One hundred ninety-three years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte still matters. According to a scientifically rigorous study, published by the Cambridge University Press, Napoleon ranks second to Jesus Christ as the most influential person in history. William Shakespeare comes in third.
Study authors, Steven Skiena of State University of New York at Stony Brook and Charles Ward of Google, Inc., based the results primarily on Wikipedia page rankings. Who had the longest article? How often was it edited? How often visited? They then refined the analysis to take into account current celebrity versus historical “gravitas.” For more detail, you can read their book WHO’S BIGGER? To get a quick overview, watch Steven Skiena’s YouTube video below.
We can argue about the methodology and the criteria used in this study. Indeed, some might contend that it’s Napoleon’s notoriety rather than his benevolence that gained him recognition. I’d respond that Napoleon was the world’s first great meritocratic leader. But should he rank above Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?
Like those Founding Fathers, Napoleon came to power when old regimes were giving way to new ideas. After France’s revolution, Europe teetered on the verge of anarchy. Napoleon steadied it, pulling France back from bankruptcy, installing new laws, establishing educational systems for the masses, and reestablishing free practice of religion.
Then, driven by the conservative forces of European aristocracy, Napoleon plunged into a war-filled abyss. In the end, that upstart Corsican shed his humble origins to recast himself as the leader of a new autocratic dynasty.
Yet he preserved the best of the French revolution: the opportunity for the least of us to rise to the top of the heap. In his words, when it comes to individuals “the outcome is more important than the origin.” We tend to forget how revolutionary that idea was. It remains one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great legacies.