Are the most influential people in history necessarily those who have caused the most harm?

Are the most influential people in history necessarily those who have caused the most harm? The answer to this might have been a downright ‘yes’. However, there are a few nuances that make this argument a rather controversial one.

Firstly,religious leaders wield immense power over the social and economic developments in the international community, yet are venerated by millions for their fidelity to religious doctrine as well as long-suffering endurance in fixing society’s flaws. In the name of world peace and human rights, this group of influential figures spread their messages and blessings to every corner of the Earth while intervening with ethical dilemmas such as the legalisation of abortion or capital punishment. For possessing these attributes and more, Pope John Paul II was named TIME’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1994 and even canonised before a crowd of 800,000 pilgrims at the Vatican city.

More than two and a half decades in the Chair of St Peter offered this energetic pope time to accomplish much. He travelled to 129 countries to proclaim the Gospel, making contact with the young, the sick and the poor just as effectively as with world leaders. None of the late pope’s accomplishments looms larger than his role in the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism. Americans found in Pope John Paul II an ally, especially in his resistance to the evil of Marxism. Specifically, he led the Church to break the existing monopolies over physical property and intellectual life, offering people a safe place to meet and an alternative perspective of the world.

Although the second-longest serving pope in history has earned both admiration and criticism, his name is still spoken with reverence by generations of Catholics on the account of his globetrotting evangelism and long-suffering endurance in the papacy despite his illness. In the religious field, the faithful and righteous leave a profound influence on society by putting to shame the masterminds of terrible atrocities.

However, it is no doubt that amongst the most influential people in history, there are those who have caused the most harm to humanity, both directly and indirectly, through their actions. In particular, inventions and discoveries the pioneers of the scientific world have made could have harmed society in ways they did not fathom. Such inventions, though not made with immoral thoughts in mind, have been manipulated by society into being tools of the devil. In today’s world, one of the most lethal weapons that sends everyone scuttling in fear at the sight of it would be the atomic bombs. In recent years, the threat of atomic bombs have commonly made headlines, such as “Modelling World War Three: What would happen if a nuclear bomb were fired at Britain?” and “‘Hibaku’ rice grown to recall horror of atomic bombing”. This term is now commonly associated with ‘death’ and ‘destruction’, and it all started with one astounding man of great brilliance: Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein saw himself a pacifist in the beginning: he would not do any type of war-related work directly or indirectly during times of conflict. This was the mindset and stand he had adopted when he realised the Theory of Relativity, and this Theory of Relativity would later on contribute towards the making of nuclear weapons, and the notoriously-known atomic bombs. During the whole process in the making of the atomic bomb, Einstein actually had little participation in the actual practical work. However, he was instrumental in this project due to the importance of the Theory of Relativity in the making of the atomic bomb, as well as the true instigator behind the motivations of this invention. When he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt advising and persuading for such an invention, it was because he was aware of the threat Nazi Germany posed not only to his country, but to the world. With these warning bells ringing in his head, he made the risky decision of instigating the creation of this powerful destructor. Just with a pen and a piece of paper, he signed his agreement which would then mark the start of the horror that was to come.

As a scientist, not only is it their job to experiment and reveal, but also they have the responsibility of considering the plausible outcomes from their inventions. In this case, Einstein made a brutal mistake through the agreement, for he did not consider the horrifying outcomes should the atomic bomb be misused. His price to pay for causing the catastrophic harm during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would then be the high death toll. Nevertheless, just like everyone else, Einstein is still human despite his immense knowledge. Humans are subjected to err, and Einstein too admits his fatal mistake, saying “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”. If we look beyond the atomic bombs itself, Einstein’s motives were pure and true, for he only wanted to use it for protection, not destruction. The realisation of the possible damages only occurred afterwards, where he states “when the war is over, then there will be in all countries a pursuit of secret war preparations with technological means which will lead inevitably to preventative wars and to destruction even more terrible than the present destruction of life.”.

Hence, to say that he brought the most harm would be partially true, but not entirely, for his mistake also allowed mankind view the horrors of war during the bombings, and allows us to learn to appreciate life. These gigantic scars continue to stay after centuries, and it induces continuous reconsideration and care when world leaders feel inclined to use such destructive methods. People have learnt from his blunder, and thus, although he has brought harm to humanity unintentionally, embedded in it is a beneficial lesson for all of us to realise the fragility of life, and the heavy consequences of war.

Throughout 21 centuries of recorded time, men have set into motion influences that affect us today. Coming from a world which is full of misery and ignorance, the plain duty of each and every one of us is to make the world a better place than square one. We conclude that individuals who push the boundaries of what is accepted to bring about a positive change are more influential than those who add to society’s grievances. The latter’s impact can be likened to a pebble thrown into a vast ocean, because in increasing the suffering of a society, they are compromising their own morals for the people around them rather than vice-versa. While their sins exposes us to the shocking side of humanity, these continue to help us learn from past mistakes in hope of a better future. The dead respect their authority but the living refuse to be influenced by these negative forces. On the other hand, it is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which we are influenced by people who bring good. There is no doubt that example has immortal momentum and just like chameleons, people today take their hue and colour of their moral character from these role models.


Trina Chong



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