The Hebrew slave-turned-prince, whose story is dramatized in the animated movie The Prince of Egypt, is believed to have written the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. After leading the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt through the desert for 40 years, he codified the system of laws that would become the foundation of the Jewish religion. The historical evidence regarding his life is disputed, but his significance cannot be understated.
You don’t have to be a good guy to prove to be influential. Case in point: Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party who was responsible for World War II and the deaths of tens of millions of people, including six million Jews in the Holocaust. However, few historians would debate the fact that without Hitler, the world today would look vastly different. One reason is that German war inventions changed the face of military technology.
The Father of the United States of America, George Washington was the man who led the Patriots to victory against the British during the American Revolution. He signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and as president, set many of the precedents that presidents today still follow. You may remember the iconic story of him cutting down the cherry tree and confessing to the crime because he cannot tell a lie; however, that story was false.
Born into dire poverty in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln would rise to become one of the most important figures in American, and world, history. He was elected to the Senate before becoming President of the United States, just before the Civil War broke out. In his Emancipation Proclamation, he declared that slavery was no longer a valid institution and all slaves were free. He was assassinated shortly before the war ended, but his legacy is impossible to understate.
Born into India while it was under the British colonial government, Mahatma Gandhi became a leader in the independence movement. He advocated nonviolent resistance as a means to not only end British rule but also to create a new Indian nation. After India gained independence in 1947, he worked tirelessly to promote peace with the newly-partitioned state of Pakistan. He was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who disapproved of his work with Pakistani Muslims. Today, he is known as the Father of India.
Not much is known about Socrates through his writings. Instead, what we know about him is from his most famous pupil, Aristotle. Socrates’ thought helped lay the foundation of Western theory and philosophy, particularly in regards to ethics. “Socratic thought” refers to an approach in which people create their own knowledge by exploring the world on their own rather than reciting dogma that other people have told them.
The Civil Rights leader was also a Baptist pastor in Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized nonviolent resistance movements, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. He went on to help organize the March on Washington, where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A white supremacist assassinated him, but his efforts were ultimately successful.
His most famous play was Romeo and Juliet, but there is more to Shakespeare than the star-crossed lovers. He is responsible for many of the sayings and idioms that we still use today, such as, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He also invented many of the words that are still used today, as well as many literary devices, such as comic relief, knock-knock jokes, and five-act plays that have an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Plato, the most famous disciple of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, founded the Academy, the first institute of higher learning in Athens. We have him to thank for the concept of higher education and the humanities as a viable field of study. He was so central to the development of Western thought that some have even suggested that all subsequent European philosophy is merely a footnote on Plato.
Charles Darwin was the author of The Origin of the Species, which details the findings and discoveries that he made while exploring the Galapagos Islands. He observed adaptations that organisms on the archipelago had made that could not be found in other places. He used these observations to develop his theory of evolution, which is now central to modern biology. The Origin of the Species became one of the bestselling books of all time.
The son of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great led the Greek army on a lightning-fast expansion that brought it to the edge of modern India. He died at the age of 33 and had not established a formal system of governing his vast empire, so it fell apart shortly after his death. Still, he is remembered for his military prowess and is still considered a hero to many Greeks.
Galileo Galilei constructed his telescope using a couple of lenses and a tube. When he lifted his telescope to the heavens, he discovered that Jupiter was its own system, complete with its own set of moons. His discoveries drew the ire of church officials, who believed that the earth was the center of the cosmos and put him under house arrest. Today, he is considered one of the fathers of modern astronomy.
Muhammad was orphaned at an early age and raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, before marrying a wealthy woman named Khadija. He was known as a devout man and would frequently go on spiritual retreats up in the surrounding mountains. On one of these retreats, he is believed to have received the first of a series of revelations from the angel Gabriel; together, the revelations would form the Qur’an, the scripture of the Muslim religion.
Little is known about the life of Aristotle, but he studied in Plato’s Academy from the time he was about 17 years old and absorbed the teachings of Plato and his predecessor, Socrates. Aristotle made many scientific discoveries that paved the way for modern scientific thought. His works included topics as disparate as ethics, physics, astronomy, zoology, logic, poetry, music, biology, rhetoric, and even government. Together, his works form the foundation of Western philosophy and scientific thought.
The ultimate “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, scientist, writer, botanist, musician, polymath, inventor, you name it, he could do it. Even if you can’t name it, he could probably do it. He painted masterpieces such as The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. His enigmatic notebooks, which are sometimes written backward, contain drawings of things like prototype helicopters and anatomical depictions of humans. He is widely regarded to be one of the most widely-talented people who ever lived.
Isaac Newton is probably most famous for his discovery of gravity, which explains both why things fall to earth and why planets stay in orbit around the sun. When he needed to make measurements that involved a form of math that didn’t exist, he invented a new branch of math: calculus. He wrote down many of his discoveries in a book called Principia, which is still considered a masterpiece. His findings were used by Einstein over two centuries later.
Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist who emigrated to the United States and remained there after Hitler rose to power in his native Germany. He discovered general relativity, then supplemented it with special relativity to fill in some of the gaps. Einstein also studied things like the photoelectric effect, which helped form the basis for quantum physics. During World War II, he was recruited for the Manhattan Project so that he could help develop the technology for the atomic bomb.
Jesus was not the founder of the religion that bears his name; he was actually a Jewish carpenter he traveled as an itinerant preacher and worked miracles. After his death and resurrection, his followers initially remained part of the Jewish religion until they were completely expelled from the synagogues. Today, two billion Christians worldwide profess to be followers of Jesus, and he is also a prominent figure in Islam. In fact, many Muslims also claim to be followers of Jesus.
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