The Backs of History’s People

Something that occurred to me after reading about Tesla, Socrates, and Roman history for a class. The advance of civilization, invention, and innovation is credited to all those who pushed forward, cried and bled and wondered and sweat to make their ideas a reality. History applauds them. History also notes that they were far from applauded during their time. On the bodies and minds of these people, is paved the road of advancing civilization.

Tesla—a man whose name still echoes in physics classrooms across the nation, but who died alone and impoverished despite the brilliance of his inventions and thinking.

Socrates—the Greek philosopher whose writings are still dissected and reflected upon to this day, and who was forced to commit suicide by his supposed fellow countrymen, for the irritating and curious nature of his dialogues.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis—the doctor whose then-radical idea of hand-washing is now a household concept and required in professional medicine. His observations and book were discarded as the unsupported ramblings of a madman, and he was committed to an asylum; the guards beat him to death fourteen days later, and only after his death were his ideas about hygiene in medicine vindicated.

Edison—the man of the apocryphal 1000 failures, who almost literally gave the world electric light and paid for it with his life’s times spent in the laboratory.

Martin Luther—a priest who is the founder of a major branch of a major religion, Lutheran Christianity. Among other beliefs, his belief, that buying freedom from God’s punishment for sinning with money was wrong, got him an excommunication from the Church—one of the most powerful entities of the time, if not the most—, and the label of ‘outlaw’ from the Emperor as well.

Miyamoto Musashi—a ronin, a wandering samurai whose dual-sword style was mocked as inefficient at best and pitiful at worst, whose philosophy was incomprehensible to a vast majority of those he met, become a philosopher-strategist-warrior whose writings are also still studied, centuries later.

Galileo Galilei—an archetypical Renaissance man, persecuted for his radical and heretical view that the Sun was the center of the solar system, not Earth. Later he was known as the “father of modern astronomy”, the “father of physics”, and the “father of science”; nonetheless, he was placed under house arrest by the Church and his writings banned.

All of these men were the very manifestation of the quote:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The last part however, happens mostly posthumously, as it did for Semmelweiss, for Socrates, for Galileo.

I’d say that we get to choose to be like them—that if we so wanted to, we could shake the very foundations of the current world’s knowledge, or at least do so within an industry or field, and go down in history with lauded titles next to our names.

I’d be lying.

In all probability, we don’t get to choose to be like this.

We don’t get to choose to be another Musashi, who literally had people coming up to him, attempting to prove his philosophy and his combat style wrong by killing him. We can hope to emulate that strength of will and personality.

We don’t get to choose to be another Martin Luther, who stood up against the most powerful authority in the continent at the time, of which he was a part, for his own beliefs. Excommunication would have an agonizing sentence for anyone living in those days, when the Church’s word was law; imagine still choosing your beliefs under the threat of your own Church, your own brothers in faith, casting you out.

I don’t think we get to choose.

I think we get the illusion of choosing, but that in reality, your very being will cry out for it, as Socrates’ did. In Plato’s Dialogues, during a speech of Socrates’ in which he defends himself against the accusations of poisoning Athens’ youth with his philosophy, the very man himself explains that he could be no other way. Exile him, and he will go to another city, which eventually will accuse him of the same. Lock him up, and he will not stop pondering what is true. Socrates remarks that his very essence calls out for him to be and do what he does and is.

That kind of bone-deep, soul-deep conviction is what people like Martin Luther needed to face—almost quite literally—the world. A conviction that is strong enough to persist through persecution, threats on your very eternal existence (very few people didn’t believe in it back in Luther’s day), and strong enough to drive you to action for years and decades to come.

How do we develop this, can we develop this? Next time, my friends.

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