In his 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, author Erich von Däniken speculated that the religions and technological advancements of some ancient civilizations were the work of ancient astronauts who were welcomed to Earth as gods.
Now, I dig contemplating the mysteries of Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and those crazy ancient lines dug into the rock on the Plains of Nazca in Peru (pictured below) – but I can’t say I subscribe to von Daniken’s theory.
At various times in human history, certain people have appeared on the scene who were so far ahead of their peers — intellectually, artistically, scientifically, philosophically and morally – that you have to wonder just where the hell they came from. Were these geniuses simply the result of natural human evolution? Were they the special blessings of a loving God, eager to advance His human experiment? Or did they somehow drop out of the sky as the gift of extraterrestrial overlords, desirous of seeing human civilization grow and prosper for reasons we can’t yet fathom.
The following 15 great minds were so far advanced for their time that it seems entirely plausible that they were, indeed, space aliens plunked down among us to enlighten humanity and move us Earthlings forward: or at least the result of divine intervention. Either that, or humankind just got lucky.
I admit that this is an entirely Western list. I’m sure students of Eastern culture would rank Buddah and other Asian greats in this elite category. But I don’t know a damned thing about Eastern culture beyond the legend that claims Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy – which is hard for a proud Italian like me to endure. Maybe that’s why I’ve never delved much deeper into Asian studies.
At any rate, here’s my list of 15 possible alien geniuses dropped out of the sky into the world of mortal men.
1. Socrates (469-399 B.C.) What most school kids know about this leading light of ancient Greek philosophy is that he got in trouble for corrupting the youth of Athens and was made to execute himself by drinking hemlock. (Probably the first and only reference to hemlock most of us will hear in our lives.) Among those Athenian kids learning at Socrates’ feet was Plato, who also did some pretty advanced thinking of his own – and wrote a classic account of Socrates final days. Socrates work is the foundation for the study of Western philosophy. Tuition-paying parents can blame Socrates for the fact that their sons and daughters will earn a college degree that almost guarantees poverty. More than two centuries after downing his hemlock cocktail, Socrates is still corrupting the kids.
2. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Another great Greek philosopher, Aristotle was a student of Plato. He taught Alexander the Great. (Which is a good thing if you’re Greek and a bad thing if you’re Persian.) Aristotle was a great writer — the first to explore logic (long before Star Trek’s Spock). He is considered one of the central figures of Western philosophy. Back in the day, Aristotle and his followers were known as the Peripatetic school, after the ancient Greek word peripatetikos, which means “given to walking about”. He must have been a fast walker, because, to this day, students find it hard to keep up with Aristotle.
3. Jesus (1-33 A.D.) For the moment, let’s just set aside the divisive two-millennia long debate over whether Jesus was a god or a man – or both. Even if he was no more than a Galilean carpenter’s son, his “love your neighbor as yourself” philosophy was revolutionary. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was certainly not the prevailing attitude of Jesus’ time – and few people live up to that Golden Rule today. But it’s a philosophy that could save humanity, if only we’d all live by it. Whether you’re a deist or not, read The Beatitudes — and marvel at all that wisdom flowing from an impoverished, poorly educated guy from an oppressed backwater of the Roman Empire. Turning water into wine was a nice trick, but the transformational ideas Jesus expressed were truly miraculous.
4. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Where in the hell did Leonardo da Vinci come from? Okay, so he’s one of the best painters of all time — and one of the great scientists and inventors, too. The same guy who painted The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa also drew up plans for a helicopter and a tank. His notebooks are filled with brilliant ideas – which he liked to write backwards! (My wife is the only other person I know who can do that with ease.) How good was Leonardo? Da Vinci was so good that Michelangelo was jealous of him. Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man: painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, engineer and jazz hipster. (I made up that last one.)
5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Simply amazing. To call William Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language still sounds like faint praise. A supreme poet, a brilliant wordsmith, and an unparalleled playwright, he created nearly 40 plays and about 150 sonnets – and they all kick ass. Hamlet not enough for you? MacBeth not enough? King Lear? Othello? Romeo and Juliet? It’s just silly how incredible the Bard’s body of masterworks is. You can’t go through life for a day – you can hardly live through one hour – without hearing or reading or seeing a phrase written by Shakespeare. And half the time you don’t even realize it! Bill Shakespeare is not simply the greatest writer in the English language: he is the English language.
6. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) The second great Italian on this list, Galileo was a revolutionary astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. He’s been called the “the Father of Modern Science – and for good reason. He’s the guy who figured out some fundamental things about gravity, the laws of motion – and that little business about the Earth moving around the Sun (rather than vice versa). The great authority of Galileo’s time, The Catholic Church, rewarded him for his discovery of this essential astronomical truth by charging him with heresy and threatening to torture him if he didn’t take it all back. Galileo was in his 70’s when they and took him to the church dungeons to show off the instruments of torture they planned to use on him if he didn’t recant. Knowing the Church had already burned his scientific predecessor Giordano Bruno at the stake for heresy, Galileo recanted and spent the last seven years of his life under house arrest. Nice, huh?
It was a memory of such state-sponsored religious tyranny that led people like the next man on this lost to espouse the separation of church and state.
7. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) Ben Franklin is not just one of America’s Founding Fathers. Given his Olympian libido, he might be literally our founding father. But his infamous satyric exploits aside, Ben Franklin is still an incredible character: the most multi-faceted Renaissance man since Leonardo da Vinci. Franklin was an innovative author, humorist, printer, politician, inventor, and scientist. His legendary kite-flying experiments advanced our knowledge of electricity. He wrote hundreds of wise and witty sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, the odometer – and contributed to much of the philosophy and lawmaking that gave birth to the government of the United States of America. Oh yeah — and as our first ambassador to France, Franklin was instrumental in bringing the French into our revolutionary war against England. Game over. Bow down to Ben.
8. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) Born in a log cabin and largely self-educated, Abe Lincoln overcame the disadvantages of a hardscrabble frontier life on the edge of American civilization to become the central figure in saving the American experiment from itself. How did such a rough-hewn man become the supreme poet that wrote the Gettysburg Address – or his second inaugural address? (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…”) And it’s not just Honest Abe’s flair for poetry that rings down the centuries – it’s also his uncanny leadership in the Civil War. No American president since George Washington (and possibly James Madison) faced a more grave threat to America. But Washington had already won his war before he took office as President – and Madison’s English invaders also had Napoleon to deal with. Lincoln faced a wholly internal threat. He persevered and won. And he freed the slaves, too. He was the right man at the right time. Did we just get lucky? Or were our alien overlords looking out for us?
9. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Naturalist Charles Darwin took a great scientific leap forward — and infuriated generations of Biblical fundamentalists — with his pioneering research on natural selection leading to his theory of evolution. Without Darwin’s tireless voyages and observations and his bold assertions of evolutionary theory, many of the great scientific and medical advances of the 20th century would have been impossible. No scientist since Galileo has pissed off more small-minded religious conservatives than Darwin. That alone is a fine reason to celebrate his landmark achievements.
10. Mark Twain (1835-1910) We all had to read Mark Twain’s books in school — but Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are just the tip of the Twain iceberg. Twain’s literary, journalistic, intellectual and humanist advancements are still underappreciated in his own land. But the more you read Twain’s works, the greater he becomes. In fact, Mark Twain may be the greatest writer in the English language since Shakespeare. What couldn’t this guy write? Drama? Check. Comedy? Check. Adventure? Check. Political commentary? Check. Travelogue? Check. Philosophy? Check. Twain wrote it all – and he did it in a voice that still sounds contemporary today. Do yourself a favor and get his newly published autobiography. Mark Twain is the American literary colossus. (And no, let’s not replace the N-word in Huck Finn with “slave”. Twain knew what he was doing.)
11. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) In his own time, Thomas Edison was like Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg combined. Is there any modern appliance that we now take for granted that Edison didn’t invent? The incandescent light bulb, sound recording devices, the phonograph and the film camera would be enough to make him a legend – but Edison did much, much more.
In his New Jersey laboratory, The Wizard of Menlo Park pretty much invented the modern world. Without Edison, there would be no vinyl records – and thus, no late 20th Century rock & roll. ‘Nuff said.
12. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) In a violent century marred by two world wars, pogroms, massacres, bloody civil wars, nuclear bombs and revolutionary struggles against colonial powers – Gandhi achieved independence for India through non-violence. And he did this in a region where tribal, religious and ethnic violence was a way of life. Gandhi showed humanity a way forward, just as Jesus did two millennia before him. And, like Jesus, Gandhi paid for his non-violent vision with his life.
13. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) Martin Luther King brought the non-violent humanism of Jesus and Gandhi to America – combined with soaring, moving poetry not heard in the political realm since Abraham Lincoln. As a result, he helped America to advance civil rights and form a more perfect union. What was Martin Luther King’s reward for his genius? Alas, the same reward that Jesus, Lincoln and Gandhi got. (Noticing a pattern here?)
14. Bob Dylan (Born May 24, 1941) How did a 22-year old kid from a backwater like Hibbing, Minnesota write “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”? Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation by merging folk music and rock and roll with cutting-edge social, political and passionately human commentary. Dylan’s influence on popular culture since the early 1960’s is impossible to measure. My favorite Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks, is the most romantic collection of love and loss poems since Shakespeare’s sonnets — and you can sing them. In my estimation, the greatest poets in the English language are Shakespeare, Lincoln and Bob Dylan.
15. Lennon & McCartney (Met Saturday, July 6, 1957) The only partnership on this list, Paul McCartney and John Lennon are the greatest songwriting team in history: their influence on popular culture in the second half on the 20th Century and beyond is immeasurable. Eleanor Rigby, In My Life, Yesterday, Let it Be, Across the Universe – the list of their undying classics goes on and on. What would your life be without Lennon & McCartney? Kind of like a life without Shakespeare. Maybe even worse. After all, you can’t dance to Titus Andronicus. We tend to discount the geniuses amongst us. It’s said that true genius is never appreciated in its own time. But Lennon & McCartney are either once-in-a-generation geniuses – or space aliens dropped into working class Liverpool during World War Two.
A couple observations about this list:
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is not on the list because his big scientific breakthrough (E = mc2) led to the atomic bomb. That may not be fair, but consequences matter. Nobody else on this list came up with anything that directly cost lives. UPDATE: The wise and fair minded Jim McCutchen reminds me that Einstein is NOT the only one on this list to have his work misused to the detriment of mankind. Jim is correct. Now, I am keeping Einstein off the list simply because I am not a big fan of math and because his hair looks too much like Mark Twain’s.
Of the 15 geniuses on this list, more than half were severely punished for their gifts to humanity: two were executed (Socrates and Jesus), four were assassinated (Lincoln, Gandhi, King and Lennon), and two were persecuted by religious fundamentalists (Galileo and Darwin).
Who would you put on this list?
Who would you take off this list?
And where do you stand on the whole Chariots of the Gods thing?