The 100, by Michael H Hart

Published 1978
Review by Tim

Book Cover This is one of my favorite works of non-fiction, to which I return for reference again and again. It is a ranking of those individuals whom the author feels to have had the greatest influence on humanity throughout history. By influence, the author means the effect that the individual has had on the way in which people live and think in their daily lives, regardless of the fame or goodness of that person. Mr Hart lists each person in order of consequence, provides a capsule biography, explains why the person was included in the list, and defends that person's place in the ranking. It is an impressive scholarly achievement.

The preface explains the rationale which guided the author's choices. They are as I have summarized, with a few additional caveats. For instance, only known figures are included - the inventor of the wheel, or of firearms, had enormous influence on history, but are unknown, so are not included. By the same token, purely legendary or mythical figures are not included. This required a judgment call by the author, particularly when he chose such figures as Lao Tzu and Homer, whose histories are somewhat conjectural. Fame was not a criterion for inclusion, although many of the persons on the list are famous. Thus, Julius Caesar was ranked considerably below Augustus in terms of influence, even though his fame has been far more enduring. An obscure Chinese courtier of the 2nd century AD is included in the top ten individuals, because of his invention of paper, while Tutankhamon (King Tut), a far more famous figure today, does not even merit an honorable mention.

After the preface comes the main body of the book, consisting of roughly 2 to 6 page articles on each of the persons included. This is followed by a list of honorable mentions, and some brief paragraphs on some people who had been omitted from the book. The appendix contains three tables, each one summarizing a particular aspect of the figures in the book. These include their provenance in both geography and time, and their areas of endeavor. This last table is interesting, and I reproduce it here in part to show the kinds of people the author feels have been influential:

The professions are listed in the order of numbers that appear on the list. For instance, 37 scientists are included, as opposed to 11 religious leaders. On the other hand, three of the top four positions on the list are occupied by religious leaders, while only one is accorded to a scientist. This is reflective of the fact that many of the discoveries and inventions of any given scientist would have been produced within a short time by others, had that person not existed, whereas religions, for the most part, would not have come into being without their founders. Moreover, religions shape people's attitudes on a far broader range of issues than most scientific discoveries.

This brings me to a point that I have contemplated including as a part of a separate essay. It is noteworthy that only 6 members of the 100 are artistic or literary figures: two writers (Shakespeare and Homer), two composers (Beethoven and Bach), and two artists (Michelangelo and Picasso). The highest ranked of these figures is Shakespeare, at 36. The author believes that artists have relatively little influence on human affairs and thought. In fact, he includes artists on the list almost solely for the influence they have had within their art, and not for their influence outside of their fields. I would have to agree that it is far easier to demonstrate the real effect of an invention such as the telephone or the electric light, which are in daily use by millions, than it is it show the intangible effect on people's behavior produced by exposure to a particular artist's vision. It is far easier and more practical to ignore such influence, and this is the tack that the author takes.

Still, it is difficult not to wonder, as one peruses the list, how much of an artist's vision might have contributed to the essential character of each person, and whether they would have accomplished what they had without it. Much of the influence of Alexander the Great, for example, was exerted by his attempts to meld the Hellenistic and Persian cultures. Alexander had a Greek education, which included Homer and the great playwrights of Athens. Would he have been capable of appreciating Persian culture without this humanizing influence? Could he have made his commanders, many of whom were themselves educated men, understand and accept his viewpoint had they not also been exposed to these influences? Certainly many educated Greeks considered the Persians barbarians; even so, I can't help but feel that only a cultured person can truly appreciate an alien culture, and art is a very great part of that. Certainly a barbarian conqueror like Genghis Khan (ranked 21 on the list) never made such an acculturating effort - had he the sensibilities of Alexander, his influence on history might well have been much greater.

It is hard to say how much of any particular artist's vision might shape a culture, and the attitudes of its members. The artist is, after all, a child of his or her own culture, and subject to its influences. William Shakespeare, acknowledged by many as the greatest writer in English of all time, never really floated opinions that varied in any significant way from that of the general populace. He simply put them into irresistibly mind-clinging language. In the short-run, this may have contributed greatly to the stability of the Tudor reign - how much can never be known. By and large, therefore, I can not really fault Mr Hart for avoiding the speculative hydra such questions might raise.

The time that has passed between the writing of the book and the present day has seen events that might well have changed Mr Hart's opinions on the ranking of some of the persons in the book, demonstrating that it is far easier to assess the influence of a person long dead on the generations that succeeded him or her, than it is to do the same for a relative contemporary with respect to future generations. For example, the book was written in the late 1970's, before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Twenty years later, it now appears that the significance of communism may well be far less than was supposed by the relative rankings of Marx and Lenin.

The 100 is not without some inconsistencies. John Kennedy was placed on the list for his influence on the endeavor to put a man on the moon, which the author feels is an event that will have lasting significance for humanity. By the same token he denies Cheops a place on the list, on the basis that the great pyramid, while an awesome accomplishment, has had little influence. Yet surely the pyramid was as inspirational to the people of the ancient world, as an example of what men can accomplish, as the moon landing is to us, and has lasted far longer!

For the most part, however, The 100 is rigorously reasoned and well argued. Moreover, it is a well researched compendium of the most significant figures in human history. The book is admirable for its scholarship, and for the clearly presented opinions offered unapologetically by the author. As can be seen from the foregoing paragraphs, The 100 can certainly provide the genesis of many interesting reflections and debates. Why was one person included on the list, and not another? Should a particular person's place on the list be higher or lower? For the student of history and the general reader alike, The 100 is an invaluable resource.

November, 1998