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Great men are bad men

The Mongols at work in Poland.

The Mongols at work in Poland.

British parliamentarian and historian Lord Acton is famous for his 1887 pronouncement, in a letter to the Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton, that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Many of you, however, may not have heard the words following that sentence: "Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority."

It's a much debated question of history - do you have to be bad to be great? - and it's one that begins with how you define the word "great".

I'm sure many of us would claim to know great men or women in our lives, but I'd wager almost none of them will be discussed outside a very obscure group (their relatives) in 100 years.

In 1000 years? Well, I'll go out on a limb and say none of the people you consider great will be remembered, analysed or discussed by English speakers, let alone students of languages other than English, from non-Western cultures.

If you apply that criterion, the great men (and women) of history is a pretty select group.

You'd have to throw Jesus in there, Mohammed, Confucius, Buddha, then I'd wager dudes like Alexander the Great (he does have the right name), Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napolean, Atilla the Hun and Hitler would make the top 100.

This is not to say men like Johannes Gutenberg (the inventor of the printing press), Ts'ai Lun (the Chinese official who invented paper), Pasteur, Galileo, Euclid, Darwin, Marx and Newton wouldn't get a guernsey, it's just they don't roll off the tongue of your average person in the street.

In that sense, many people are influential - such as the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, as well as historical figures as diverse as Copernicus, Lavoisier, Faraday, Edison, Marconi and Daguerre. But "great"?


Popular history and philosophy broadcaster Dan Carlin poses this question in one of his enormously entertaining Hardcore History podcasts when he asks: "Would you be willing to order the killing of an innocent woman or child?"

"If you said you would not be willing to do that, you are already off the potential 'great person' list - at least in terms of world leaders," Carlin says

"Even the most humanistic world leaders, when it comes to their personal outlook, a guy like Jimmy Carter, who was a president who was so humanistic he had a hard time doing his job sometimes.

"Here's a guy who was probably responsible for less deaths as an American president than any other president I can think of in modern times and there's still, certainly, quite a few people who died because Jimmy Carter made a decision one way or the other."

He makes the sobering point, however, that men like Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler killed millions but the only difference between the first four names on that list and the Nazi leader is people are still alive who remember those murdered by Adolf.

The millions killed by Alexander, Caesar and Genghis Khan? They're just historical statistics.

I'm in no way trying to justify or glorify Hitler's obvious madness and genocide. I just think it's interesting how the passage of time allows us to elevate men to the level of "great", simply because they did horrific and catastrophic things on a scale never before seen, to people we have no emotional connection to, i.e. the long dead.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher described by Albert Camus as "the only great spirit of our times" and who died during World War II of tuberculosis, made the point in 1940: "If Germany, thanks to Hitler and his successors, were to enslave the European nations and destroy most of the treasures of their past, future historians would certainly pronounce that she had civilized Europe."

I guess the secret is that if you're gonna kill millions, you better win the war.

The most obvious thing that jumps out at you when you put a list like this together is the absence of female names, which some might argue has to do with their historical exclusion and marginalisation, particularly when it came to leadership roles.

Except it doesn't really hold up.

Toregene Khatun was the Regent Empress of the Mongol Empire from 1242–1246 after the death of her husband, the Great Khan, Ogedei, third son of Genghis. She was easily the most powerful person in the world at that time and probably the most powerful woman in all of human history.

She had, perhaps, the greatest military force the world had ever seen at her disposal and controlled the majority of the two most advanced civilisations in the world at that time, China and Islam.

She was also, no doubt, a rape victim, having been "given" to Ogedei after her clan, the Merkits, was vanquished by Genghis.

That's another cute thing about history - woman are routinely described as being "given" or "becoming wives" after their families and friends have been murdered by their new husbands.

Some honeymoon, eh?

However, despite Toregene's indisputable significance, she's largely disappeared from history; you'd probably have never heard of her unless you were a Mongol history buff.

So, I guess, the other secret to being "great" and killing millions, is you not only better win the war, but be a man, too.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

180 comments so far

  • Of the list, only Alexander the Great and the Genghis have achieved the prize.
    Julius did not make the grade as he was assassinated probably too soon for his supporters and too late for his foes.
    What about other less than edifying leaders. My personal favourite is Ethelred the Unready. A Saxon king.
    Then there are the Ricardians who wish to honour Richard III. Then Richard the Lionheart who was more interested in speaking French and fighting Crusades and left his kingdom to his brother Prince John to run off the rails.
    Russia has Ivan the Terrible. Australia well .... thankfully we don't have many greats and perhaps that is one of the things that makes it such a great place. No greats but a great place to live.
    No Footy player is really a great unless you really debase the term. Then again sportswriters do it every day.

    The Old Guy
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 9:09PM
    • If Caesar wasn't great, how come his name was co-opted by cultures down the line to mean "King" (e.g. Tsar and Kaiser). This is in stark contrast to Pompey the Great, his colleague and rival, who is largely forgotten by anyone who is not a classical history buff. In many ways Caesar died at the right time - at the peak of his powers.

      Date and time
      February 19, 2013, 10:01AM
    • Russia also has Catherine the Great. And England also has Henry V, whose amazing victory at Agincourt made him also King of France and probably the most admired of the English kings among historians (at least that's what Churchill claimed - I was reading him just today).

      Date and time
      February 19, 2013, 2:18PM
    • Hitler was not a great man. He was a raving loony psycopath who hoodwinked a nation and lead them, and the world, into the most destructive conflict ever. Not to mention his ghastly final solution. Tell the survivors of WW2 that Hitler was a great man and see what reply you get. What a tardy piece of journalistic opinion....55 million dead for nothing...

      Johan D
      St Kilda
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 9:28AM
    • The big issue here is what define's 'great'. To confine it to a willingness to commit violence and atrocities is ridiculously immature, demeaning to humanity, and confines most of the incredibly important moments that shaped history to invisibility.

      It's remarkable that Elizabeth 1, who presided over England's Golden Age, or Victoria,who expanded England's Empire,weren't mentioned. As a number of non-violent influential men were mentioned I'll list a number of significantly influential women (violent and non-violent):

      Saint Joan of Arc, Boudicca, Elizabeth Fry, Catherine the Great, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Saint Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Eva Peron, Catherine of Siena, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Phyllis Wheatley, Empress Tz'u Hsi, Empress Wu Zetian, Margaret Sanger, Queen Isabella, Murasaki Shikibu, Lise Meitner, Catherine de Medici, Sappho, Mother Theresa, Barbara McClintock, Helen Keller, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Mary Phelps Jacob, Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Rosalind Franklin, Anne Frank, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Cleopatra, Rachel Carson, Elizabeth Blackwell, Aphra Behn, Simone de Beauvoir, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Aspasia, Jane Addams, Margaret Mead, Jane Goodall, Baroness Barbara Castle, Esther Peterson, Praxilla, Livia Drusilla, Galla Placidia, Artemisia, Arsinoe II, Queen Tomyris, Hatshepsut, Queen Amina, Maria Theresa of Austria, Alessandra Giliani, Mirabai, St Teresa of Avila, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, Emily Murphy, Coco Chanel ..

      There are more, but that's a start.

      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:08AM
    • JohanD
      You need to get Hitler in the context of the article instead of leaping straight into the obvious
      Theres a good boy

      Brenda Holmesby
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 1:41PM
  • Can Australia claim Captain James Cook or do you have to kill people? I am sure the small pox and STD's his crew carried about the Pacific claimed a few scalps, does that count?
    How about Magellan, Tasman, LaPerouse and Columbus? They were pretty great.

    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 10:08PM
    • Ummm, no you can't claim because he's English!
      Who is the idiot that says 'you have to order the killing of innocent women and children to become great'? What a sicko. On your list you had Jesus and Buddha, did they order the killing of innocents or have I missed something? Surely if a world leader didn't order the killing of women and children it would make them greater!

      Date and time
      February 19, 2013, 4:10PM
    • Time's man of the 20th century was Joseph Stalin why? because he killed the most people - though I doubt that he actually pulled the trigger on any of the 60m that are attributed to him.

      So by extension is Christ great due to the many victims of: pagan Rome killing Christians, Holy Rome killing non-Christians, crusaders killing everyone? It's amazing how the numbers add up.

      If not then Hitler’s not a killer at all and his absolute victim was his dog Blondie (though there’s not much documentation about his time with the artillery in WW1). This gets very grey very quickly doesn’t it?

      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 1:01PM
    • 'On your list you had Jesus and Buddha, did they order the killing of innocents or have I missed something?' - Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live... although not strictly b'jesus words...

      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 1:39PM

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