

Galileo also, so legend states, learned more about gravity by dropping things off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After discovering that heavier things do not fall faster than lighter things, he realized that gravity has a constant pull on anything (as long as there is no air friction).

The legendary experiment on Pisa

Most Influential Scientists in History: Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) 3 laws of motion seem commonplace to us now. We memorize them for tests and see it in everyday life. However, when Newton discovered them (calculated them mathematically), scientists were just starting to figure out how anything moved.

Statue of Isaac Newton, Trinity College, Cambridge

Practically everything we have sent up to space–rockets, satellites, spaceships–was sent using Newton’s principles. Calculations that we do on how fast things should stop if they will not hit each other (remember physics exams?) are all his fault as well.

Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica

Most Influential Scientists in History: Louis Pasteur

People in Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) time knew that alcohol and vinegar can be made by fermentation (wine from grapes, for example). However, they did not know what fermentation was. Some scientists believed it happened because of tiny (micro) organisms. Pasteur agreed.

Lous Pasteur in his laboratory

Pasteur was one of the minority believers in germs. He discovered weaker bacteria, introduced in controlled amounts, made the body immune from the stronger bacteria. Because of this, we now have our modern vaccinations.

Statue of Louis Pasteur in Paris

Most Influential Scientists in History: Albert Einstein

Of all the scientists, Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) theories are probably best known in pop culture. From the widely popular Back to the Future trilogy, to the long-running British tv series Doctor Who, we can say “space/time continuum” like the concept has always existed.


However, it was Einstein who developed the Theory or Relativity. He discovered that space and time were one concept called space-time, and that space-time is affected by gravity. It was the starting point of so many theories related to the space/time continuum.


Most Influential People in History: Revolutionaries


Revolutions come in all shapes and sizes, with warfare or even with peace. The EDSA Revolution, where the protesters surrounded tanks, was carried out without casualties. The Arab Spring, on the other hand, was bloody and is still claiming lives. These most influential people in history, revolutionaries, created substantial change that lasts until today.

EDSA Revolution, Philippines, 1986

Most Influential Revolutionaries in History: George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) was a General and overall leader during the American Revolution. He also became the first President of the United States. His leadership of his soldiers was crucial, since the colonies were doing the unthinkable: breaking away from Great Britain.

Portrait of George Washington

George Washington saw his new country past its revolution, up until its Constitution. He was unanimously elected 1st President of the first modern presidential republic.

Statue of George Washington in Washington Circle

Most Influential Revolutionaries in History: Mahatma Ghandi

Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) is, today, known for his teachings of peace and brotherly love. However, he was a revolutionary who greatly aided India’s independence movement from Great Britain. He also, with some success, reduced in-fighting in India itself.

Ghandi spinning yarn, 1920s

Ghandi’s revolution was typically bloodless. His followers simply practiced “non-cooperation” to the British, stilling the government institutions. Ghandi used this and his series of fasts to gain independence and stop the in-fighting: the ultimate bloodless revolution.

Mahatma Ghandi laughing

Most Influential Revolutionaries in History: Che Guevara

Che Guevara (1928-1967) was born an Argentinian, but he became one of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders. He is a left-wing (tending Communist) revolutionary hero because of his belief in the common plight of oppressed peoples.

Che Guevara’s iconic photo

It was a time when communism was mostly just a particular brand of nationalism. Guevara believed in fighting for the oppressed everywhere, and he traveled to train revolutionary forces in Africa and South America.

Che Guevara laughing

The Most Influential People in History

The most influential people in history rarely know, or plan, for their names and legacies to outlive them. Instead, they pursued their own callings in their respective eras, and ended up causing change. Thinkers and philosophers had entire nations built on their ideas. Revolutionaries became household names because of their actions. Artists and writers lived in their own works, and inspired more, up until the present day. These people are both standards and inspirations to those who learn about.


3 thoughts on “Most Influential People in History

  1. Thank you, Esther.Tears of happiness. It is finally happening. My dream was one day when this time period is looked upon in history that I would one of the artists to be recognized with my style. It is happening. I have sought to have my own voice but being considered the artist continuing Van Gogh’s torch into contemporary times is the greatest of honors. I consider Van Gogh the greatest of our artists and be known as the artist that continues his torch in my style called Squiggleism – that’s the best of both worlds. I just want to thank God for allowing me to see these things said while I was alive that I may know all the suffering, the struggles, the sacrifices have been vindicated and my soul is euphoric…my life mission has been fulfilled.

  2. Vincent van Gogh has always been one of my favorite artists. It is wonderful that you have developed your own style through his inspiration. Thank you for that!

  3. I have been selected as one of the top 60 contemporary art masters of the world by ArtTour International Magazine. On May 25th, we have the awards night in Florence, Italy and I’ve been nominated as one of the top 15. Its like I’m bringing the Light in my paintings to the zenith of the mountain that day. I started a “Light Up The World’s Day,” asking people around the world that day to take a photo of the sun at sunset in the palm of their hand – symbolic of gesturing for world peace, love, and hope to one another. I want to see your photo. 🙂 We will create a page on Face Book for the event for people to send them.

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