Bryan Caplan  

The Real Heroes of Western Civ

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I was too sick yesterday to invoke my annual curse on Columbus.  But in my fever, I still wondered: How did this awful conqueror and slaver ever become an icon of "Western civilization"?  Every society has such men to offer.   You'd think that defenders of Western civ would point to uniquely Western heroes - the kind of notables that other civilizations conspicuously underproduced: defenders of human rights, questioners of authority, scientists, and the like.

Question: If we were going to have a holiday for the greatest beacon of Western civ, who'd be in the running - and who'd deserve an annual day of remembrance?

P.S. I suggest 50% weight for accomplishment, and 50% weight for clean hands.


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COMMENTS (63 to date)
Francis writes:

Isaac Newton, of course.

Major scientist by the weight and importance of his discoveries, but also their implications: (a) a unification of celestial and terrestrial laws of nature, (b) the mathematical nature of physics, (c) the goal of science as modelization. By defining thus the process of enquiry, Newton has created the Western mind, in my opinion.

However, a more defining moment was the discovery of the process of "self-criticism" by the Greeks. It created the Greek Miracle and thus the Western Civilization. Why I didn't choose that one is because I don't think we can attribute it to a single individual, a "heroe".

Peter Finch writes:

Isaac Newton.

My only qualm is that maybe he came along a bit too early to really be seen as a product of Western Civilization.

Peter Finch writes:

Beaten to the punch...

Peter St. Onge writes:

Beacon: Aquinas
Annual Day: Socrates

ed writes:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light.

Eric Rall writes:

If we're looking for someone a bit later than Newton, how about Benjamin Franklin?

Francis writes:

Peter: Lol! Yeah, I nosed you out, there. It says something about who springs to mind to the readers of this blog, doesn't it...

LTPhillips writes:

Galileo or Copernicus.

Yancey Ward writes:

Thomas Edison, James Watt, Michael Faraday in Science/Engineering.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin (a switch hitter) in Politics.

Gregory Mankiw, just to piss people off.

SB7 writes:

Amen to Newton.

My nominations: Plato & Erasmus

Dark horse candidates: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

OneEyedMan writes:

Flaws and all, Martin Luther and Henry VIII helped to create the modern world by breaking the power of church control in Europe. Not likely to ever be a holiday though.

I have no problem celebrating what makes people good while acknowledging their flaws. That seems to be possible with the conversations on July fourth and I'd like to see it happen in conversations about Columbus's day.

wintercow20 writes:

Norman Borlaug. Or is he too recent?

Silas Barta writes:

Newton's birthday is already a holiday, people!

Brandon Berg writes:

Without arguing with your broader point, the literal answer to your question is that he became an icon of western civilization by kicking off the propagation of western civilization to the western hemisphere.

And also because normal people don't think about this kind of stuff. Christopher Colombus discovered America. America is a great place. Ergo Christopher Colombus was a great man.

Francis writes:

I thought of what could be original nominees, and came up with those ones:

a) Leonidas: singlehandedly saved Western Civilization by buying time at Thermopyles

b) King Alfred: a good man, he insisted on the rule of law and came to be the definition what is a good ruler ("a legendary king whose legend is true...")

c) Julian Simon: his advocacy of the supreme value of human ingenuity and of the free individual, and the breadth of his knowledge, makes him a beacon of the Western Civilization -- the Renaissance Man par excellence.

Floccina writes:

Julian Simon

Floccina writes:

On further thought:
Edward Jenner, Alexander Sullivan, Milton Hershey, Rudolf Diesel, Gottlieb Daimler, Adam Smith, Thomas Newcomen, Jethro Tull, Roger Williams

david (not henderson) writes:

"How did this awful conqueror and slaver ever become an icon of "Western civilization"?"

Well, I'm no great fan of Columbus, but FWIW, I suppose that if the spirit of adventure and discovery is part of the story of Western Civilization, it is the case that the Western Europeans "discovered" the Americas before the native Americans "discovered" the Western Europeans. And that "discovery" was based the notion that the world was round, a relatively intellectually advanced idea, requiring a accurate-ish conception of the earth and the solar system. And it was driven by an entrepreneurial zeal or something close to it.

He may well have been an enslaver and a conqueror (wasn't everybody back then?) but the Americas were surely no stranger to that sort of behaviour (plus human sacrifice). After all, back then, nobody occupied land that they hadn't taken from someone else. Even in the "pristine" Americas. I am pretty sure they weren't proto-libertarians.

In any case, Western Civilzation was not simply the ideas (or the intellectuals) but the wonderful combination of a) ideas, and b) ideas put into action.

hsearles writes:

"And that 'discovery' was based the notion that the world was round, a relatively intellectually advanced idea, requiring a accurate-ish conception of the earth and the solar system."

Actually, the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes (c. 276 BC - c. 195 BC) had actually discovered a rather accurate estimate of the circumference of the Earth over a millennium and a half before Christopher Columbus, and this was known to the Scholastic contemporaries of Columbus. The notion that the Earth was spherical was an accepted fact known to any well-educated person at this time, and was anything but an advanced idea.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

It is definitely a shame that we have a Columbus Day, but not an Newton Day.

Salem writes:

My choices would be Thomas Cranmer and Pitt the Elder, for all the obvious reasons.

ajb writes:

Josiah Wedgwood, for contributions to industry, trade, and above all, MARKETING. :)

cassander writes:

If you weigh hand cleanliness against achievement then there is no doubt that Norman Bourlag is the greatest man who ever lived, and by a massive margin.

Jacob Oost writes:

Jim Henson

nykos writes:

Well, I think there are many people who deserve to be celebrated:

1. Leonidas for enabling the Greek city states to flourish after his victory against the Persians
2. Socrates+Plato+Aristotle - for their ideas of understanding nature through rational inquiry and logic
3. Euclid of Alexandria for his perfection of the notions of proof and deduction, as exemplified in Euclidean Geometry.
4. Jesus or the person(s) that portrayed him the way they did - for attempting to separate religion from politics: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's", as well as pretty much negating the teachings of the vengeful God of the Old Testament through his example of being a peaceful person, teaching people about compassion and love - thus preventing the subsequent collapse of Western civilization into the kind of overtly evil and toxic religious literalism that the Islamic world has fallen into as a result of following the example of a warlord prophet.
5. Johannes Gutenberg - for enabling the cheap dissemination of information among the masses, thus reducing the influence of the Catholic Church as a result of more people finding out about Jesus' original teachings (blatantly ignored by the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages).
6. Martin Luther - for further challenging the political power of the Catholic Church
7. Galileo - no need to elaborate why
8. Isaac Newton - for Calculus (with GW Leibniz) and especially for his laws of motion and the unification of the heavens and the earth, through gravity.
9. Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal - for their contributions in the study of uncertainty, probability and statistics. Inductive reasoning is closely tied to probability and is the second half of the coin of reasoning, deductive reasoning already having been kick-started by the Greeks.
10. Adam Smith - for obvious reasons
11. Charles Darwin - for revealing the "origin of species" (including our own) and, by doing so, giving a strong hint that a creator God (and, by extension, a clerical class enforcing dogma and ignorance) is not needed to explain anything at all about this Universe.
12. Winston Churchill, along with everyone who has ever fought against totalitarian ideologies seeking to dominate the world (like Nazism, Fascism, Communism, Islamism) - especially those that fought even when the status-quo of Western civilization was/is one of tolerance of the intolerant or of appeasement.
13. Tim Berners-Lee et al. for inventing the WWW, the most radical invention with respect to the free (and this time costless!) dissemination of information since Gutenberg.

nykos writes:

I forgot to put Wallace alongside Darwin as the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. I think it's important to also remember him (even though, unlike Darwin, he didn't get sexual selection right).

Evan writes:

They don't really embody that many virtues of Western Civilization (except maybe cool-headedness) but Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov at least deserve a nomination for choosing to not destroy Western Civilization when it was in their power to do so.

agnostic writes:

The defenders of Western civ *do* point to a uniquely Western figure -- at least if, as everyone else already has, we include the ancient eastern Mediterranean -- who struggled for, not merely chattered about, human rights and who proved through actions, not armchair writings, that he defied authority.

This person is already recognized as a beacon of Western civ, and already has his own annual day of remembrance -- it's called CHRISTMAS.

He accomplished a lot more than most of the geeks listed so far, and it's hard to find someone with cleaner hands (which I don't really care about). Talk about self-sacrifice for the greater good.

It's amazing that only 1 of 29 posts (including the original) even mention Jesus Christ, let alone point out that this example negates the initial arrogant assumption that defenders of Western civ have been too lazy, stupid, or chauvinistic to think of such a beacon and commemorate them annually.

Kurbla writes:

What, Bryan, you're enemy of slavery? I don't buy that. I'm pretty sure that detailed discussion would show that you actually believe that there is legitimate way to enslave one - just bit (not much) more complicated than Columbus's method. Pretty much same way you believe that women had more freedom in 1800's than today.

RPLong writes:

John Locke.

Stefano Cirolini writes:

To mantain the "Italian Pride" flavor of Columbus Day, perhaps he should be replaced by some other Italian.

Poets, musicians and artists probably don't fit the bill. Many Italian scientists are not well known (except Enrico Fermi perhaps, but his name is overused).

So, it seems it boils down to Galileo Galilei.

Daniel writes:

I'd think that the reason Jesus hasn't received more attention here is obvious: he already has a holiday.

What I'm shocked to see is that Adam Smith has only gotten one mention and Voltaire has received none.

I mean, I'd still take the Industrial Revolution even if it didn't come packaged with the Enlightenment, but twofer is still vital.

Biagio writes:

It is nice to see so many people thinking of Newton. I will add Kant.

drobviousso writes:

Norman Bourlag (already mentioned), Sam Walton, Larry Page, Sergi Brin, and Jeff Bezos have to be on the list, don't they?

I feel like the last four have done more for the poor in the west more than anyone in the last 100 years or so, Bourlag for the world.

Silas Barta writes:

By the way: If you're going to pick up any injustice by a historical figure as a reason to stop celebrating them, then you should drop Newton too, if you oppose the death penalty.

Newton prosecuted capital cases (which counterfeiting was at the time), using his knowledge of science to prove debasement of metals, and agreed that counterfeiters deserved the death penalty.

Ooooooh!

Taimyoboi writes:

Mother Teresa. If we're measuring accomplishment by value as perceived by the recipient, then arguably she did more for the poor and destitute than just about anyone else. As for clean hands, depending on what you're referring to, she was a saint and/or she did it all without the help or intervention of any government.

Chris Lemens writes:

Edward Jenner (smallpox vaccine)
Alexander Fleming (penicillin)
Jonas Salk (polio vaccine)

sourcreamus writes:

Louis Pasteur

Daryl writes:

Although Jesus is responsible for many ideas adopted by the West, Bryan is probably looking for names of people from the West.

I'll be yet another for Newton, plus Descartes.

Two Things writes:

(1) Columbus and his followers were immigrants. According to your own theory, Dr. Caplan, the Arawak had no right to exclude them. Of course if the Arawak had possessed the power and good sense to exclude unwanted immigrants they would have been much happier.

(2) Let me nominate some folks to the Pantheon of Western Civ (in no particular order):

a. Louis Pasteur -- we should thank him rather than the God of the Christians for our wholesome food every day (among other things).

b. James Cook (Capt. RN) -- a far greater explorer than Columbus and easily passes the clean-hands test.

c. Carl Linnaeus -- Heaven hears him praised every time a schoolchild recites the "scientific name" of some animal or plant.

d. Alexander Graham Bell -- he more than passes the clean-hands test and the wonderful popularity of the telephone testifies to his accomplishment. Though Edison's carbon transmitter and Strowger's automatic exchange were essential to the complete realization of the telephone, both were called into being by Bell's original work.

e. The Wright brothers -- we may draw an unbroken though rather wandering line from Kitty Hawk to the Mare Tranquillitatis. Though men have dropped much devastation from airplanes, without flying machines they would have done no less harm (that was proved by the guns of the Great War of 1914-18) and the world would still be waiting to discover the Nazca Lines or to see the beautiful blue Earth floating in space.

f. James Watson -- upon whose work and insights the entire modern edifice of genetic engineering was founded.

I could think of some more. I endorse most of the nominations by my fellow commenters as well.

David C writes:

I have to second Martin Luther or Isaac Newton among the ones mentioned so far. The biggest omission I can think of would be Leonardo da Vinci. In medicine, it's difficult to say whether William Jenner (smallpox), Louis Pasteur(germ theory), or Florence Nightingale(popularization of sanitary practices) saved more lives.

Peter Isztin writes:

Newton, J.S. Bach, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Adam Smith, Winston Churchill

Peter Finch writes:

I don't see how we will ever again know a human so far ahead of his peers as Newton. People often refer to him as the smartest person who ever lived; that's probably not true - modern nutrition, medicine, and population probably conspire to keep several dozen Newtons alive today at any given time. Richard Feynman was probably smarter than Isaac Newton, for example. But relative to their peers? The modern Newtons face much stiffer competition. Newton borderline invented science while living in a world of poverty and disease. "Newton Count" ought to be a figure of merit for civilizations.

Newton is my pick for "Historical figure most likely to turn out to have been a time traveler from the 27th century." :)

Brandon Berg writes:

"The notion that the Earth was spherical was an accepted fact known to any well-educated person at this time, and was anything but an advanced idea."

In fact, Columbus was working with a geographical model which was inferior to the consensus at the time. He underestimated the circumference of the earth and overestimated the width of Eurasia. It was generally believed--correctly--that the distance between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia was so great as to make the trip infeasible. Columbus and his crew would almost certainly have perished en route if there hadn't turned out to be an extra continent in between.

Darren Olofson writes:

Just to be offbeat, I'll go with Baruch Spinoza as an exemplar of the West. Agree with him or not, his attempt to use human reason and free inquiry to discover/create a unified theory of everything from God to matter to ethics shows "the Western Mind" at its best. Combine with that a kindness, tolerance and nobility of spirit that is surprisingly rare in the history of philosophy.

JPIrving writes:

Why not have a Capitalism day. It seems like western civ is just too full of awesome people to pick just one. Why not celebrate the notion that allowed western civilization standout. Capitalism!

(or ok proto capitalism, come on the greek system was more capitalist than that in Persia or even China?)

JP98 writes:

I guess writers are not what is Bryan is looking for. But I'd argue that Shakespeare was a characteristically Western figure and great man.

dmitchell writes:

Richard Wagner

Bob Murphy writes:

Great point agnostic (at 3:20 am). Of course you are right, but in Bryan's defense, I didn't think of Jesus either. I guess it's too "obvious."

But you refreshed my faith in humanity.

Bill writes:

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Chris T writes:

I'll second Galileo or Newton.

Celebrating Columbus mystifies me; not only did he commit the atrocities already listed, but he completely botched his calculations (as already noted, the people arguing against it were actually correct). He was very lucky, not brave.

Joel writes:

Rodrigo Borgia. Obviously.

Corey S. writes:

@Salem

Lord Palmerston!

Tracy W writes:

But in my fever, I still wondered: How did this awful conqueror and slaver ever become an icon of "Western civilization"?

Did he? He's important in Americas, but I don't think the rest of the Western world thinks that much about him. Captain Cook is recognised in NZ and Australia. The British go for Cromwell, Churchill and the Duke of Wellington, the French have Voltaire and Napolean, etc.

Les Cargill writes:

Alan Turing - especially modulo his tragic end.

david (not henderson) writes:

" The notion that the Earth was spherical was an accepted fact known to any well-educated person at this time, and was anything but an advanced idea."

I wasn't suggesting that the idea was unknown in the Western world, I was suggesting that it was advanced by comparison with the consensus (if there was one) in the Americas pre-"discovery". I was also (implicitly I guess) suggesting that the voyage was in part an example of "science", albeit flawed, translated into action. That seems pretty advanced to me compared to what else was going on the world.

Sure, sure, everyone, I know, he got his calculations wrong, his science was flawed, he was "lucky not brave", etc., etc. But isn't the story of western civilzation also the story of adventurers and explorers, of individual confidence and bravado and the taking of what are at the time often considered to be ill-advised risks following non-consensus thinking to strike out into the unknown? As I said above, not just ideas but ideas married with action, even in the presence of uncertainty. In the names provided in comments above, I see academics, scientists and religious figures. But I don't see a lot of men (persons?) of action or doers (except for government leaders - Churchill, Leonidas, etc.)

It's easy to be harmless when you don't act.

Lori writes:

Thank you for at least hinting that there might be a tradeoff between accomplishments and clean hands.

Chris T writes:

I was suggesting that it was advanced by comparison with the consensus (if there was one) in the Americas pre-"discovery".

That the Earth was round WAS the consensus at the time. The actual circumference was even roughly known since ancient Greece. Columbus was arguing against the correct model!

david (not henderson) writes:

"That the Earth was round WAS the consensus at the time. The actual circumference was even roughly known since ancient Greece. Columbus was arguing against the correct model!"

Was it the consensus amongst the Aztecs and the Incas (not according to Wikipedia)? We' re being a little Euro-centric here aren't we?

What I said was, "I wasn't suggesting that the idea was unknown in the Western world, I was suggesting that it was advanced by comparison with the consensus (if there was one) in the Americas pre-'discovery'," , the key part being "in the Americas 'pre-discovery'."

But aside from that which is it? Either, as an exemplar of plucky Western individualism (or obsession?), Columbus bucked the European consensus (which despite being "superior" to Columbus' views turned out to be wrong anyway) and was serendipitously wrong (in a good way) or he didn't buck the European consensus (and presumably therefore he wasn't such an idiot after all)?

fralupo writes:
d. Alexander Graham Bell -- he more than passes the clean-hands test and the wonderful popularity of the telephone testifies to his accomplishment. Though Edison's carbon transmitter and Strowger's automatic exchange were essential to the complete realization of the telephone, both were called into being by Bell's original work.

I'll have to disagree, Meucci invented the telephone, and Bell copied it.

Robert Scarth writes:

I can't believe that no one has mentioned Shakespeare yet.

My Team GB for this event would be:
- Shakespeare
- Newton
- Adam Smith
- Darwin
- Churchill

Joaquim Bento writes:

Mustn't forget Themistocles though, without whom Leonidas wouldn't be but a footnote of history (and a small one at that).

Robert Johnson writes:

Yeah, Columbus eschewed the knowledge of the best scientists of the day and made his own (badly incorrect) estimate of the circumference of the Earth. If the Americas hadn't been there we'd certainly not remember the fool who never made it to the 'Indies'.

Aside from that, the Americas were ripe for discovery due to the advances in ship building and navigation. The accidental discovery of part of what is now Brazil happened only 8 years after Columbus sailed - by someone who was heading for India by the old route around Africa. Pedro Cabral just took a wider westerly sweep on his voyage south than others had done, and so independently discovered the new world.

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