Some People I Admire
In studying the actions of individuals, we learn also everything about the collectives and society. For the collective has no existence and reality but in the actions of individuals. It comes into existence by ideas that move individuals to behave as members of a definite group and goes out of existence when the persuasive power of these ideas subsides. The only way to a cognition of collectives is the analysis of the conduct of its members.
— Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 1962.
By philosophy and temperament, I'm a methodological individualist. My interest in history has always concentrated itself on the lives and actions of individual people. Much of what I find myself reading, therefore, is either biography or history that focuses on the motivations and decisions of key men and women. I'm not particularly inspired — and in fact am usually rather bored — by the sweeping analysis of social history (better described once as "retrospective sociology"). The kinds of analysis I prefer is sometimes derided as the "kings and battles" school of historiography. But as the quote I used to have posted on my Amazon.com page notes, there's a difference between good history and simple storytelling:
There are two types of military history. One is what we might call romantic military history. I was talking to the military historian Russell Weigley shortly before he died about a very well-known historian who had a lot of success writing books about the American fighting man. Weigley said he was sad to see a respected historian raising monuments rather than writing history. In the same breath, Weigley noted that a veteran told him that these books make us feel good about ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this romantic military history as long as we recognize its limitations. It is a celebration. But we must also ask the hard questions.
— Max Hastings, Books & Culture, March/April 2005
All that said, here are...
10 Historical Figures I Particularly Admire (and/or at least enjoy learning about)
in Generally Chronological Order
- George Mason (1725-1792) — Virginia statesman and possibly America's least-appreciated Founding Father. Author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (which influenced the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man) and opponent of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Further reading.
- Felix zu Schwarzenberg (1800-1852) — Prime Minister of the Austrian Empire from 1848 until his death, Prince Felix for good or ill did much to sweep away the last remnants of the medieval Austrian political apparatus and introduce a more modern centralized state. My interest in him is far from unalloyed admiration, but I do find him a fascinating character who walked history's stage at a pivotal time. Further reading (link to come).
- Friedrich Cardinal zu Schwarzenberg (1809-1885) — Cardinal Archbishop of Prague and opponent of the declaration of the dogma of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. Brother of Prince Felix, above. Further reading.
- James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart (1833-1864) — Possibly the greatest, and almost certainly the most famous, cavalry commander of the War Between the States. Further reading.
- Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922) — Born Giacomo Della Chiesa and reigned as head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1914. He exerted himself mightily, if futilely, to end World War I and was therefore roundly hated by leaders of all the combatant nations (with the notable exception of Emperor Karl of Austria, below). I was interested in him even before the election of the new Pope Benedict XVI. Further reading.
- Sherlock Holmes (1854-1957) — The world's first, and still greatest, consulting detective. What? You say he is a fictional character? Fie! Fie on you! Further reading.
- Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) — Idiosyncratic French-English author. Maybe best known today for his children's verses but also a prolific writer on history, politics, and religion. Further reading.
- Sir Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965) — For many years the person I admired most and was most interested in learning more about. He's not my number one interest at the moment (these things have a way of changing), but he's still right near the top. Further reading.
- Emperor Karl (1877-1922) — Last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, beatified not long ago by the Catholic Church. I read someplace recently that the late Pope John Paul II's baptismal name, Karol, was chosen in honor of the emperor. But I don't know of that's true. Further reading. Also.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909-1999) — Not only a historian and author from whom I have learned a great deal about politics, history, theology, and general world-view, but I think a very interesting figure in his own right. For more information, please visit my K-L pages.