Do the Great never die? History’s lesson on legacies

It is common to believe that our modern world is a product of the deeds of ‘Great’ men and women. But how does this thinking affect our behaviour, relationships, and how we deal with life and death?
In film and literature, this is usually expressed through a main protagonist, whose actions are nearly solely responsible for the plot’s advancement. More significantly though, this notion is embodied in the way that our culture reads and understands human history, which consequently has a huge impact on the way we interpret the world around us.

Greatness in history

Alexander of Macedon (356 – 323 BCE), commonly known as Alexander the Great, is credited with having built one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece, to north-western India. Born as the son of King Philip of Macedon, and tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16, there is no doubt that Alexander was fortunate enough to have access to everything he needed to become one of the world’s best and most respected military commanders. However, attributing his military success exclusively to his brilliance is overly simplistic – he had inherited a disciplined and technologically superior army to that of his main rival, the first Persian Empire (Achaemenid Empire).

Alexander’s Empire. Source:

Although most are aware that Alexander couldn’t have invaded the Persian Empire alone, our day-to-day language suggests otherwise when we utter phrases like “Alexander invaded Persia” or “Tony Blair took Britain to war in Iraq”. Although these people aren’t acting alone, most of us accept the notion that history’s outcome would have been altered were it not for the decisions of certain individuals. Whilst this is likely to be true, I would argue that we mostly ascribe ‘Greatness’ to people even when a certain outcome is inevitable. In reality it is always a culmination of distinct and independent factors that bring about the changes that we observe.
In the case of Alexander, we might never know whether he was truly a unique and irreplaceable character in the world’s story or whether, given the political climate at the time, it was inevitable that a Greek general would conquer the Persian Empire. After all, by the time Alexander’s army invaded Asia Minor, the Persian Empire was already in economic decline and was suffering from internal tensions between its subject nations, which likely had an effect on the efficiency of its military. Given the number of different factors involved in shaping history, the question becomes: what exactly is it that made Alexander so great?

“[Alexander’s Empire] was visually impressive, but it actually wasn’t much of an empire. Alexander specialized in the tearing down of things, but he wasn’t so great at the building up of institutions to replace the things he’d torn down” -  John Green

Given that no written accounts of Alexander’s escapades survive from the time that he was alive, embellishing his heroic legacy would have been easy. The simple fact that he oversaw an army that conquered and pillaged a lot of land led to him being idealised by others who came after him, hoping to achieve similar goals. Thus, Greatness is achieved through post-hoc exaggerations and influential people trying to emulate your positive achievements. Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte were both huge fans of Alexander’s, desperate to be associated with the same ideals of strength and masculinity that his exaggerated legacy embodied.

Reconstruction of Alexander’s face. Source:

Heroic portrayal of Alexander the Great. Source:

This leads us to another problem with calling someone ‘the Great’ - our recorded history is unforgivingly male dominated. With little exception, anyone who carries this title in world history is credited with expanding political influence through means of conquest, essentially equating ‘Greatness’ with having killed a lot of people. Of course, the victims have to be the right people – those who end up on the losing side, both of the war and of history. Since conquering land is a display of strength, and the fact that physical strength tends to be linked with masculinity, in my opinion, inevitably links the concept of ‘Greatness’ to being a man who has proven he is a man. Therefore, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even though Catherine II of Russia is known as Catherine the Great, she was continuously burdened with misogynistic rumors.

“A woman is always a woman, and in feminine government, the cunt has more influence than a firm policy guided by straight reason” - Fredrick the Great of Prussia


Greatness in the 21st century

As a result of the way we read and interpret history, this obsession with ‘Greatness’ continues in today’s society. Many people concern themselves with emulating celebrities, politicians, and even successful business owners because of the perceived influence these famous people have on the world. However, instead of viewing our modern day ‘Greats’ as the drivers of innovation, I believe it would be much more accurate to view them as the result of an ever changing society, desperate to express itself in different ways. Ideas can be born at any time but, to be successfully put into practice, the public needs to be receptive to the changes they bring.
This is true on a large scale for all kinds of political ideas, but equally true for business and technological innovations. The overarching point here is that ‘Great’ men and women affect the course of history a lot less than they receive credit for. The true catalysts for change are usually the unnamed, everyday people living their day to day life, who unknowingly make the world happen. This is not to say that there aren’t certain individuals in society who, through different methods of power perpetuation, are in a position to exert a significant - and often negative - influence on people’s minds. My point is that this is only possible through the way in which we have constructed our governmental, financial, and media-based institutions to operate. Influential figures can only arise as the result of a social environment tolerant of them. 
“You must admit that the genesis of a Great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”  - Herbert Spencer

Being subject to power structures means that all leaders depend on key supporters to stay in power. Source: Rules for Rulers by CGP Grey

Once in a position of power, most leaders realize that if you take the throne to act, the throne acts upon you. “The Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith” explains in detail how leaders of nations and empires, but also CEO’s and small business owners are all subject to power structures which control the way in which a leader needs act, in order to stay in power.

No-name the Great?

Although the Venetian trader and traveler Marco Polo (1254 – 1324 AD) was not the first European to set foot in China, it was the detailed chronicles of his travels that prompted political leaders in Europe to seek official diplomatic relations with the Chinese empire. This is astonishing, if you consider the fact that the Silk Road (a vast trading network connecting China, central Asia, Arabia, parts of Africa, and Europe) had been around in some shape or form from 200 BC, delivering silk, ivory, and other goods to wherever it was in demand. As a consequence of these day-to-day interactions happening on a global scale, many religious and political ideas were shared, allowing them to grow and develop much more effectively than they could in isolation.
An example for this is the spread of Buddhism, which traveled from India to China and Southeast Asia, establishing itself as a major religion in the region. This process occurred through unnamed traders and merchants, yet arguably preserved a religion facing extinction in India at the time. Equally important is that Buddhism changed as it traveled, diverging from the initial teachings of the Buddha and evolving into something more representative of its new environment, eventually giving rise to multiple competing schools of thought that allowed the religion to survive into the modern age.

Map depicting the spread of Buddhism. Source: Pinterest

The unnamed played a fundamental role in spreading most of the world’s major religions, bringing Islam to sub-Saharan Africa as well as Southeast Asia, spreading Judaism to remote communities in China hundreds of years before Marco Polo was even born, and of course, spreading Christianity from Roman Palestine to Rome. In all these cases, men in fancy hats played the same role as men without hats, being little more than vessels for ideas to propagate throughout the globe. In fact, political leaders often succumb to the very change the establishment had been fighting for years – the Roman emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity after the year 313 AD, despite the Romans being responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.

No force greater than mother nature

Besides being a testimony to the influence people have on human history, the Silk Road also highlights the importance of non-human influences. Alongside ideas and material goods, the Silk Road also helped to spread diseases, including the infamous 14th century Black Death pandemic, which decimated a large fraction of the Eurasian population. The Silk Road trading network helped to establish a more globalized and interconnected world, amplifying the scale of the outbreak and allowing it to survive for much longer than any previous pandemic. Measles and smallpox also traveled along the Silk Road, affecting the lives of millions of people, most of whom were too poor to even think about buying silk.

Source: Historytoday

The influence of disease, and other non-human factors such as weather and climate, on the course of human history can’t be overstated. In addition to the obvious primary effects, more subtle consequences such as the effect that the Black Death had on wages across Europe, also have to be considered. Countless more lives are affected by a year with no summer, than by any ‘Great’ person in history – which raises the question, why do so many of us believe that history is primarily affected by humans?

The philosophy of Greatness

In my opinion, the simple answer to this question is that our ego compels us to view the world from a human perspective, elevating our own actions and disregarding others. Most of us have made decisions that affect our lives to the current day, yet it is impossible to pin down exactly what non-human factors influenced our decision. Simply acknowledging that these factors exist and that they are unavoidable is a humbling experience, providing us with a more objective view of reality.
Although the entire notion of idols and Greatness helps us to believe that we too can affect the world in a meaningful way, rather than simply being subject to forces outside of our control,  it doesn’t explain why any of us aspire to build a lasting legacy ourselves. Equally important is our intrinsic human fear of meaninglessness.

“Why does anybody [want to build a legacy]? I would argue that it’s not about money, otherwise our tabloids would be devoted to the lives and times of bankers. I think we all want to leave a legacy, we want to be remembered” - John Green

Many of us find it unbearable to think that our life and therefore our actions are objectively meaningless; that all the thoughts, experiences, and cells that make you who you are will inevitably be lost to time. A legacy allows a part of us to outlive our material bodies, and be remembered for a long time. It is also the reason that humanity found it important to send the Voyager probes into space, where it would outlive us all - essentially becoming our human legacy.

Golden Record on the Voyager space probe. Source:


“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” - Banksy

I would like to clarify that when using the word ‘legacy’ I am referring to the image of you that survives in our collective human consciousness - essentially, what people think of you. Material objects (such as having buildings, or streets named after you) may help to keep this legacy alive for longer, and even change your legacy over time. Eventually however, all our legacies will perish, so is it even worth worrying about what they will be? And does this make the entire concept of Greatness pointless?
In light of everything mentioned above, I believe that although the notion of Greatness is arbitrary, it is not trivial. This is because we can’t help but be influenced by other people around us, and the way we remember these people - their legacies - will in some cases inspire us, and in other cases stop us from pursuing certain paths of life. On a broader scale, Great people’s legacies (or rather, the interpretation thereof) have helped shape governments and inspire protests, refuting the notion of triviality.

“Owing to his personal features, or to a chance, or to his social standing, or to the peculiarity of the epoch, an individual by the very fact of his existence, by his ideas or actions (or inaction) directly or indirectly, during his lifetime or after his death may have such an influence upon his own or another society which can be recognized significant as he left a noticeable mark (positive, negative or unambiguous) in history and in the further development of society.” - Leonid Grinin

Having established Greatness as being important entities in world history and modern politics, it is time to address what all of this means for us. I believe it all depends on whether or not you think that our legacy gives objective meaning to life. On one hand, it might seem important to nurture our legacy so that the world remembers what we want it to remember after we’re gone. However, in my opinion, the fact that everything we see around us (including all those people who will potentially embody our legacy) will one day perish makes our subjective experiences in life the only thing that should truly matter to us.
History is filled with examples of people who spent their life preaching lessons which they hoped they’d be remembered for, only for their legacy to be tainted and used for the opposite of what the person preached. The Buddha spent most of his life teaching compassion and love for living things, yet his followers engage in acts of violence claiming to be doing it in his name. The same is true for Jesus Christ and many other religious, spiritual, and political leaders. We seem to have little control over what our legacy will be, despite the fact that it is all that will remain once we are gone. This may be a difficult fact to accept, but it allows us to read history more objectively.  More importantly, it helps us to see a world composed of people like you and me, rather than a world consisting of people who are Great and people who can only hope to be.

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