The Millennium's Greatest

At the end of 1996, The Washington Post published a premature list of the greatest, worst and most noteworthy of the Second Millennium. It was an interesting talking point for a long while, especially for those of us interested in history. For the record, The Post was often wrong and my co-workers always were. Here are the correct answers...

The Greatest Time and Place:

The Post's Answer: Titian's Venice

Titian's Venice?! Nice paintings, sure. But folks...we can see those now. Titian's Venice was a place where disease ran rampant and the words "sewer" and "street" were synonymous. Italian city-states were at constant war and the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor were slapping each other silly.

The Correct Answer: Now, The United States

Nothing's perfect. But the twentieth century, for all it's problems, is a far better time to live for almost everyone. Life expectancy is way up, infant mortality is way down; literacy, sanitation and political freedom exist in far greater abundance right now than ever before in human history. As for the place, there are plenty of very nice spots on the globe. Europe, Australia and Japan, as well as many others, are all excellent places to live. But nowhere on Earth can you find the mixture of political freedom, individual liberty and social mobility that exists in The United States. And that's before you get to drive-through restaurants and American Football.


The Greatest Book

The Post's Answer: Johnson's Encyclopedia of the English Language

Now, that's actually not a bad answer. The Post noted that the King James version of The Bible had a greater impact on human history and philosophy, but that it was a translation of a book written long before the start of the Second Millennium.

The Correct Answer: Rousseau's The Rights of Man

This is the book that stated the principles of liberty and equality which fueled the minds of revolutionaries in both America and France. The ensuing tides of nationalism and democracy forged the foundations of the modern world.


The Greatest Irony

The Post's Answer: The Re-emergence of Intuition and Emotion

Um...I don't get it. Where's the irony? If the IRS used Windows PCs to sue Bill Gates, that'd be ironic. The realization that emotions are important human traits isn't. Is it?

The Correct Answer: The Crusades

Killing people in the name of the Prince of Peace. It's more tragic and cynical than ironic, but there is plenty of grim irony there.


The Biggest Mistake

The Post's Answer: Invading Russia

Well, this is a heavily-contested category, and the Post's answer has a lot of merit. But I have to go with one suggested by a friend (hi, Bob):

The Correct Answer: Appeasing Tyrants

It never works. It just encourages them. Who will ever forget Neville Chamberlain and "Peace in our time"? Tyrants see appeasement as weakness. And they're right. Clichéd though it is, the best advice is still: "If you would have peace, prepare for war."


The Greatest Invention

The Post's Answer: The Printing Press

The Post nailed this one. Other inventions may be more complex or more important today, but no invention has ever revolutionized the world like Guttenberg's little money-maker. The free exchange of ideas, religious freedom, financial expansion, the advance of science and the fact that you can read these words all owe their origins to Guttenberg.


The Greatest Painting

The Post's Answer: The Sistine Chapel

The Post got it right again. I'd like to put in an honorable mention for "The Last Supper".


Greatest Actor and Actress

The Post's Answer: Bugs Bunny and Greta Garbo

Now, I take backseat to no one in my love for Bugs Bunny, but this is ridiculous. Not Bugs, the question. We don't know a damned thing about the actors of nearly the first 800 years of the millennium. Stupid category.


The Greatest Scientist

The Post's Answer: Albert Einstein

Good Answer. But I'll go with:

The Correct Answer: Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac discovered the laws of motion (even if they're wrong at relativistic speeds). He invented calculus as just a tool to help him solve astronomical questions. Wow.


The Greatest Misconception

The Post's Answer: Phlogiston

Well, it's funny. "Phlogiston" was the theoretical substance that filled the space between the stars and planets in a popular recurrent belief for much of the last six hundred years. They were wrong: what fills that space is Jell-O.

The Correct Answer: Prester John

In the earliest part of this millennium, there arose in Europe the legend of a powerful Christian monarch named Prester John who lived, variously, in Ethiopia, India or China and who was preparing to bring his enormous armies onto the battlefield and crush the enemies of Christendom. Despite the fact that this fabulous personage failed to appear, the rumor persisted for hundreds of years. Apparently, he was a long-lived old guy, too. Historians argue about the source of the legend, but it most probably arose from badly garbled tales of the tolerance shown by the Mongol Empire towards the Nestorian Christians who made up a small minority of its subjects.


The Greatest Genius

The Post's Answer: William Shakespeare

The Post got this one right, too. Disagree? Sit down; you're wrong. Read a book.


The Greatest Musical Composition

The Post's Answer: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

Yeah, that's very nice.

The Correct Answer: Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony"

The Post made an odd statement. They would have chosen the "Ninth", except that it's too esoteric for the common man. Does the category say "most common musical composition?" No, it does not. Greatness challenges us. It demands of us that we strive to reach where it does.

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is an awesome expression of what is greatest in Man. The power of the music, which rises from movement to movement and ends with instruments made not by man, but (as the composer believed) by God alone, is a testament to the power and majesty of what we aspire to be.


The Greatest Singer

The Post's Answer: Enrico Caruso

Sigh. See "The Greatest Actor", above.


The Greatest Building

The Post's Answer: Neumann's Staircase

I can't really comment. I've never heard of it. Must be one hell of staircase, though.

The Correct Answer: The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris

There are greater buildings (Angkor Wat, the Pyramids), but not that were built in this millennium. Close seconds would be the Taj Mahal, The Forbidden City and the Empire State Building.


The Most Evil Person

The Post's Answer: Adolf Hitler

Boy, that's a tough one. In terms of sheer carnage, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong make Hitler look like a second-rater. Torquemada burned and tortured thousands of Jews and dissenters for the Spanish Inquisition. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed a staggering percentage of their countrymen. Is it numbers that make one evil? Is Stalin worse than Jack the Ripper? Are these leaders more evil than their countrymen who stood by and applauded?

Still, the sheer, brutal hatred of the man, the decision to exterminate an entire race do put Hitler well out front. The man combined an amoral coldness with a stunning charisma that was almost a physical force. It does no good to think of him as other, a monster. He is us. He is your neighbor, your friend, your child. He will be with us for so long as we think that we could never be him. Evil is not monstrous, not unknowable. That is why it is so terrifying. It is human.


The Man of the Millennium

The Post's Answer: Jingiz (Ghengis) Khan

The Post got this one exactly right. The Thirteenth-Century founder of the Mongol Empire, Jingiz was not the best, not the smartest, not even the most talented of men, but he was the human being alive in the Second Millennium who had the greatest influence on his world. Starting off as just a warrior of a small squabbling nomadic tribe on the steppes of Mongolia, Temujin (later known as Jingiz) first consolidated power over the warring Mongol tribes, then proceeded to conquer the greatest human civilizations of the day. China, Kara-Khitai, Qarizm, the great sultanates of Asia, all fell before the ruthless efficiency of the greatest military machine the world had ever known.

Less than twenty years after its founding, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean and from the Indian Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Just as the tight discipline, superior technology and advanced tactics of the Mongol armies conquered the largest single nation in the history of man, so their ruthless efficiency, religious tolerance and relatively light taxes allowed them to rule with only minor difficulty.

Jingiz' armies nearly destroyed in a single raid what all the European crusaders of two centuries could not: the military might of Islam. His tactics foreshadowed the supremacy of maneuver and firepower over heavy defenses that have characterized the modern world since World War I. His brutality toward those who opposed him, such as the doomed citizens of Samarkand and Damascus, was unrivaled, even in that savage age, until this century.

In many ways then, Jingiz Khan was the archetype for the Second Millennium, possessing qualities and genius seen in both the best and worst of humanity for the last thousand years. Let us hope that the Third Millennium results in a better archetype. Let us try to ensure it.

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