The American Intellectual Tradition


I give America, and indeed Western Civilization, a lot of shit for embracing a mindless, amoral capitalist ethic that masquerades as Judeo-Christian “values”, but has that assessment been too harsh?

(In short: probably)

But I often wonder about the American “intellectual tradition”. I’ve compared America to Ancient Rome in the past. Mind you, I’m not an expert in Roman history, I’m basically comparing the stereotypical view of Ancient Rome to America: bold, strong sense of imperialism/nationalistic tendencies, over-the-top cultural celebrations, technology advanced in military operations, and a lack of intellectual achievement when compared to their cultural ancestors…the Ancient Greeks. In this view, Ancient Greece is to Rome what Europe is to the United States. The American intellectual tradition, and indeed the traditions  of many “New World” nations, do not compare to the nations of the “Old World”, notably the ones on the Eurasian landmass.

With that being said, the USA is the most culturally significant of the New World.

What am I basing this off of?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a ranking system (a link that you can click at the top of the page because I’m writing this on my phone and that’s the best that I can do) which evaluates, I suppose, the popularity and influence of certain individuals throughout recorded history. I take these rankings with a grain of salt because really, everyone is playing their role in history…take one person out and suddenly ALL of history changes. But whatever. These rankings are fun, so just play along.

And who is the most “important” person in history?


I’m unsure of the metrics they’re using to draw this conclusion. I suppose when we evaluate all historical documtation and intellectual discourse, Aristotle’s name probably comes up the most. I’ve seen him ranked highly in other historical rankings, which never makes sense. If you’re going to name someone of the Big 3 in the Socratic lineage, it only makes sense to name SOCRATES first because he’s really the “founder” of Western thought. But since Aristotle is sometimes thought of as the founder of empiricism, which would appeal to people that compile these kinds of list, it sort of makes sense. But there you have it.

What about Americans? Who is the most popular AMERICAN?

When researching this, I was planning for the worst. But then I was pleasantly surprised: Martin Luther King Jr. is the most popular American.

MLK ranked 112 overall, between Aristophanes and Plutarch. It doesn’t sound like much, but again, it’s interesting to ponder how people a thousand years from now will evaluate Americans. Could he climb the list? If so, I champion MLK being the face of American history as say Julius Caesar is to Ancient Rome.

The American runner up…Elvis. (Pretty self explanatory)

And third…Marilyn Monroe (where she ranks right above GWF Hegel)

That’s right…the three most famous Americans are MLK, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe. And they all co-existed at around the same time.

It makes sense actually. The 20th Century is the American Century, or the time when the US became the dominant economic and military power. In the middle of that decade existed these three individuals. I suppose one could argue that the US was at its cultural height.

When the 31st Century version of HBO does a dramatic recreation of the United States (as they did with Rome in this century), will it take place in the 60s at the height of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations, Vietnam War, etc?

But what this ranking revealed is that culturally, the US is far more diverse in its influence than people like me give it credit for. And unlike Ancient Rome, our final chapter has yet to be written.

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