by Steven Ooi
Each of us leaves his or her footprint on this earth, a mark in the hearts and lives of others, for better or for worse. Some individuals, however, leave an extraordinarily large and profound legacy, to the extent that their names are forever inscribed in the hearts and minds of humanity. Some of their names are spoken of with love and reverence, names like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Saint Joan of Arc. Others are uttered with horror, such as Hitler and Stalin. Still others attract a considerable amount of ambivalence, such as Napoleon and Mao Zedong. For the purposes of this essay, ‘influential’ shall be defined as causing a change in the life circumstances and thinking of people over a period of time. While the likes of murderous tyrants and merciless conquerors may seem to have left a more powerful mark on the story and minds of humanity, I believe that the most influential individuals in history are actually those who have brought the most good, as their influence on human behaviour and thinking is far more enduring; while those who wrought harm are remembered but have much less effect on human behaviour and thinking in the long term.
Detractors may argue that the likes of Hitler and Genghis Khan, who plundered foreign lands and killed millions, left the deepest imprint on human history. Hitler’s attempted genocide left six million Jews dead, and tens of millions more were slaughtered in the military aggression of Nazi Germany in Europe as it invaded nations such as Poland, France and Russia, and bombed Great Britain. The ocean of blood and canyon of loss they left in their wake are beyond human comprehension — who could fathom the loss of a million fathers, husbands and friends, let alone tens of millions? Who can comprehend the agony of many millions more wounded by swords, guns and artillery bombardments? There is little doubt that these conquerors have left their mark, and that their names will be remembered forever.
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However, those who do the most good in this world leave a far more enduring legacy. Eventually when the grieving over the victims of tyrants and mass murderers has ebbed and generations come and go, people heal and move on with their lives. Tyrants are remembered only in name and for the wrong they did, but leave little influence on how people live their lives over the decades and centuries that follow. Those who do good, however, leave a message and a legacy that echo through the centuries. They inspire generation after generation to live their lives well and stand up for truth, righteousness and justice — among other worthy values and causes. Florence Nightingale has been the guiding light to millions of nurses around the world for over a century. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for social justice in America, will touch the hearts of not only Americans but all of humanity, forever. “I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Dr King inspired a civil rights movement which has brought equal rights for African-Americans. He died for his beliefs, and his death will remain a symbol of courage and sacrifice forever. It will always resonate in the hearts of humanity and fill them with courage to face injustice wherever they may be. Hitler’s death, on the other hand, means nothing today.
In addition to the great personages of history who have left moral lessons for humanity, there are also those who have contributed immense inventions, knowledge, insight, wisdom and beauty. These include the scientists, inventors, writers and philosophers. The Wright brothers invented the airplane which has enabled us to experience foreign lands and cultures more than ever before. The great philosophers have in many cases left us with immeasurable wealth of the mind in a single sentence. A case in point would Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote “In the mountains of truth, you never climb in vain”, which gives us courage to always keep on searching for truth in our lives and never be deterred. William Shakespeare’s words continue to captivate and provoke thought across the world, almost four hundred years after the Bard’s passing. Till today, his words are like what Frank McCourt called ‘jewels in [the] mouth”. When we recite or hear “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which/ Taken at the flood/ lead on to fortune/ Omitted, all the voyage of their lives is bound in shallows and in miseries/ On such a full sea are we now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures”, we are not only enthralled by the gorgeous imagery, but also given the gift of wisdom — in this case to seize our opportunities in life.
There are those who argue that those who have caused the most harm leave a lasting influence in the sense that the horrors caused by their actions teach us to avoid repeating their mistakes. Humanity, argue this camp, has learned deep and indelible lessons from the perpetrators of these dastardly acts. For instance, some may assert that the memory of the Holocaust under Hitler’s reign will prevent humanity from repeating such an atrocity. That to me is naive. Evil, hatred and prejudice will continue to exist as long as there are men on this earth. Anti-Semitism, for one, has certainly not gone away — men like Hitler have simply been replaced by men like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once declared his intention to wipe Israel “off the world map” and has been remorselessly pursuing a nuclear programme that could potentially yield nuclear weapons. Good people inspire others to be good; evil souls do not inspire others to be less evil.
In conclusion, I believe the most influential individuals in history are those who have done the most good, and not the most harm. Those who have turned their lives into beacons of light will always provide guidance and inspiration to the generations after them, who keep the light shining as the values, ideas and wisdom they imparted are always relevant to humanity. Those who did good were enlightened beings who open the eyes of others; those who did harm were deluded, and only influence those whose eyes are closed. Eventually people’s eyes are opened, and the truth is revealed.
Copyright 2013 Steven Ooi
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The blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor at the age of 42.
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