Emperor Meiji to Algren, upon told of the death of the last samurai warlord: “Tell me how he died.”
Algren: “I will tell you how he lived.”
(from The Last Samurai, 2003)
The Samurai Brotherhood is not a religion, it has no church, and nor do we have any saints. But if we did, the following 15 men, briefly presented here, would be as good as any. I consider them admirable and worthy role models. As a man in my early 60s with a lifetime of seeking wisdom behind me (and doubtless some still ahead), and as a lifelong student of history, I do not choose these men lightly. And nor am I so naïve as to see them as perfected men. Personality and character are by definition works in progress, and that applies even to the most remarkable people.
The 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle argued that the history of human civilization is shaped by the periodic influences of what he called “great men”. Similar, more esoteric arguments have been advanced by writers such as John Bennett and Ernest Scott—variously describing the ‘Directorate’ or the ‘People of the Secret’, a reference to hidden masters who are involved in guiding the human race. These views were countered by other thinkers who argue that a “great person” is merely the product of their cultural influences, much as an outstandingly evil person is.
I leave such theoretical hair-splitting for others. What matters more to me is quality combined with impact and especially, legacy. The following men embody various qualities such as courage, mastery, creativity, inventiveness, and the best qualities of the benevolent king, warriors, and magicians. Not all of them may have shaped human history, but their legacy and example remain remarkable.
It should also be clarified that “great” and “good” are different words suggesting different things, and for good reason. Not all “great” people are manifestly good, and many, if not most, “good” people lack greatness. The main quality of “great”, in the context meant here, is a legacy of influence that involves waking up the human race to its greater possibilities, and in a fashion that has lasting impact.
I am intentionally omitting certain great historical religious figures, such as the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Ashoka, and Jesus, because they are too historically remote and over the centuries have been largely reduced to icons or archetypes. I am instead picking more historically recent and relatable examples worthy of admiration. In addition, it is a given that there have been thousands of men throughout history who would merit the adjective ‘great’, but who were so low-profile as to escape notice beyond their own small pond. To such men I can only gesture with silent respect. I list the following because their relatively high profile simply makes them and their story visible and researchable.
And yes, there have been far more than 15 of such men, but here is a small list for brevity’s sake, along with a few honorable mentions. (And note, this blog is about great men, not women. By leaving out women I am not implying that there were no great women. There obviously were, but that would be a different list).
As an interesting side note, there is a relatively balanced racial diversity to this list, something I decidedly did not set out to achieve. I simply chose 15 outstanding men that I feel a connection with. The racial diversity that came out of the list is interesting, and perhaps as much a demonstration as anything of the essential irrelevance of race in connection to the quality of a person.
Finally, I note that these men are not ‘nice guys’, but neither are they dangerous radicals. A parallel list of the Most Interesting Men (not to mention the Worst Men) would doubtless include darker characters than what are listed here. By ‘great’ what I mean is a balance between accomplishments and overall quality of being.
The order of the following is chronological, from most historically distant to most recent, and not any sort of ranking.
Miyomoto Musashi (1584-1645). Musashi was perhaps the most renowned samurai of history. He was a Japanese ronin (wandering samurai without a lord). He was a great warrior and swordsman, allegedly undefeated in over 60 recognized duels, thereby earning the title kensei (sword-saint). But he was more than just a very skilled fighter. He was also an author, artist, philosopher, Zen master, and founder of an influential martial arts school.
Musashi is best known as the author of The Book of Five Rings, a classic work which deals with kenjutsu (swordsmanship) and general martial arts philosophy. A strength of the book, and doubtless one of the reasons behind its broad appeal, is Musashi’s practicality, and his concern with success and completing the job. This emphasis makes the book useful for people operating businesses, not just those involved in competitive combat. The ‘five rings’ refers to five distinct elements that Musashi cleverly connects to battle: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. The latter, void, is based on Zen views of the emptiness of the self that when properly grasped, leads to harmony with the universe.
Musashi was a type of Renaissance man, with broad talents and skills. As an artist, he created many works of ink paintings and calligraphy that are recognized as masterpieces. His universal nature was reflected in his writings, especially The Book of Five Rings, where he insisted that a real strategist is one who has gained proficiency in many fields of learning, such as work, art, writing, ceremonial tea-drinking, and so forth. This breadth of vision, alongside his legendary power and proficiency as a warrior, marks his legacy as exceptional.
That said, Musashi is the most historically remote man on our list, having lived 400 years ago. Little about his personality can be pronounced with certainty (almost always the case with any historical figure beyond a couple of centuries in the past). But as an icon he remains effective, especially for young early 21st century men, as he embodied as well as any the three overarching virtues of the samurai: courage (his legendary skill as a warrior), loyalty (to his greater purpose in life, even as he had no master), and creativity (his writings and art).
Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768). Hakuin is widely recognized as the most famous and important Japanese Zen master of recent centuries. As with most of the men on this list, Hakuin was multidimensional. In addition to being a great Zen master and teacher, he was also a prolific writer and skilled artist.
Hakuin was ordained a Zen monk at 15 years old and shortly after began his formal training. Soon after this he underwent a phase of alienation from Zen Buddhism brought on by disappointment he felt at the quality of the monks around him. Temporarily rejecting Zen practice he decided to give himself over to the study of literature and the arts (including calligraphy, which he would become an accomplished master of). The next year he transferred to another temple, one that had a large library. Here he haphazardly discovered a particular book that made mention of an ancient Chinese master who emphasized the need for great effort in order to break free of the mind’s laziness and delusions. As it happened, this Chinese master had revived a particular lineage, the Lin-chi, that Hakuin himself would later revive in Japan (a tradition now known as Rinzai, one of the two main lines of Japanese Zen).
Hakuin spent years wandering Japan and fine tuning his awakened state. He eventually settled down and began serious teaching and guiding of others. His fame peaked when in his mid-50s—he on occasion lectured for up to four hundred monks and seekers at a time. It was around then that he became established as the greatest Zen master in Japan. He began to write more in his later years, producing a vast body of prose and poetry, all dedicated to conveying his grasp of enlightenment. In addition, he was a prolific artist and calligrapher. His renderings of the famed Indian monk Bodhidharma are recognized by many around the world.
Hakuin died in 1768 at age 82. He singlehandedly reformed the entire Zen tradition in Japan, and personally instructed thousands of monks and seekers, guiding them toward clarity, realization, and peace.
David Hume (1711-1776). Hume was a great, and important, 18th century Scottish philosopher and historian. He was an undeniably brilliant and prolific author; however these alone do make him extraordinary. There have been many brilliant men throughout history who have been rather disagreeable in other regards and have not demonstrated signs of having achieved a quality of being (Isaac Newton perhaps being a classic example—an unsurpassed genius, possibly the greatest scientist ever—who was largely antisocial, ruthlessly driven, intolerant, capable of surprising spite, and otherwise undeveloped in character). What made Hume standout was the combination of his brilliant intellect alongside a genuinely warm and humane character, renowned for his sense of humor and natural humility. Hume wrote on a wide variety of topics. He is most known for his works of philosophy, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). What is less known is that he also wrote a massive 6-volume encyclopedic work called The History of England that took him nearly a decade to complete. He also wrote works on religion, politics, and economics. Hume is generally considered one of the most influential thinkers in recent Western civilization.
For the record, although I deeply respect Hume’s mind, he was not my favourite European philosopher (for me that was Immanuel Kant). And nor is Hume alone in his brilliance. Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche certainly matched him. But none had the quality of character that he was renowned for, at the level of being, not just knowledge and intellect.
William Blake (1757-1827). Blake was one of the great Romantics of the 19th century, as well as a visionary, a mystic, a brilliant poet and a great artist. It is almost axiomatic that a genius remains unrecognized in their time, just as genuine prophets are largely rejected by those they grow up among. And this was certainly true of Blake. Over the last two centuries his reputation has been established, and he is now widely recognized as one of the greatest poets and painters of English history. What was exceptional about Blake however was his spiritual depth, and his grasp of ideas normally the province of mystics or trained meditators who have dedicated their lives to understanding the deepest truths of the mind and reality, and who moreover had the benefit of growing up in a culture conducive to such ideas (such as India, for example).
Blake was largely on his own, though he had been influenced by Emmanuel Swedenborg, the notable Swedish mystic. However he ultimately manifested his own unique understanding of reality, the outstanding quality of which was that he was far ahead of his time, as well as embodying the wisdom of ancient sages. Blake was also famously difficult to classify, certainly for his contemporaries, some of whom dismissed him as ‘mad’, but even for later historians. Among his more pronounced contributions were his views on sexuality, and especially his criticisms of the institution of marriage. Some of his poetry, such as the iconic work The Tyger, grew over time to become some of the most universally recognized compositions in the English language, rivaling Shakespeare’s fame. It is highly unusual to find a person who has equally high skill level as both a writer and a visual artist, but Blake did. He was a true representative of that unrecognized ‘underground’ of attuned souls who seem to show up periodically on our planet, showing advanced wisdom of the kind that is more than just culturally conditioned into them.
(Although Blake warrants inclusion to this list on merits alone, I may have some bias here. Blake’s brother-in-law, Henry Banes, upon his death, bequeathed his estate to Louisa Best, who was my great-great-great-great-grandmother. It is probable that Louisa was the niece of Blake’s wife Catherine. Blake himself had no children).
Red Cloud (1822-1909). Red Cloud (Mahpiya Luta), like all great men on this list, was many things. He was a major force as one of the prime leaders of the Sioux nations during the late 19th century. He was a warrior and tribal chief who holds the unique legacy of being the only Native American leader to ever win a war against the American army. In his later years, after the inevitable domination of the U.S. government, Red Cloud became an important diplomat. Unlike many warriors and tribal chiefs who were cut down at an earlier age (Crazy Horse at 38, Sitting Bull at 59), Red Cloud lived to the advanced age of 87. Additionally, his lineage continued after his passing, with his descendants following in his footsteps as fine leaders themselves, the most of recent of which was Oliver Red Cloud, his 4th great-grandson and leader of the Oglala Sioux, who died in 2013 at age 93. A further sign of greatness in a man is the quality of his descendants.
Sitting Bull (1831-1890). Many people have reported a strange, undefinable connection to Sitting Bull. Perhaps part of that is due to his famous eyes as rendered in several iconic 19th century photos, visible as glinting, hawk-like portals of light, or by his remarkable rugged countenance. But this man was much more than an impressive appearance. He has been perhaps most famously known as the ‘man who killed Custer’, although in fact he did not kill Custer and did not even take part in the fighting at the Little Bighorn and ‘Custer’s Last Stand’. But as is so often the case, the truth is more interesting than the legend.
Sitting Bull was many things, and all things important, you could say, possible within the culture he grew up and lived in. He was a very strong wichasu wakan (holy man, or shaman), with eerie psychological powers. In his youth and early adult years he had been a fierce and courageous warrior, and finally, in his middle-age and beyond, he was a tribal chief. He embodied courage, wisdom, and loyalty. He was chosen leader of the final tribes of the Great Plains that stood fast to withstand the onslaught of the white man, all of which culminated at Wounded Knee in 1890 when around 250 Sioux, mostly women and children, were slaughtered. Just two weeks prior to the Wounded Knee massacre, Sitting Bull was shot and killed by Indian agents working at the behest of American government authorities who viewed him as too much of a threat.
An important quality of any great leader, alongside courage and wisdom, is temperance, the ability to exercise restraint when required. At one point during Sitting Bull’s struggles, realizing that his military situation against the American army was hopeless, he took his tribes and walked to Canada, where they spent several years in Saskatchewan, before returning to the U.S. I mention this retreat because it is the sign of a true leader that the welfare of his people is more important than egotistical attempts to exercise aggression or fight losing battles merely to prove a point.
Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie, a Scottish-American businessman, was a complex and powerful personality who may be safely categorized as the ultimate self-made man. For that alone he is the gold-standard for any man wishing to achieve great success in life, but finding himself having to seemingly create that success out of nothing.
For some, including Carnegie on this list may seem questionable, as he is mainly known as a billionaire industrialist who spearheaded the growth of the steel industry in the 19th century. He was a powerful influence on the direction of modern civilization. The effects of the Industrial Revolution have obviously been double-edged but so is the impact of many great men; that alone does not diminish their greatness. Carnegie built extraordinary wealth from nothing (he grew up in relative poverty in a working-class family), but more importantly, he became one of the greatest philanthropists ever, giving away over 90 percent of his fortune to charities and institutions of learning.
When he was in his mid-50s he published The Gospel of Wealth, which was all about encouraging wealthy people to use their money to help the less fortunate and improve society in general. Carnegie was the ultimate answer to those far left on the political spectrum who argue that wealth imbalances in society simply lead to greed, indifference, and general poverty. That is doubtless true in many cases, but Carnegie demonstrated what is possible for one who has balanced extraordinary success with extraordinary generosity, and the powerful benefits that can have on the world.
John van Neumann (1903-1957). Van Neumann is considered by many scientists and mathematicians as the foremost genius of the 20th century. In a century bristling with scientific genius (Einstein, De Broglie, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Feynman, etc.), that is saying something, especially as van Neumann was not that well known with the general public (although he was legendary among his scientific peers). Van Neumann was a polymath (one who is both widely and deeply knowledgeable in many areas of learning), specializing in mathematics, physics, computer science, and engineering. He had been a child prodigy, conversant in mathematics and some ancient languages by the age of 8. He was possessed of a near perfect memory, with reliable reports of him memorizing entire books on one reading, and then repeating them verbatim line for line, page after page, upon request.
Savant-type genius is not unknown but is often found in individuals who are otherwise socially dysfunctional or psychologically underdeveloped. Van Neumann was psychologically balanced, socially engaged, married (well, twice—no one is perfect), and possessed of a good sense of humor.
He died at age 53 of cancer. Of his legacy, Miklos Redei wrote, “It seems fair to say that if the influence of a scientist is interpreted broadly enough to include impact on fields beyond science proper, then John von Neumann was probably the most influential mathematician who ever lived.” The mathematician Peter Lax described van Neumann as “the most advanced intellect of the 20th century”. He was bestowed with numerous honorary awards, and a crater on the Moon was even named after him. He published a number of works, from science to economics, including the 1932 volume The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.
There has long been a dispute as to who was the greater mind, van Neumann or Einstein. The general argument is that van Neumann mastered more areas of learning than Einstein, but that Einstein was more influential (and certainly, far more famous). I include van Neumann in this list of greats over Einstein not because I think he was truly greater, but because he is far less well-known and deserves more recognition. Einstein is a household name. I reserve him for the end of this essay in my group of honorable mentions.
Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974). Of all the names on this list Bronowski may be the most obscure. I first became aware of him when as a teenager in the early 1970s I watched his magnificent The Ascent of Man documentary on TV. This was a 13-part series on the history of science. It had been made as a complement to Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series Civilization, which had covered the history of art. Bronowski was a Polish-born Jew whose family moved to England just after the First World War when he was a boy. He later earned a PhD in mathematics from Cambridge and was involved in aiding the British military efforts during WW2 and shortly after. While studying the effects of the atomic blasts in Japan, he became so disillusioned with warfare that he switched his focus to biology, in order to come to understand the violent tendencies of men (something compounded for him as he had lost family members in the German WW2 concentration camps). In the 1960s he lectured in America on the links between consciousness and science. Over the years he became so renowned as a pundit that Monty Python once lampooned him as the ‘man who knows everything’.
Bronowski was married and raised four daughters, one of whom became a noted historian and another of whom became a filmmaker (this counts; a man’s legacy often shows via how his children turn out). Bronowski authored close to 20 books, on such widely varied topics as poetry, mysticism, philosophy, history, and science. He also wrote a book about William Blake, remarkable in that Bronowski was a scientist and historian, and Blake a poet/artist. His greatest legacy was his The Ascent of Man series, which brilliantly documents the rise, development, and impact of science on humanity. Bronowski was a rare voice of exceptional wisdom who was also a quality man.
Anwar Sadat (1918-1981). Sadat, who served as president of Egypt from 1970 until he was assassinated in 1981, is the only pure politician on this list. It is generally very difficult to define politicians as ‘great men’ because politics itself is concerned so heavily with both power and the masses, areas that commonly deemphasize the qualities of the individual politician (or just as commonly inflate the ego) instead focusing much more on how he or she gets the job done (or perhaps more commonly, clearly fails). In Sadat’s case, he embodied certain heroic qualities, partly related to his success as a military commander (the Yom Kipper War of 1973, which the Israelis technically won but which ultimately regained the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt via the 1978 Camp David Accord, and made Sadat an Arab hero), as well as his being assassinated in part for negotiating a peace treaty. Despite his brave nature he was ultimately a man of peace (similar to Chief Red Cloud), which are hallmarks of great men.
Sadat was born into poverty, one of 13 siblings. He entered the military and was involved in the Second World War where he was imprisoned, an experience of hardship common with many great men who later overcome the traumas of these ordeals (as opposed to being psychologically crippled by them). He later entered politics and by 1954 was minister of State, and over the next 15 years or so rose through the ranks, until becoming president of Egypt in 1970. In 1977 he became the first Arab leader to visit Israel in an official capacity, famously signing the Peace Treaty of 1979 alongside Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for which both men were granted the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandela, as with all the men on this list, was many things: a revolutionary fighter who stood strong against racist segregation (known generally as ‘apartheid’), a convict (he spent 27 years of his life in prison for leading a campaign of sabotage against the white government via his co-leadership of MK, a militant group created to fight against the injustices of white colonial rule), and ultimately as South African President from 1994-1999. He was the first black president of South Africa, and the first black leader elected via a representative system.
Mandela’s signature legacy was all about his tireless fight for civil rights and equality. He was originally trained in law and became deeply involved in anti-colonialism. Three years after his release from prison, in 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is rare that an ex-convict receives such recognition, which suggests as much as anything that the 27 years he spent imprisoned was fundamentally unjust. That said, Mandela was no smiling plastic saint. He was a fighter, and later a statesman and wise man, similar in that regard to the Sioux chief Sitting Bull. Mandela was enormously influential and impactful in what was, for most who admired him, a deeply inspiring fashion.
Martin Luther King (1929-1968). Among King’s major legacies was being mainly responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965. His assassination at the young age of 38 leaves one wondering what else he might have accomplished if he had been granted the time, given his powerful personality and visionary nature.
King had been inspired by the non-violent activism of Mahatma Gandhi, the famed Indian political revolutionary (and he even served as honorary president of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights). He spearheaded the labor rights and voting rights for blacks. King was a Christian minister by training, but he was anything but an introverted religious mystic, he was primarily a voice and a force for sweeping social justice and necessary change.
King was famous for leading various non-violent socially and politically influential marches, especially the 1963 “March on Washington” in which he delivered his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. (The speech is so iconic that when I was training in public speaking in the late 1980s via Toastmasters, the speech we all used as a training vehicle was King’s speech). The year 1963 was also the year King was arrested for protesting mistreatment of blacks. He was arrested numerous times for his activism, placing him in similar company to Nelson Mandela, with whom he shared many qualities.
King’s potent activism always made him a target for reactionary forces, which at one point even included the FBI, which briefly had him categorized as a dangerous radical. His 1964 Nobel Peace Prize award (for promoting racial justice and equality) cemented his reputation. After this, he trained his sights on fighting both poverty and the unpopular Vietnam War. All his warrior activism was dangerous for him, however, and culminated in his assassination in 1968 in Tennessee. King was posthumously awarded further honors, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. He is generally listed in the top 10 of various rankings of the greatest 20th century Americans.
Desmond Tutu (b. 1931). Back around the year 2005 I had the chance to sit in a live audience before a joint talk from Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It was a pleasure to hear the combination of wisdom and humor that came from both, and more, it was a pleasure to witness the obvious deep friendship between two men who were ambassadors for such different organized religions. Both men are still alive as of this writing in late 2020.
Tutu is a South African theologian and clergyman. Similar to Mandela and King, he has also dedicated much of his life to battling racism and social injustice. He was Bishop of Johannesburg in the mid-1980s, followed by being Archbishop of Cape Town for a decade. He was the first black person to hold these elevated posts. Upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, he joined forces with Tutu leading negotiations to end apartheid. Tutu authored several books of his speeches and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his anti-apartheid work.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (b. 1935). As indicated by his title, the ‘Dalai Lama’, as he has been popularly known, is not the first, but the 14th. Similar to the pope, he has been known by a name that represents his office, in this case that of a tulku, the Tibetan term for what they believe is a continuously reincarnating figure, a ‘bodhisattva’, one involved in guiding humanity. The Dalai Lama himself has a more sophisticated take on the tulku issue. He regards himself less as a ‘reincarnating person’ and more as an ‘emanation’ of the bodhisattva principle. That is consistent with Buddhism, which teaches that the ‘self’ is not a discrete thing, but is rather closer in nature to a flowing river, a ‘stream’ of consciousness that passes from form to form but that itself is formless and indefinable.
The 14th Dalai Lama has been rock-solid as not just the de facto Tibetan leader throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but as a highly esteemed world-leader as well. In addition to his vast learning and manifest wisdom, he also radiates quality of being, grounded in a natural humility and a terrific sense of humor. He can also be disarmingly honest. When asked once a question on intimate relationships, he suggested that the questioner should perhaps ask someone else, he himself having remained celibate his whole life in accordance with his vows. One could argue that a celibate monk can’t be seen as a complete man, having abandoned long ago such a basic dimension of human life. But that argument is specious, overlooking as it does the unique contributions made by individuals in specific ways that accord with what was actually possible for them within their cultural conditions. The Dalai Lama’s legacy as a global voice of sanity and wisdom, even in the face of the annexation and partial destruction of his homeland via Chinese imperialists, has been a testament to greatness and right example.
The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He has authored and written Introductions for dozens of books, most of which deal with the deeper spiritual teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
Bruce Lee (1940-1973). Of all the men here I hesitated the most about including Lee, mainly because of his relatively short life, being just 32 when he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. But that doesn’t take away from the remarkable man that Lee was. In some respects he was a 20th century version of the first man on our list, the great samurai Musashi. In addition to being a superb athlete, Lee was also well-read in classics and philosophy, well-spoken and self-assured, highly creative, driven, and full of passion for life. If he had lived out a full lifespan it is likely that he would have ripened into a wise and accomplished elder, as he had the intelligence and philosophic outlook, despite being known mainly for his extraordinary intensity and physical prowess. In some ways his short life makes him an important addition to this list, as he demonstrated, as well as any man, that it is not necessary to live into middle age years and beyond in order to leave a remarkable mark on the world. Other men have managed similar feats, to be sure, two good examples of modern times being Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but Bruce Lee remains an excellent role model for not just our brotherhood, but for any man seeking a deeper connection with his physical body, grounded in philosophical wisdom and the practical drive to establish one’s unique contribution to humanity. In the photo, he is shown with his son Brandon, who also died young (at just 28), while following in his father’s footsteps as a martial artist and actor. The fact that Bruce was a good father adds in no small way to his legacy.
Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Caesar was an extraordinarily brave and successful military commander, who singlehandedly expanded the Roman Empire far beyond its range before his time. He also rose swiftly through the political ranks on the merits of not just military success, but a number of civil good works as well. His assassination by a group of scheming subordinates appears to have been largely motivated by their lust for power and general treachery. If Caesar had a weakness, it was probably excessive ambition more than ruthlessness. That his name, Caesar, became a word for a title to define an emperor (the various “Caesars” that followed him), defines greatness in the realm of influence, if nothing else, as much as anything.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Omitting Shakespeare, arguably the greatest creative genius that ever lived, from the main list may seem ridiculous, but in point of fact not a great deal is known about Shakespeare the person. What survives is his work, a body of plays and poems that remains largely unsurpassed as works of both art and wisdom in the English-speaking world.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Franklin was a remarkable genius. His main blemish was his initial embrace of slavery (in his earlier years he owned slaves), but he later turned against slavery and became a prominent abolitionist. Franklin was a ‘Founding Father’ and one of the authors of the brilliant American Constitution, as well as being a notable scientist. He was also a postmaster, inventor, printer, philosopher, prolific author, and founder of numerous civic organizations.
Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). If this list had been concerned with spiritual greatness only, Ramana would be the first, and possibly only, name on the list. He is generally recognized as the greatest spiritual master of the 20th century, and one of the few prominent teachers to be free of not just scandal, but any discernable criticism. Even vocal critics of rival gurus such as Osho and U.G. Krishnamurti had nothing bad to say of him. Ramana attained his enlightenment at age 16, and subsequently spent his last 54 years teaching the sublime truths of Advaita Vedanta by the side of the sacred Mt. Arunachala in southern India. The main reason I do not include him in the list of 15 men is that he is a bit too rarefied, too spiritually advanced if you will, for most men to relate to. There is something other-worldly about him. For most of his life he did nothing other than sit in meditation, and teach, and much of his teaching was conducted in silence, via non-verbal transmission. He did, however, have a notable love for animals, and would spend time warmly greeting and petting any that were wandering around his ashram. Perhaps they were his means of staying grounded in this world. His teachings were chronicled by several writers who spent time with him or his disciples, especially Arthur Osborne and David Godman.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Little can be said about Einstein that isn’t already known. The archetypal scientific genius, he had revolutionized physics by the age of 26. In fact, his realizations and the papers he submitted at that time outlining his theories were so advanced that only a handful of scientists could understand him, and accordingly, it took a number of years for the academic world, let alone the public, to recognize him. TIME magazine declared him “Person of the Century” in their 2000 publication, mainly because, as their editors assessed, the 20th century was pre-eminently a century of science, and Einstein was its leading light.
And…Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, G.I. Gurdjieff…and doubtless hundreds of others I am overlooking or unaware of.