- Confucius (551 – 479BC)
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Confucius was an ancient Chinese philosopher whose system of knowledge, called Confucianism, is relevant today not only in China but all across the world. Even though his teachings are largely secular, his followers practice them as a religion.
He was equivalent to a sage and had a community of disciples. These young men were instructed by Confucius in the classics, philosophy and politics. Rather than take formal classes, Confucius taught in the manner of informal conversation, using simple words and stories to explain the nature of the world and the pursuit of an ethical life. The evergreen quality of his teachings comes from his ability to interpret the wisdom of the Chinese classics in the form of stories and fables.
Once a student of his, who was known for his quick and fiery temper, was told by Confucius that he would not live happily or long if he did not learn to control his anger. ‘Look at your teeth’ said Confucius, ‘they are the strongest part of the human body, but also the first to decay once you get old. You think your anger makes you strong, but it will only decay your mind. Rather be like your tongue which is flexible and never hurts anything; it is soft but still helps you eat your food.’
- Gautam Buddha: (5th to 4th Century BC)
“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”
Siddhartha Gautama was born into an aristocratic family in the village of Lumbini (modern day Nepal). He renounced his title and went in search of spiritual enlightenment. After spending many years as a mendicant and ascetic dwelling in meditation, he achieved enlightened below a tree in Bodh Gaya (modern day Bihar). He spent the rest of his life travelling around the Ganges plain, preaching his philosophy and building a spiritual community – which became the institution of Buddhism. Following his death, he came to be known as The Buddha, which translates to ‘The Awakened One’ or ‘The Enlightened One’.
There are many fables and stories about the Buddha, which have been handed down the generations through word of mouth and Buddhist scrolls. A particular story tells about the time Buddha approached a prosperous Brahmin farmer with his begging bowl. Seeing a healthy man take to begging, the farmer took it for his laziness and angrily admonished the Buddha for not working on the farm like him – ploughing, sowing and harvesting. “I too sow the land” replied Buddha, “but with my faith; good deeds are the rain that fertilize it; and wisdom is the plough through which the weeds of delusion are uprooted to produce the golden harvest of Nirvana.”
“Education is kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
Socrates was a Greek philosopher who is considered as the founder of Western philosophy. Though he was married with children, and worked as a lay person, he began his prospect as a philosopher by asking questions to the ‘wise men’ of Athens and debating with them on the validity of their knowledge. Over the course of his enquiry, he realized that though the wise men claimed to know the answer to everything he asked, they could not prove why their answers were valid.
A story goes that the Oracle at Delphi claimed that there was none in Athens wiser than Socrates. He could not accept that, since he believed that he knew nothing. Socrates understood that it was his readiness to claim that he knew nothing that made him wiser than the learned folk since they never admitted to their ignorance.
Socrates has been termed as a human ‘gadfly’ – a person who provokes a society into action through his perseverant questioning. Through his persistent curiosity for understanding the validity of existing knowledge, he forced the Athenian intelligentsia to reassess what it was that they knew and did not know. It is in that regard that he is considered as the ‘founder of Western philosophical thought’ since ‘philosophy’ literally means the love of knowledge.
- Chanakya (375 BC – 283 BC)
“God is not present in idols. Your feelings are your god. The soul is your temple.”
Chanakya, also known as Kautilya or Vishnugupta, was a political advisor and philosopher to the king Chandragupta Maurya of the Magadha Empire, whose rule is considered as a Golden Age of Ancient India. Chanakya was an astute advisor to the Emperor and is believed to be the author of Arthashstra, a classical Indian text on economics and political diplomacy. Due to his ingenious ways of gaining advantage in political matters, he has been nicknamed as the ‘Indian Machiavelli’.
The ‘Arthashastra’, which was lost after the fall of the Mauryan Empire, and was found only as lately as 1905, is credited to having brought superior efficiency and political stability to the Mauryan rule. It tries to advocate that victory in politics should be won at all costs – be it ethical or unethical – and is both disparaged and admired for using manipulation and ruthless aggression to gain political advantage.
Though he is regarded as one of the most brilliant political strategists that India has even known, little is known about Chanakya’s person, and much of what is known is mixed up in folklore and myth. There are numerous versions of his story, though most of them characterize him as a poor Brahmin who, after being insulted by the Nanda king swore to uproot his dynasty and replace him with a worthier king – which is why he helped Chandragupta Maurya come to power.
“All men are my children. As for my own children I desire that they may be provided with all the welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, so do I desire for all men as well.”
Ashoka was the last great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty and the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. A skilled commander, he led and won many conquests and ultimately had succeeded in extending his empire to most parts of the Indian subcontinent.
His life took a turn after the successful conquest of the kingdom of Kalinga. He was overcome with a sense of grief and guilt when he saw the suffering and death his war had caused the natives as well as his own people. He relinquished his violent pursuits and adopted Buddhism which taught him to perfect the practice of dharma – the way to ethical living.
The statue of the four lions standing back to back, which forms the National Emblem of India, is taken from the Lion Capital of Ashoka; and the wheel that features in the middle of the Indian national flag is called the Ashoka Chakra. They are both taken from the pillars that Ashoka instituted in different parts of his empire with edicts that proclaimed his teachings of dharma.
- Johannes Gutenberg (1400 – 1468)
“It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams…Through it, God will spread His Word.”
Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith and inventor who in 1439 invented the movable type printing press, which enabled the mass production of books, magazines, pamphlets and so on. Until then, copies of manuscripts were made only by hand, which was a tedious and slow process. The ‘printing press’ is rightly credited as one of the greatest inventions of the second millennium for the pivotal role it played in spreading knowledge and literacy, freedom of expression and thought, and making reading an affordable hobby.
The first printed book, the Gutenberg Bible (also called the 42 lined Bible) is believed to have been crafted by Gutenberg and is still applauded for its imagery and style. He also printed the Book of Psalms, called the Psalter; but the production rights of both the Bible and Psalter were lost to Johann Fust, to whom Gutenberg was in debt. Although he never achieved financial success from his invention, the printing press was to change history like never before, and is credited to having brought the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution to Europe.
“If a mirror ever makes you sad, you should know that it does not know you.”
Kabir Das was an Indian mystic poet belonging to the lowly caste of weavers. Though he was a Muslim, he found inspiration in the teachings of the sage Ramananda early on in life. He is equally revered by both Hindus and Muslims, and his poetry is mentioned in the teachings of the Bhakti movement as well as the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. He is credited to having merged the teachings of the Ramayana and the Quran into his philosophy and is regarded as a symbol of religious unity. Although this is the case, he was equally critical of the mindless and meaningless rituals of both Hinduism and Islam, such as untouchability and circumcision.
Kabir’s poetry comprises of hymns to the Supreme God, whom he ascribes names of both Ram and Allah, and are written in rhythmic couplets. His poems advise men to look for God not in religious dogma and superstitions but through understanding the meaning of love and compassion – which according to him was the essence of God. He went on to prove his philosophy even in death by choosing ‘Mahagar’ as his place of death and burial. ‘Mahagar’ had been cursed by Hindu priests of his time who proclaimed that no person who died there would attain salvation. He lived and died dispelling dogma and superstitions, convinced that if there was a God, his logic would be that of love.
“I am not the born; how can there be either birth or death for me?”
Guru Nanak was a 15th century spiritual teacher from modern day Punjab, who teachings laid the foundations of the religion of Sikhism. His philosophy was borrowed from both Hinduism’s Bhakti tradition and Islam, both of which were equally prevalent in India at that time. Nanak’s philosophy diverges from both these religions in the significance it laid in finding God by internally meditating on His name, and the rejection of all external aids such as temples, offerings or rituals.
His life stories are mixed with legends and folk tales of that time; and though how much of it is biographical is unverifiable, they surely portray the essence of his teaching. A story goes of how Nanak was sleeping outside the Mecca with his feet facing the mosque. He was rudely woken up and asked to shift his feet. He asked the interrupters to place his feet in a direction where God did not exist, but they could not do so because there was a mosque in every direction. Thus, through example, he taught them the hypocrisy of worshipping God with an impure heart.
- Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
“I do not want a husband who honours me as a queen, if he does not love me as a woman.”
Queen Elizabeth I was the last of the Tudor rulers of England who came into power when all of England was in turmoil due to its secession from the Holy Roman Catholic Church. This secession had been the consequence of her father Henry VIII divorcing his first wife to marry her mother Anne Boleyn, the permission for which was not granted by the Pope. The English church had therefore separated itself from Vatican authority.
Before her coming into power, her sister Queen Mary, a devout Catholic had encouraged a prolonged persecution of Catholics in England, killing and displacing thousands. This had led to her being nicknamed as ‘Bloody Mary’. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth had come into power and worked hard at ensuring peace and stability. She formed the Church of England and placed herself at the helm, legitimizing a new spiritual path for the Protestant majority who formed England. She also brought in religious toleration, and the persecution of other sects of Christianity and the Jews was brought to an end.
The period of her reign, which is called the Elizabethan Age, was also the Golden Age of British theatre with the likes of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare dominating the stage. She was known as the ‘Virgin Queen’ since she never married, but Elizabeth won over the hearts of her people who prided themselves at being ruled by a matriarch.
- Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)
“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”
Rene Descartes was a French mathematician and philosopher known as the ‘father of modern philosophy’. He was the first to suggest that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are dual entities, rather than one – the body being the physical and the mind the metaphysical component. His most famous saying, ‘I think, therefore I exist’ changed the way people understood knowledge. Rather than basing his knowledge on past authority, his senses or reason, Descartes claimed that what is truly known has to be beyond doubt. His reasoning for the statement being that he would not be able to think if he did not exist, which is something nobody could refute.
He also worked on the field of the theory of light and mathematics. His replacement of line diagrams by mathematical equations led to the creation of Cartesian co-ordinates. This was the beginning of analytic geometry. Even though his father wanted him to be a lawyer, Descartes joined the Bavarian army during the Thirty Years War. It was during that time that he had a dream when at a town called Ulm, after which he decided to venture into philosophy and ‘reform all knowledge’.
- Adam Smith (1723 – 1790)
“Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this – no dog exchanges bones with another.”
Adam Smith was a Scottish political economist and moral philosopher widely regarded as the ‘Father of Modern Economics’. His treatise on political economy – the Wealth of Nations – was published in 1776. Classical economics or the modern capitalist system is credited to have sprung from it.
Until then, nations followed an economic discipline called ‘mercantilism’ which focused on increasing wealth through the acquisition of resources or increasing taxes. Smith’s theory proposed the opposite – it believed that wealth could be efficiently increased if the government stopped interfering with the market prices of goods. He believed that based on the demand and supply of the product, the market will reach the most efficient price on its own, as if nudged by ‘an invisible hand’.
Though called the first ‘modern economist’, that is a misleading name since Smith was a philosopher interested in the laws that govern ethical behavior. His first major work, called ’The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ tries to locate the philosophical and psychological motives for ethical action. The Wealth of Nations sprung from these conclusions, and there is a lot of debate as to how its major standpoint of ‘pursuing self-interest’ can be called ‘ethical’. But Smith saw no contradiction between the two.
12) Mozart (1756 – 1791)
“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an Austrian classical composer who is regarded as a musical genius. He began recognizing chords on a harpsichord at the age of three, and began composing music at five. His father recognized this at a young age, and took him along with his sister to the most prominent royal courts around Europe, where he performed and made a reputation for himself even before he had become a teenager.
By his youth, his genius was well accepted and admired. But what was little known (and much less approved) was the childish joviality with which he held himself, despising the seriousness and etiquettes of courts and nobility. His music too, was unorthodox like him; and some of his pieces, A Musical Joke for example, broke every rule of classical music that was adhered to at that time. But it was the same freshness and lightness of spirit in his music which made his listeners lifelong admirers. He was irresponsible and extravagant, and even though he made a lot of money, he was mostly in financial trouble and in debt even to his family and pupils. Upon his death, his wife Constanz made someone else complete his piece and forged Mozart’s signature on it to get paid for it.
- Napolean Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)
“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
Napolean Bonaparte was a French military general who rose to fame in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and is considered as one of the greatest military leaders in history. He began his military service in the days of the French Revolution and quickly rose up the ranks due to his military genius. In 1799, he deposed of the Interim government by a military coup and made himself First Consul among outstanding popular favour, a vote of 3 million for him and less than 2000 against him.
Napolean had given himself absolute power and he spent the next decade and a half pursuing his goal of ‘unifying Europe’. By 1812, the French Empire with Napolean at the helm ruled over 90 million subjects, with Spain, Italy, Germany and Poland directly under its rule and Prussia and Austria as nominal allies.
He established a Civil Code in his empire which had the civil and legal rights of people in the form of a written constitution. Known as the Napoleanic Code, it brought in far reaching reforms from providing equality before the law, secular education, property rights, legal divorce and the abolition of feudal law.
Even though the empire collapsed in 1814 with the fall of Napolean, these reforms formed the basis for the subsequent modernization of Europe’s political structure and in giving them a national character.
- Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”
Abraham Lincoln was a former American president (from 1861-1865) who is known for bringing an end to the practice of slavery in the United States by promoting the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlaws slavery. Lincoln was born in a log cabin to a poor family, and was self-educated. His illiterate father did not like to see him reading books which he saw as laziness, and wanted him to work in their farm.
But Lincoln strove to educate himself, and was an avid reader; eventually becoming a lawyer in 1837. He won the seat for the state legislature four times from 1834-1840. Rather than make promises or long speeches, he won the heart of the electorate with his sense of humor, by shaking hands and visiting each and every house he could. He had a penchant for finding solutions for people’s problems and was called ‘Honest Abe’ for his frank and jovial nature.
At a public meeting as the President, where he addressed Confederate prisoners as ‘erring human beings’ rather than ‘enemies’, he was asked by a woman supporter why he was being soft on his enemies rather than destroying them; to which Lincoln replied, ‘Why madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’
- Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)
“A man who dares to waste one hour of his life has not discovered the value of life.”
Charles Darwin was a British naturalist and biologist who proposed the ‘theory of evolution’ in his book, On the Origin of Species in 1859. In the book, he gave evidence that all living beings on Earth could trace their roots to common ancestors, and that human beings had evolved from apes.
It produced a paradigm shift in people’s perception of themselves and their history. Until then, there was no reason to disbelieve the Bible’s version of how the world was created. Darwin’s theory gave factual evidence that replaced the story of ‘The Creation’ from the status of supreme truth to that of a myth. His ideas also presented a new technique to answering the various social and philosophical questions – that of historical analysis.
It is interesting to note that Darwin was a divinity student at Cambridge and an ardent believer in God before he went on the voyage to South America onboard the ship Beagle. The sight of rampant slavery that he saw there shook his faith in God, and the death of his daughter Annie later on put him in a deep spiritual crisis. But even after publishing his polemical thesis and facing rebuke from the English church, Darwin never saw himself as an atheist, but rather as an agnostic.
- Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Karl Marx was a German sociologist, economist, political theorist and historian who revolutionized the way history is perceived. He theorized that history had always been a conflict between two classes of people – whereby one was dominant and the other subservient. The dominant class not only controlled the material wealth, but also justified their dominance by controlling ‘ideology’ – the beliefs of the people. This new technique of analysis was called historical materialism. Marx was revolutionary in the way he perceived all history as one of domination and exploitation, and dedicated his whole life to ‘changing the world’. He rallied the worker classes around the world to come to revolution against their employers; he believed ‘injustice’ in the world would prevail as long as the world did not adopt socialism. It is interesting to see though, that the adoption of socialism in Russia after the Revolution of 1917 did not go the way Marx predicted, with the USSR becoming a dictatorial state under Stalin. The modern Communist nation of China is also characterized by systematic domination by the government, and is a weak example of what Marx envisioned. Due to his radical ideas, he was exiled from his home state Prussia, and further from France and Belgium, before finding asylum in England.
- Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)
“The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”
Alexandrina Victoria was the longest serving monarch of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, who reigned from 1839 to her death in 1901. The nation went through such a wholesome change during her reign that the period is called the Victorian Age by historians and social theorists. She also took on the title ‘the Empress of India’ as it was under her that India was taken from the hands of The East India Company and became an administrative colony of the British government.
Queen Victoria was a complex figure, and her personality was very much at odds with her age. Though barely 5 feet tall, she had an imposing stature and took no nonsense from anybody. Her age was marked by rampant industrialization which she encouraged with pride, even though she personally disliked any sort of mechanization in her life. It was also an age which romanticized motherhood and family life with the Queen as its symbolic embodiment. But from her journal, she made it clear that she despised being around children and she thought of motherhood as “being like a cow or a dog … when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.” But she saw her country and the institution of the monarchy during one of its most transitional times. After her reign, the British monarchy had only a ceremonial role.
- Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)
“I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse.”
The institution of modern nursing had its origins in Florence Nightingale, a British social reformer and statistician. During the Crimean War, there were reports of inadequate care being given to wounded British soldiers, who were left to recuperate in unhygienic conditions with poor medical aid. This led to a public outcry which led the Secretary of War to send Nightingale with 38 nurses who were working at a palliative care home to attend to these soldiers.
On coming back to Britain, she met with the Queen to discuss the poor state of medical care provided in the army. Nightingale was an ardent maintainer of statistics which she collected from her experience of treating soldiers and civilians alike. This was used by the Royal Commission to institute reforms on military medical care. She is considered at the first user of ‘pie charts’ which were used to present her findings on mortality rate.
Nightingale was fond of education, and was homeschooled in Latin, French and Italian along with English. She loathed the domestic role attributed to women by Victorian society and quarreled with her parents to pursue her dream of ‘nursing’. She was regarded as the paradigm of mercy and compassion in that age, and her belief that taking care of her patients’ psychological needs was as important as medical aid was well ahead of its time.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
“To live without hope is to cease to live.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist, journalist and short-story writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time. His major books – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov – provide an exquisite and highly complex portrait of the human psychology, dealing with themes of crime, morality, guilt, and the spiritual and existential crises brought on by the modernization of society.
Dostoevsky differs from other major Russian writers such as Tolstoy or Turgenev for having being born in a middle class family rather than as part of the landed gentry. This difference characterizes all of his work where his characters portray not only the financial struggle of their class but also the humiliation and the ‘poverty of self-esteem’ that comes with it. After he had gained early publicity as a writer, Dostoevsky became part of a group of ‘utopian socialists’ who were anti-monarchy and planning its overthrow.
He was arrested with other members of the group and taken out to be ‘shot to death’. The execution order was cancelled moments before his death and it was later proved to be a ‘mock execution’ as part of their punishment. He was later transferred to Siberia to work in a prison camp for years. The complex psychology of his characters comes from the bone-chilling near-death experiences he lived, and the decay and death of the human soul that he witnessed in the Siberian prison camp.
“If you tell the truth, you do not have to remember anything.”
Mark Twain is the pen-name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who is regarded as one of the greatest American writers. His novel ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ has been titled as one of the Great American Novels. It was the first to display an extensive use of the regional vernacular of the American South, and gives an intricate description of people and places along with their stereotypes and attitudes, especially regarding racism.
Clemens is considered as one of the greatest humorists of America, and his frank and dry wit made him a popular lecturer as well as a friend of industrialists, celebrities and presidents. A story goes that Clemens was returning by train after spending three weeks in Maine fishing, when in fact the fishing season was closed to the public. He began boasting about his exploits to his co-passenger who turned out to be the state’s game warden. Shocked and almost at wit’s end, Clemens told the warden, “Well sir, to be completely truthful, I am biggest damn liar in the whole United States.”
- Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931)
“I have not failed. I have just found out ten thousand ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor who is credited with having brought the Industrial Revolution to America. He is most famous for being the inventor of the incandescent electric light bulb, though he has over a thousand patents to his name.
Born to a poor family, Edison showed a keen interest in self-learning, and at the age of 12 was selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad getting his news out of the daily bulletins that were tele-printed to the station. Later on, he saved a three year old from a train accident when working on the railroad and the grateful father of the child promised to teach him to work a telegraph. He became a telegraph operator and travelled through America working as a telegrapher. It would lay the foundation for his work in electrical science.
His first invention was that of a stock ticker at the age of 22 for which he was paid 40,000 dollars. This made him start his career as an inventor and there was no looking back. There is a famous anecdote of Edison being asked to sign a guest book in which he had to fill his name, address and what he was interested in. In the final column, he wrote ‘Everything’.
- Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
“Be yourself, everybody else is already taken.”
Oscar Wilde was an Irish writer and dramatist known for being one of the main proponents of the Aesthetic Movement in English literature, which argued that art should be pursued for its own sake, rather than for any moral, political or didactic purposes. This belief led him to coin the phrase ‘All art is useless.’
As much as he is famous for his biting wit and satire, he also symbolizes the British society in the 1890s which had moved on from the strict morality of Victorian Literature and was trying to rediscover the qualities classical aesthetics in art. He was known for being a dandy – a fashionable young man who leads a prominent life in the high social circles of society.
Though his works were called ‘immoral’ after he was sent to jail for his homosexuality (which was a criminal offence at that time), Wilde himself was deeply concerned with ethics both in his writings and otherwise. He died in a shabby hotel room in Paris, and he is said to have looked at the wall and said, ‘Either that wallpaper goes, or I go.’ And then he breathed his last.
- Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who came up with the doctrine of psychoanalysis, a method of treating psychological disorders. His theory of the psyche, which he divided into the id (our instinctual desires), the super-ego (moralizing effect of our conscience) and the ego (our rationalization agent which mediates between the id and the super-ego) altered the way people understood psychology; it gave them a new tool to visualize how their minds work.
His theories dealt with giving answers to various aspects of our psychology. He interpreted dreams as being wish-fulfillments; neurotic ailments as being distorted manifestations of our suppressed desires; and projected the Oedipus complex as the central driving force of our sexuality.
Though many of his theories have been later discredited, his work has being lauded as extraordinarily creative and innovative in how it seeks to find compelling answers for the human condition. His idea that many of our feelings are propagated by the ‘unconscious’ part of our psyche has changed the way we view ourselves.
Freud has also been credited with using dogs for psychological therapy long before it became common. He would sit his dog in the room when his patients visited and saw that they found themselves much more relaxed with the dog present in the room. These findings were later used to bring dog and puppy therapy into common practice.
“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”
Henry Ford was an American automobile manufacturer who was the brain behind the Ford Motor Company, which revolutionized the automobile industry in the early 20th century by making it affordable for middle-class families to afford a car. Until then, cars were a luxury that could be afforded only by the wealthy. His genius lay in designing the ‘assembly line’ technique of production, which has changed the way goods are manufactured ever since. In an assembly line, a product is moved from one workstation to another on an automated chain rather than workers carry the different parts manually. This significantly decreased the time and energy spent on making a single unit, thereby reducing costs for customers and increasing wages for workers. He believed that consumerism could be a way to attain peace in the world.
His Ford Model T, first brought out in 1908, is considered the most influential automobile of the 20th century with sales of 16.5 million units, and it still ranks in the top 10 list of automobiles with the highest sales. It was with Model T that cars became a realistic dream of common people. He was also a car racer, but did it solely to promote his company rather than as a hobby. Interestingly, Henry Ford is the only American who got a favourable mention in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known throughout the world as the Mahatma (Great-Soul) was an Indian lawyer and political leader who led the freedom struggle in India against the British. His method of civil-disobedience through the use of ‘non-violence’ led to successful campaigns against racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India. He is the first person in known history to rally entire communities to protest non-violently.
Gandhi was curious about what constitutes an ethical behavior or life. He readily experimented with his diet. As a vegetarian, he believed that killing any form of life for food caused some amount of violence. The important thing, according to him, was to minimize it. He was against the killing of animals and birds for food or otherwise, because they could feel more pain than plants.
An amusing story goes about the extreme to which Gandhi took his ethical nature. Once, when his Satyagraha continued till late December when the British soldiers had their Christmas holidays, he put a stop to his protest from 25th December to 4th January so that the officers could celebrate Christmas in peace, rather than have to arrest him.
- Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister from 1940-1945, the most crucial years of World War II. He is known in history as an obstinate War President who refused to give in to the Nazis even when the chances of winning were slim. Though a controversial personality throughout history for his refusal to give freedom to British colonies and Ireland and his stark opposition to women’s suffrage, he is praised for his strong motivational speeches which kept up the morale of the English people and saw them through the Second World War, which was the biggest catastrophe they had faced in history.
Churchill is a polemical figure in history – praised for being a man of action, and yet characterized for his inhuman treatment of colonies. There is a famous anecdote of Churchill being asked to provide grain consignments to Bengal during the infamous 1943 famine. When he was told that hundreds of thousands were dying from hunger, Churchill wrote a sarcastic reply saying, ‘Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’ Compared to this dry and pitiless figure is the story of him watching Oliver Twist with his poodle Rufus whose eyes are covered by the President when the scene shows a character drowning his dog. He was a complex figure like all great people from history with both good and evil inside him.
- Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”
Albert Einstein was one of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, whose ‘theory of relativity’ is one of the twin pillars (along with quantum mechanics) on which modern physics is structured. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his work on the photo-electric effect.
In school, he scored poorly in academics and one of his teachers even said that ‘he would never amount to anything’. But Einstein showed a deep fascination for Physics and Mathematics and this let him gain admission in a polytechnic college. He had the habit of learning through self-study which made him miss classes to the ire of his professors.
After his death, his brain was taken out and kept by Princeton pathologist Thomas Harvey in the hopes of finding the reasons for his genius. It was cut into many pieces and sent to various scientists for research. Though a lot of findings came up proving the biological reason for his genius, all of them have been discredited. It goes on to show the extent to which he was regarded as a genius.
- Hellen Keller (1880 – 1968)
“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Hellen Keller was an American author and social activist who was the first deaf-blind person in history to complete a Bachelor in Arts degree. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life, tells the heart-warming story of her life from childhood to becoming a college student; and her relationship with her mentor and companion Anne Sullivan who taught her to read and write.
She has been a role model for persons with disabilities around the world, and her life story is regarded as nothing less than a miracle. She rose to fame after authoring her autobiography and had several high profile friends to the likes of Mark Twain and Henry H. Rogers. She championed the needs of the blind and deaf community as well as being an activist for pacifism, socialism, birth control and women’s suffrage. In 1955, at the age of 75, she began a 40000 mile trek through Asia promoting the needs of the differently advantaged community across the world.
Beginning in 1920, Keller and Sullivan also worked a vaudeville circuit touted as ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ to raise money. She would do a 20 minute show and interact with the audience in her own words, demonstrating to them her intelligence and wit.
“Peace at home, peace in the world.”
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a first president of Turkey from 1923 to 1938, and is regarded as the founding father of the modern state of Turkey. Till 1919, the region of Turkey was under the Ottoman Empire. When the Emperor lost to the Allies in World War I, Ataturk, who was a high-ranked official in the Ottoman army, rallied the army to go to war against the Allies, who claimed parts of Turkey as their war prize. This war, which went on from 1919-1923, came to be known as the Turkish War of Independence.
As President, Ataturk used his popularity to bring in secularism, compulsory education and a scientific outlook to Turkey, which until then had existed as part of a Caliphate. Schools became a place for developing a scientific outlook in students rather than indoctrinating them in Islamic ideology. Over the years, he brought in equal civil and political rights for women and Turkey attained universal franchise in 1934, which was earlier than most modern democracies. Ataturk is commonly referred to as a ‘benevolent dictator’, i.e. an autocrat who did a lot of good rather than evil when in power, which is a very rare event in history.
- John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946)
“The importance of money flows from it being a link between the past and the present.”
John Keynes was a 20th century British economist whose ideas on fiscal policy intervention brought a solution to the Great Recession of the early 1930s. Though much criticized for his theories, which advise for greater fiscal intervention and regulation to combat and prevent economic recessions, his studies have resulted in a major school of economic discipline called Keynesian economics. Apart from being an economist, he was also a member of the famous Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals which included writers, artists and critics like Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and E.M Forster among others.
Even though he is regarded as Britain’s greatest economist of the 20th century, Keynes attended only eight weeks of undergraduate classes in Economics and never sat for an exam. He pursued a degree in mathematics and the classics. He was a propagator of the arts as well as progressive reforms and equality of the sexes. It can be said that he thought of economics as being more a field of ethics than of business practicality. He believed that people should be given work only so that they can enjoy a period of leisure through the money earned.
- Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964)
“Democracy and socialism are a means to an end; not the end itself.”
Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian freedom fighter and politician, who became the first Prime Minister of independent India in 1947. He was known for his moderate and reasoned-out approach to political and social problems, and was the pioneering force behind the idea of India as a secular, modern and scientific nation.
After India became a republic, he laid out an ambitious plan to revive India economically and socially by the path of planned industrialization, a secular education focusing on inculcating scientific temper, and self-sustenance in maintaining food security, among others.
Nehru was a popular leader who is known for his love for children, who called him ‘Chacha Nehru’ with love and attachment. 14 November, his birthday, is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. He used to get a lot of fan-mail from children and the youth, and he would always take time out to cherish and reply to them. He always had a red rose tucked into the pocket of his jacket, which he compared to children who had to be similarly nourished with care for them to blossom. Legend has it that he began keeping a rose on him after a young girl bravely tucked the flower into his pocket when he failed to notice her in the crowd.
- Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
“Courage is grace under pressure.”
Ernest Hemingway was an American journalist, novelist and short story writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and is considered as one of the most important figures of 20th century literature. He is known for being the inventor of a writing technique called ‘the iceberg theory’ or ‘the theory of omission’ which is characterized by a dry and minimalistic narration. Hemingway used this technique to emphasize on his belief that the meaning of a story cannot be written into the surface, but must become visible implicitly.
In 1917, he volunteered to be a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, and he returned home two months later severely wounded. In the 1920s, he moved to Paris with his wife and was part of the expatriate group of writers and artists called ‘The Lost Generation’ – the name derived from the feelings of helplessness and despair that was prevalent after the First World War throughout Europe.
He was a keen adventurer, and his action-hungry lifestyle won him many admirers. He was a sporting enthusiast and was fond of boxing, bullfighting and fishing. His stories dealt with themes of war and peace, masculinity and ethics, and man’s relationship with nature among others.
- George Orwell (1903 – 1950)
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved as much as to be understood.”
George Orwell is the pen-name of Eric Arthur Blair, regarded as one of the most important English writers of the 20th century. His two most popular works – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four (1984) – are both satirical works on the theme of political totalitarianism. While Animal Farm is an allegorical novel based on Stalin’s Communist Russia, 1984 is a work of dystopian fiction which envisions what the future would have been if the Fascists had won World War II.
Known for his piercing words which have stuck with readers all through their life, the words he came up with such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Newspeak’ are frequently used in describing political climates and are part of the English dictionary. He was probably the most talented writer in the 20th century who did not adopt a ‘modernist style’ which is esoteric in its approach, but rather believed that even the biggest ideas could be explained to the ordinary man in simple language. The adjective ‘Orwellian’ is used to describe a sinister political environment, which is what he best described through his books.
- Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997)
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Mother Teresa was a nun of Albanian origin who founded the organization of the Missionaries of Charity in 1948 to tend to ‘the poorest of the poor’. She gathered international acclaim and fame for her relentless efforts to spread ‘love, peace and joy’ among the dying and the sick, the homeless and abandoned. She began her work in 1948 in Calcutta, where she would go begging in the streets in a simple white cotton sari to raise funds for the poor. It grew slowly but steadily as many nuns, priests and lay people came forward to join her or volunteer, inspired by her example. By the 1990s, the Missionaries of Charity was 5000 member strong with over a million volunteers worldwide and with hundreds of schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, care homes and orphanages in 125 countries.
Once asked what she looks for in women who want to join her congregation, she replied that she looks if the person has plenty of common sense and the ability to learn how to love and pray and if she has a cheerful disposition. Everything else, she believed, could be acquired. This shows how one does not need great talents or gifts to do great deeds, but rather greatness emerges from our most basic values.
- APJ Abdul Kalam (1931 – 2015)
“Dream is not that which you see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep.”
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was a former President of India who was known as the ‘People’s President’ for his popularity among the masses regardless of class, religion or political affiliations. He was born to a poor family in the coastal village of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. Growing up he had to take up odd jobs like selling newspapers to support his family. Though he scored only average grades in school, Kalam had a deep curiosity and eagerness to learn.
He went on to become an aerospace engineer and scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). His passion for education and his fondness for inspiring the youth are well known. There is a heart-warming anecdote of how he once took his subordinate’s kids to an exhibition because their father was busy working on a project and could not make his appointment.
Kalam was the embodiment of the ‘Indian Dream’: that a poor child, average in studies could still do great wonders through sheer hard work and passion. His humility and wish to be seen as one with the people won him as much love and respect as his scientific achievements. Once, he invited a cobbler and small hotel owner he met at his visit to Kerala to be his Presidential Guests (a very high honour) to the Raj Bhawan in Kerala.
- 14th Dalai Lama (1935 – )
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
Tenzin Gyatso is the real name of the 14th Dalai Lama, which is the title given to the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community. The successive Dalai Lamas are supposed to be incarnations of their predecessors, the first of whom emerged in the 14th century. The 14th Dalai Lama was discovered as a young boy and was escorted to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet for instruction and training in 1940.
He took charge as the leader of his community of Tibetan Buddhists in 1950, but his sovereignty was threatened by the communists who came to power in China. The communists did not want Tibet to remain an autonomous territory, and all through the 1950s Tibet was at a guerrilla war with the Chinese. It was rumored that the Chinese government was planning to kidnap the Dalai Lama, who had to flee Tibet with his family and trusted advisers on horseback dressed as a Tibetan soldier. He rode through the Himalayas until he reached Dharamsala, a town in Himachal Pradesh, where he was given asylum by the Indian government.
“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people in thinking they can’t lose.”
Henry William Gates III, popularly known as Bill Gates is an American entrepreneur who co-founded the Microsoft Corporation with his friend Paul Allen in 1975, and made it grow into one of the largest personal computer software companies in the world. He is one of the richest persons in the world even today with a wealth of over 100 billion dollars, and has topped the ‘Forbes’ World’s Richest Persons’ list 18 times between 1995 and 2017. After retiring from Microsoft, he formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the largest private charity in the world.
Gates has gathered a lot of respect for his managerial skills at the helm of Microsoft as well as for the philanthropy work he has undertaken to rescue the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world from the clutches of poverty and exploitation. Less known to the general public is his image as a reckless youth who lived an adventurous lifestyle. He used to get speeding tickets frequently and once wrecked his friend Paul Allen’s new Porsche. Once in high school, he agreed to draft the class schedules and put himself in an English class with only girls as his classmates. Once in Stanford, he solved a tough Mathematics problem, and when his professor called to tell him that he had gotten it published in a journal, Gates sounded entirely disinterred and had already moved on to founding Microsoft.
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur and inventor known for being the co-founder of Apple Inc., one of the foremost tech-giants in the world today with a net worth of 1.9 trillion dollars. Along with Apple Inc., which is known for its superior innovation and product design; Jobs also founded Pixar, which creates state-of-the-art animation movies; and NeXT – a computer software firm.
He founded Pixar and NeXT after being forced out of Apple in 1985 by its board of directors, but was called back to the helm in 1997 when Apple acquired NeXT and was at the brink of bankruptcy. He breathed life back into his former company by launching a plethora of products such as the iMac, iTunes and iPod which are still in vogue as much as it was then.
Jobs is seen as a visionary and that is exactly what he wanted to be. A former employee tells this story about the time Jobs came to the cafeteria they were sitting in to make himself a bagel. Out of the blue he asked them who the most powerful person in the world was. He waved off the answers he got and told them this: ‘The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller because he sets the visions and aspirations of the next generation.’
“If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”
Barack Hussain Obama II served as the 44th President of the United States of America from 2009 to 2017, and made history by becoming the first black president in the history of USA. His policies on medical care insurance known as Obamacare, and financial regulations brought out in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis have been much appreciated, and so has his endorsement and support of LGBTQ communities. In 2011, Obama gave his approval for Operation Neptune’s Strike, a surgical operation with the aim of assassinating Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 2001 terrorist strike at the World Trade Center in New York.
Obama is loved for his frank and charming personality and his rigor for ethical behavior. His wife, Michelle, in her memoir ‘Becoming’, recounted how he is always extra cautious when it comes to matters of ethics, holding himself to the highest of standards that surpasses what is even prescribed by law. She mentioned a maxim of the black community that perfectly describes his ethos: You got to be twice as good to get half as far.
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.”
Joanne Rowling is a British author and philanthropist who rose to fame following the publication of the Harry Potter series, which were brought out between 1997 and 2007. The books were later made into movies which also became a huge commercial and critical success, similar to the book series.
Her story has gathered praise and acclaim as that of a ‘modern Cinderella’, who went from living on unemployment benefits and combating depression to becoming a billionaire author; and making it in life through her own hard work and skill. Her manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by twelve publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish it. She has since been a motivation and role model for struggling writers and artists.
But with all her success, there still seem to be shortcomings. On Twitter, she recounted a story of how a drunk man at a bar almost recognized her as the billionaire author, but then did not believe it saying that the real Rowling would have been better looking.