Good Questions: Who Is Your Favorite Historical Figure?

Of the eighteen questions drafted by the Montana 8th grade history class that I Skyped with last week, this was the one I dreaded most. Naturally, it came up pretty quickly…

Who is your favorite historical figure?

Now, I’ve been to graduate school, so I’ve learned a thing or two about how to avoid answering questions to which you don’t have a good answer. So I pulled this oldie-but-goodie out of my bag of rhetorical tricks: “That’s a great question! Who’s your favorite historical figure?”

Poster for Lincoln (2012)That bought me the five seconds it took for most of them to say “Abraham Lincoln.” (We’d just been talking about the Spielberg movie, I think, so I primed that response.) So I asked an evergreen follow-up/distractor: “Why?”

I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to twenty 8th graders answer the same question at the same time, but… I think the three words that stood out most clearly were honesty, integrity, and courage. In short: he’s a heroic figure.

Okay, so… Yes, there are people within history whom I admire greatly. If pressed, I might then say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is my favorite historical figure: a man from a chapter in history that I teach often — the Third Reich, World War II, and the Holocaust – who exemplified virtues to which I can barely aspire, like the three named in the previous paragraph, plus classic Christian virtues like faith, hope, and love. He’s even got enough surprising quirks (his love for American gospel music) and moral ambiguities (a pacifist who plotted an assassination) to make him more interesting than some of the marble men of history.

But here’s the rub: I can’t bring him up in a class without immediately mentioning what one genocide scholar once called “the Bonhoeffer complex” — i.e., that Christians like me tend to want to celebrate that martyred German pastor because it helps us avoid the reality that the vast, vast majority of German clergy and laity were either complicit in the evils of 1933-1945 or at least acquiescent to them. (I don’t know if there’s a “Lincoln complex” in American history, but an obvious parallel suggests itself.)

So then I mentally reframe the question to dodge such issues: “Which historical figure would I have wanted to be friends with?”

Erasmus by Holbein the Younger
1523 portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) by Hans Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia

And that’s easy: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great Christian humanist and Catholic reformer of the late 15th and early 16th centuries whom I’ve found a few chances to celebrate on this blog. And I’m hardly alone in my corner of academe. When we interviewed about twenty Bethel faculty for the online Western Civ/church history course we’re premiering next month, we asked them to talk about someone in their “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1 — this is the biblical or church-historical version of asking “Who is your favorite historical figure?”). The most common name was Augustine; the second was Erasmus. I can’t think of any better models for a Christian scholar: Erasmus was brilliant, hard-working, widely-read, a gifted writer (in multiple genres for multiple audiences), open to insights from beyond his religion, and committed to Christ… Save humility, he embodied most every intellectual virtue. Oh, he loved the Church enough both to criticize its corruptions and to warn against its division.

And he was the great correspondent of his day, writing letters at a prolific rate to people all over Europe. So I think he must have had some talent for making friends, even with one as semi-awkward as myself.

But he was also a know-it-all, like me — and since he actually knew more than me, I would have instantly found myself afflicted by the sense that his friendship was a mere act of charity. Alas…

My third response would be a cop-out: “I don’t tend to celebrate famous individuals in history — I’m more interested in the masses.” And yes, I do appreciate the rise of social history in the 20th century. But I’m also a diplomatic historian by training, which is one of the last bastions in our guild of the notion that elites are worthy of close study.

And I am one of those historians who holds up agency and contingency against determinism. An advisor of mine once wrote that historians freed

Gaddis, Landscape of Historynot just the great but also the obscure in history from determinism: from the conviction that things could only have happened in the way that they did…. History is determined only as it happens. Nothing, apart from the passage of time itself, is inevitable. There are always choices, however unpromising these may have seemed at the time. Our responsibility as historians is as much to show that there were paths not taken as it is to explain the ones that were, and that too I think is an act of liberation. (John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of Historypp. 140-41)

So if historical individuals — and the choices they made, or didn’t make — are worthy of our study, I can’t really avoid the “who’s your favorite?” question.

Except to paraphrase what one of my colleagues said when I asked her to name her favorite book or course, and answer this: “My favorite historical figure is whomever I’m teaching about that day.”

<<Read the first entry in this series

2 thoughts on “Good Questions: Who Is Your Favorite Historical Figure?

  1. I am thinking of a few historical figures that I would have liked to meet. Richard Mather, Jakob Ammann, Martin Luther, Peter Waldo, Claudius of Turin, the list goes on.

  2. Chris, Add me to that list of those with great fondness for Erasmus. He’s great both to read and to teach. His irenic and moderate spirit, though, brought attacks from both sides. By occupying the middle position, he was embraced by neither side.

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