Most of us have a pretty terrible understanding of history. Our knowledge is spotty, with large gaps all over the place, and the parts of history we do end up knowing a lot about usually depend on the particular teachers, parents, books, articles, and movies we happen to come across in our lives. Without a foundational, tree-trunk understanding of all parts of history, we often forget the things we do learn, leaving even our favorite parts of history a bit hazy in our heads. Raise your hand if you’d like to go on stage and debate a history buff on the nuances of a historical time period of your choosing. That’s what I thought.
The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background–the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.
That’s why not only can’t even the most perfect history buff fully understand history, but the key people involved at the time can’t ever know the full story. History is a giant collective tangle of thousands of interwoven stories involving millions of characters, countless chapters, and many, many narrators.
And you know humans–that’s not how they like things. The human brain really, really likes to simplify things. History provides the context of our world and our lives, because each of us is a character in this grand story–and the last thing we want to believe is that the story is too complicated and mysterious for us to understand.
Fairy tales are satisfying, because the plot is crystal clear–there are good guys and there are bad guys and there’s only one side of the story. Children identify with the good guys–the us guys–and they detest the bad guys–the them guys–and everyone’s happy. Stories written for adults aren’t that different–you loved Shawshank and Braveheart and Star Wars, right?
So when it comes to the story we’re all a part of, we most certainly want to feel the same way. We want history to be simple and clear, with good guys and bad guys, and we’d like to make sure that our ancestors, our ethnic group, our nation, and all the other tribes we belong to are Aladdin in the story–not Ja'far.
The problem with this is that not everyone can be Aladdin. Someone has to be Jafar, right? Well, no. Not if there are many different story-tellers. Since no one is ever telling anything close to the full, real, complete story, in all its complexity–as we said, no one even knows the full story–each historian, each ruler, and each society creates their own fairy tale version of what went down in the past. When things are unsatisfyingly multi-faceted, we pick the facet we like best. When there are knowledge gaps, we make things up. When there are questions of motive, we pick one that fits nicely into the narrative.
This leaves us with plenty of tools to leave every story with a proper Aladdin and a proper Jafar and allows us to make sure that Aladdin is exactly who we want him to be.
The US is a good example. A huge number of people in today’s world have been told a story of the US in which the US is Aladdin, and a huge other number of people have heard the same story with the US as Jafar. Some people will claim to have a more nuanced view, but deep in their heart, when they see an American flag, they see either a good guy flag or a bad guy flag.
This is the same phenomenon behind the stark opinion divide around Israel and Palestine. Hoards of people on both sides of what is an insanely complicated story are red in the face with ire at the other side, completely positive that their side is Aladdin and incensed that anyone could ever call the other side Aladdin and their side Ja'far. Only with the stark clarity of a fairy tale could people ever feel so unshakingly sure.
Of course, it’s not that there are no good guys or bad guys in history. History is a pretty ugly story–what else would you expect from a species of primitive biological animals–and accountability for that ugliness isn’t spread out evenly amongst all people. To an extent, the definition of words like good and bad, right and wrong, and hero and villain lie in the eye of the beholder–but there’s also plenty of human behavior that qualifies as objectively good or bad.
So it’s not that there are never objective Aladdins and there are never objective Ja'fars–it’s that almost none of us has any idea what the fuck we’re talking about. Point to a historical event and tell me that there was a true Aladdin and Ja'far going on, and I’ll acknowledge that that might be true. Tell me that you know who was who, and in most cases I’ll shake my head.
Which brings me to me. Blogging about history is asking for trouble. Portray nearly any story or person as an Aladdin or a Ja'far and you’ll feel the wrath of both the people who believe the opposite situation and the people who think you’ve oversimplified the situation. Portray something in a nuanced and balanced way and you’ll get yelled at by people who believe both of the one-sided views. Nothing brings people’s tribal fires to the table like history. I’ve learned this from experience.
This doesn’t make me any less excited to write about history–but it makes me want to research the shit out of a part of history before I write about it. Only by reading a bunch of varying accounts and opinions can you start to form a clear picture of what we know and don’t know.
So that’s why for this post, I’m not gonna tell you shit. Rather than dive into the weeds of what happened when, and why, I’m going to focus on one of the rare elements of history that’s indisputably black-and-white–who happened when.
Because before we can responsibly start arguing with each other about Aladdins and Ja'fars, we need to get the basic timeline and characters of the story clear.
But I’m going to lay things out a little differently than you’re probably used to.
Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers–but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.
And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about.
Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s–it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.
A blog post is limited in its ability to examine all of history horizontally. But I’ve taken two separate cracks below that I think can work together nicely to help us take a horizontal view of different times. Both involve a lot of names.
Which leads me to the inevitable disclaimer about who I chose to include. I tried to remove my own biases by gathering the names from a handful of lists by publications like Time. I searched the Internet for things like
✓ most influential people in history;
✓ most important people in the Middle Ages;
✓ most famous people of the 19th century;
✓ most powerful Chinese emperors
and ended up with a big pile of names, some of whom I’m familiar with, others I’m not. That said, between the fact that the lists I used were by publications targeting English-speaking people and that I inevitably leaned more towards people I had heard of, the group of names will skew America- and Eurocentric, with places like Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia probably underrepresented. This isn’t entirely by accident, though–this post is only useful if you’ve heard of the people, and I intentionally chose names I thought a large portion of Wait But Why readers would know. In other words, merit wasn’t the only criteria–household fame mattered too. And yes, I missed a lot of people–with limited space on the screen, the names had to be a sampling, not an exhaustive list.
For my first crack, I present to you a big pile of famous names, organized by birth decade–kind of a 2,600 Under 2,600 list. The purpose is to help orient ourselves on when people lived, especially in relation to each other.
Having a clear picture of generations is very easy when you think about currently-living people. For example, I know that Mark Zuckerberg is around my age while Vladimir Putin is about the age of my parents and George H.W. Bush is about the age of my grandparents. On the other side of things, Prince George–the one world-famous baby–is the age of my kids if I had kids. I know this without having to think about it:
If I list people by birth decade instead of generation, it still makes sense. People born in the 70s and 60s feel older than me but not as old as my parents, and people born in the 30s and 40s feel older than my parents but younger than my grandparents:
But this is much harder for generations that aren’t currently alive, and it gets less and less clear the farther back you go. Quick! Name the oldest member and youngest member of this group:
Not that easy, right? And that’s only going back 200 years. But by laying them out by birth decade, you can get oriented:
Since a generation is typically about 30 years, you can move three or six lines down from a name to see who they viewed as their parents’ or grandparents’ ages during their lifetimes, and you can go the same distance up to see who they viewed as their kids’ or grandkids’ age. So Darwin would have seen Twain as some young kid and he would have shaken his old man fist at Gandhi from the rocking chair on his porch. Meanwhile, Nietzsche would have seen Marx as a guy his dad’s age and Freud as a contemporary, though a bit younger.
Two people more than seven or eight lines away from each other on the list probably were not ever alive at the same time, which means they were likely not that clear about each others’ generation, in the way I’m not really clear on whether Hemingway was in my great-grandparents’ generation, my great-great-grandparents’ generation, or some other age.
Using this decade list tool, let’s look at a whole group of famous historical figures to see who was the same age as whom, who shook their old man fist at whom, and who was and wasn’t alive at the same time. The decade colors are in a three-way cycle, so you can jump to rows of the same color above and below to quickly go up and down by generations. For people alive today and in the past century, I couldn’t come close to including every famous person, so I just picked a sampling.
Okay how did that go? Fun? Icky? I can’t quite tell. In any case, let’s move on.
Wait But Why is a website founded by Tim Urban and Andrew Finn and written and illustrated by Urban.
Shawshank is a fictional New England state prison that is alleged to be in the state of Maine that serves as the primary location in the eponymous story by Stephen King and its subsequent film adaptation, as well as being mentioned in several other King novels.
Braveheart is a 1995 American epic war film directed by Mel Gibson, who stars as William Wallace, a late 13th-century Scottish warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England.
Aladdin is a folk tale, probably of Middle Eastern origin.
Ja'far is a masculine Arabic given name, especially common among Shia Muslims.
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is the seminal work on the heliocentric theory of the Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
Sistine Chapel is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in Vatican City.
Henry VIII (1491 - 1547) was King of England from 21 April 1509 until his death.
Catherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536) was Queen of England from June 1509 until May 1533 as the first wife of King Henry VIII; she was previously Princess of Wales as the wife of Henry's elder brother Arthur.
Americentrism is the tendency among some Americans to assume the culture of the United States is more important than those of other countries or to judge foreign cultures based on the standards within their own. It refers to the practice of viewing the world from an overly US-focused perspective, with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, in the preeminence of American culture.
Eurocentrism is a worldview centered on and biased towards Western civilization.
Middle East is a transcontinental region centered on Western Asia, Turkey, and Egypt.
Southeast Asia is a subregion of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea and north of Australia.
Mark Elliot Zuckerberg (b. 1984) is an American computer programmer and Internet entrepreneur. He is a co-founder of Facebook, and currently operates as its chairman and chief executive officer.
George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) is an American politician who served as the 41st President of the United States from 1989 to 1993.