Wednesday, August 26, 2009

100 Greatest Britons

This is one of those posts that I began to wish I had never started once I got halfway into it. A poll was given to the British public on this topic. You may have seen the results. If you didn't, Princess Diana was voted the 3rd greatest British of all time, David Beckham the 33rd, and Boy George the 46th (meanwhile Morrissey didn't make the list at all). A lot of the rest of the list isn't terribly bad, however. I thought making my own list, though it probably wouldn't be any better, would be a good blog post. That was a bad idea. It's hard enough to pick 100 people for anything, and then you have to rank them, which is pretty much impossible. As far as the picking went, the first 50 names came pretty easily, the next 25 were pretty much people I think are OK but I'm sure aren't really among the top 100, and the last 25 I'm mostly grasping for interesting people I have heard of. Two of the larger omissions from my list are pretty much all businessmen/industrialists, and pure political activists/theorists (as opposed to philosophers), mainly because I find them boring. I have way too many authors, although authors were much more influential and historically important the farther back you go because 1) there were a lot fewer of them, 2) they are the most valuable source of information where any subject they have written about is concerned, and 3) their personalities live on more or less vividly on the page in a way that that of other men do not. Likewise the further back in history one goes, the more important dynamic personal leadership in political and military figures seems to be; it seems to have been easier for a single dominant personality to have a wide influence on events and institutions and therefore of subsequent history. On the other hand, recent figures are too near us in time to be able to accurately take the measure of their influence. We have to judge them by their relation to more established great figures, next to whom they will invariably appear small to their contemporaries even if they are really not. The nearer people are to us in history, of course, the better we know them, and the better we know them, the more evidence will present itself to our sensibilities that they could not possibly have been 'great' in the sense that Hume or even Sir Walter Scott was great. We aren't comfortable making that kind of assertion about living men, and I think perhaps we shouldn't be.

But on to the list:

1. Shakespeare
2. Newton
3. William the Conquerer. I guess he is technically French, but he also dramatically altered the course of human history by causing England to develop in a completely different direction than it otherwise would have.
4. Thomas More. On reputation.
5. Elizabeth I
6. Dickens
7. Darwin
8. William Pitt the Elder. The 18th century was when England was really at the top of its game as far as producing brilliant personalities and original minds. It was in those years that it built up the capacities of the culture that would later defeat Napoleon and Germany, establish a global empire, and be a constant leader in multifarious fields of learning and the arts. Therefore I give the great men of this era the advantage over their 19th & 20th century counterparts in my rankings.
9. Henry V. Probably he wasn't, but there are a lot of arguments in his favor.
10. Byron. At the peak of his career, around 1816, when he was still in his 20s, Goethe named him and Napoleon as the two greatest men in Europe, and the statement does not seem to have been controversial. He remains an iconic figure, at least to people who are interested in such things, the heroic, high-spirited young man of real culture, learning and talent. I overrate him probably, but he made vivid possibilities of life that excited the imaginations of many talented people who would hold a great influence over the culture, and in that sense has a very real effect on history.
11. John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.
12. Faraday. I don't have a great feel for precisely how great the scientists were or where they ought to rank. People who understand science seem to regard Faraday's discoveries as singular advances in human understanding and possibility, so here he is.
13. Winston Churchill
14. William Pitt the Younger--PM during French Revolution, early part of Napoleonic era. Regarded as having navigated his country competently and wisely during that tumultous period. Was 24 years old when he first became Prime Minister, and ended up as one of the best England ever had, which makes one wonder if younger leadership would occasionally not be the worst thing for a country. There is apparently a 1942 movie about Pitt's life starring Robert Donat, which I would be curious to see.
15. Henry VIII. Not a nice guy, but he absolutely dominated his time and altered the course of history in important ways, so what are you going to do, ignore him?
16. Milton. You write the only wholly successful epic poem in the national language, obviously you make the list.
17. Robert Walpole. PM 1721-1742. Essentially invented the position. Not everyone regards him as a great man, but given that this was a period in which England was making tremendous strides in a variety of areas while countries like France were enduring terrible leadership, I think he must be due for some credit.
18. Henry II. Big time alpha male medieval king (1154-1189) whose reign of nonstop action made England a major factor on the European scene.
19. Francis Bacon. Where did the extremely advanced strain of intellectual development that burst out in certain minds of the Elizabethan era come from? And then where has it gone?
20. Chaucer.
21. Samuel Johnson. He was obviously a great man, and one of the few people of whom it can be said that the whole character of England would be something much less than it is if he and his story had had a less prominent part in it.
22. Nelson. Probably should be higher. This guy is a total legend. Even in Rome one-eyed cats are invariably christened with the sobriquet "Nelson".
23. Richard Burbage. The original star actor of most of the great Shakespearean roles. Given the centrality of the theater in the national tradition, some of these people have to get recognized.
24. Robert Bruce.
25. Jane Austen. At the rate she's going, she should crack the top 10 in another 20 years.
26. Christopher Wren
27. Oliver Cromwell. See comment on Henry VIII. Cromwell of course is personally much more impressive, his own mind and character being the sole source of his power.
28. The Duke of Wellington.
29. Robert Clive. Main figure responsible for securing British rule in India, which was not one of the inevitable events of history. Whatever one's opinion of this is, it was not the work of a mediocre spirit.
30. Sir Francis Drake. We've hit the part of the list where I've stashed all of the swashbuckling adventure types.
31. Sir Richard Burton. This is the Victorian traveller who spoke 29 languages, sneaked into Mecca disguised as a Muslim, and had copious amounts of sex with with all varieties of partners across Asia and Africa, not the actor.
32. J. M. W. Turner. I think art is important.
33. Jenner. Smallpox vaccine guy.
34. Sir Walter Ralegh. A threat on so many different levels. This is what men really want to be.
35. William Blake. A unique and stirring mind. No one else can fill his role.
36. Gladstone.
37. Sir Philip Sidney. Probably overrated, but he was favored by history to live in a smaller world where his qualities shone with a brilliance that hardly anyone in our modern condition can expect to attain.
38. Thomas Hobbes. The crow. I am biased by the fact that I find his biographical details more than ordinarily interesting.
39. James Clark Maxwell. Probably should be higher. I had forgotten about him in my initial draft of this list, though I vaguely knew I was missing somebody on the science side of things. It's disgraceful actually.
40. Disraeli
41. Captain Cook
42. David Garrick. If you read anything written in or about the mid 18th century, you run into this guy over and over. He was the great acting star of his century, as well as an acquaintance of Samuel Johnson's all the way back to Lichfield, where he was a pupil in Johnson's floundering school and, in the crucial decision of his life, accompanied his 28 year old teacher to London when the latter determined to make a go of it there (Garrick was actually successful long before Johnson was).
43. Henry Purcell. He was about the only widely-respected English composer for almost 200 years.
44. John Locke. I read the Essay Concerning Human Understanding recently which maybe one day I will get around to writing about here. I am convinced that writing a completely logically cohesive and ontologically airtight book of philosophy might be the most impossible task for a human being to accomplish.
45. Joe Lister. Antiseptic surgery and all that.
46. Henry Fielding.
47. Edward Gibbon. I haven't read The Decline and Fall, etc, yet (though I do think I will someday, if I live a normal lifespan), so I am kind of taking a flyer here. I must say, this is one book where I have never met anybody who has read the whole thing. Gibbon didn't get much respect in the Life of Johnson. He apparently wasn't a brilliant conversationalist and Johnson and his friends made sport of him at dinner parties as if he were a dullard. He did write the most celebrated work of history by a Briton however, and that has to count for something.
48. Laurence Sterne. Hard to choose between a trio of great 18th century authors.
49. Charlie Chaplin. This is the one name I stole from the other list that I hadn't put on mine.
50. Edmund Spenser
51. Henry VII
52. Wordsworth. He is definitely the most ordinary of the Great figures of English history, especially after he turned 35. Still, almost every general history I have ever read, and many books about books-type things insist on his being a pivotal figure. The Romantic poets are to literature, certainly to poetry anyway, what the Impressionists are to art. To most people they are the main psychological touchstone to the meaning of the thing, the archetype. You can't avoid them.
53. Inigo Jones. With the architects I'm just throwing out the names I have heard the most, and of whose buildings I know a few instances. Now I'm remembering that I've forgotten entirely the main guy who worked in Bath. he could be on here (ed--probably John Wood is who I'm thinking of, but also Thomas Palmer). Also the guy who designed Greenwich Naval College (ed--this was Wren, and Vanbrugh, after Wren died, both of whom I do have on here).
54. The Beatles. It's hard to know where to rank them, but I have a feeling they are going to be around in the collective consciousness for a while, especially if no one new comes along with both the kind of catchy tunes people like, and the proper outlets for delivering them to a mass audience, which looks as if it might be the case.
55. David Livingstone. Intrepid explorer of Africa at a time when much of the continent had to be left blank in atlases.
56. David Hume.
57. Alexander Fleming
58. Alexander Pope. The back to back Davids followed by back to back Alexanders is a coincidence. I had everybody listed by last names before writing them up.
59. William Cecil. Elizabeth I's brilliant advisor. Effectually like a prime minister in his day.
60. Tennyson. For about eighty years every house in the English-speaking world that had a relation to the wider world through books had a volume of Tennyson as one of the bulwarks of its library, and one that seems to have actually been frequently opened and referred to on any number of points. He was one of the great authorities of the language and its use, which he conveys without relying on a hectoring insistence on rules, etc, to which a proper grammar book would have to resort.
61. George Eliot.
62. Adam Smith. Not many people are believed to have read him either.
63. Vanbrugh. Before taking on such modest projects as Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, and the completion of the aforementioned Greenwich Naval College, Vanbrugh was a playwright with no formal training in architecture. He had a good sensibility though.
64. George Orwell.
65. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I had never heard of this guy either, but Kenneth Clark thought he was a genius, and his physical body of work is as impressive as anybody's on this list. He was an engineer in the early days of industrialization and was a visionary in the development of railroads, tunnels, iron bridges, steamships and the like at a time when most people did not have a great conception of the forms these things would take or their possibilities.
66. Constable.
67. James Gibbs. Another 18th century architect. St Martin's-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. Radcliffe Camera. Style influenced much colonial American architecture, particularly churches.
68. Alexander Graham Bell
69. Coleridge. See comment on Wordsworth.
70. James Watt.
71. Edward Elgar.
72. T.E. Lawrence "Lawrence of Arabia". Obviously his image is distorted by the popular film that was made about him, but he was a person of remarkable intelligence, learning, and leadership qualities. His superiority to the general run of humanity seems to have been palpable at the first encounter.
73. Harold. Ended up lying on the turf of Hastings with an arrow in his eye courtesy of William the Conqueror, but prior to that he was by all accounts an outstanding and vigorous leader in his own right who in the end was besieged on too many sides with not enough capable followers to hold his position.
74. George Stephenson. Inventor of the first locomotive.
75. Henry Bessemer. Inventor of the first process for mass-producing steel.
76. Keats/Shelley. See comment on Wordsworth.
77. James Wolfe. Conquered Quebec from the French. As a North American I have raided the ranks of born and raised Englishmen who were important figures in the development of this continent to fill out this list.
78. The Venerable Bede. Why not? The guy lived in the 600s and alone among every person who lived in Britain in that century I have a positive working knowledge of who he is.
79. Kipling. He is fading but I am still impressed when I look at older reference books at how important he was considered to be. He is also of interest to me because he--the author of Gunga Din--married a Brattleboro, Vt girl and lived there for about five years, when he came to the realization that he would stagnate, and his latent powers die within him, if he did not get back to some more literarily stimulating locale. Philip Roth had a similar situation back in the 60s, married to a midwestern woman and living in Iowa, sensing he had to get back to New York and that way of life or he too would atrophy--he divorced the woman. Even Mr Rural New England himself, Robert Frost, had to decamp to London for a few years in his 30s to get his career going. And then there's me...
80. Hogarth.
81. Sir Humphrey Davy. Scientist, all-around Renaissance man type. Discovered numerous elements. Inventor.
82. Anthony Powell
83. John Wesley. I was looking desperately for some religious figures apart from Thomas More, and I thought I could do better than C.S. Lewis.
84. Ellen Terry. Diva actress of late 19th century. I'm pretty much winging it at this point.
85. Queen Victoria.
86. Sir Charles Barry. Architect of the Houses of Parliament.
87. Morrissey. As I was straining to think of more names to get my 100 a little inner voice kept insisting "Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey" to the exclusion of anyone else.
88. William Penn
89. Ruskin. He diesn't really belong here, but the rankings get complimented when you are comparing people at a similar level of accomplish in very different fields.
90. Florence Nightingale. I have no idea how great she was, but somebody decided she was a historically significant figure, and those of us who have read her story measure our own experiences with the nursing profession up against her.
91. Charles II. Considered by most no-nonsense intellectuals to be the last genuinely intelligent monarch England has had (though I think Victoria was probably quite smart, even if she didn't go in much for difficult scientific tomes and the like).
92. Gertrude Lawrence. Actress, heyday 1920s-30s. My old reference books refer to her as an iconic star, in the John Barrymore/Rudolph Valentino category. Here is a clip of her doing a radio play with Noel Coward. There is some good old British enunciation for you if you have a fetish for that sort of thing.
93. Richard I Couer-de-lion. For his name alone if nothing else.
94. William Bradford. Mayflower guy.
95. Sir Walter Scott. I can't get the colossal monument erected to him in Edinburgh out of my mind, nor the almost slavish devotion to him of many of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries, especially in Scotland. There must have been something more to him than is apparent to us now.
96. D. H. Lawrence. Very sexy, pugnacious guy, apparently had absolute confidence in his opinions even when their veracity was at best dodgy, condemnatory of pretty much everyone and everything perpetrated by conscious, historical man, and at his best (in the Rainbow and Sons and Lovers) an outstanding novelist. Seems to have lived life on his own terms and according to the dictates of his own will in all facets of life as much as was possible in the 20th century for a man tainted by modern education, technology, media, and so on.
97. Bertrand Russell. I don't actually know much about him, other than that it seems that a quite sizable number out of that remaining portion of the public that still reads in a generally omniverous way cites him as one of its favorite writers.
98. Beau Nash. The king of the social scene in Georgian Bath, which is one of the better recorded and most significant such scenes in history.
99. John Smith. That would be Jamestown/Pochantas/"No work, No food" John Smith.
100. C S Lewis. He was smart, he was a nice guy, he had faith in the values of civilization, he enjoyed hanging out at the pub, he wrote books that are enjoyable and erudite at the same time, and people love him.

I forgot to put any economists on here. I don't personally miss their presence, but I should at least make note of the fact.

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