Philosophers have a way of thinking ahead of their time. And, those who cannot catch up balk at the idea. In this article, I compile a list of 10 profound thinkers from different era who not only stood out for thinking differently, but also had to undergo a lot of hostility and criticism, sometimes justified, at other times completely spineless! We start with my personal favorite Neitzsche, but we save the creepiest for the last, the unholy father of sadism (read on to know more). Between them we come across writers, scientists, activists and thinkers who stirred many a hornet’s nests by their thoughts and actions. Here we go!
1. Friedrich Neitzsche – You cannot expect a man to proclaim God is dead, and be revered as a saint. But still, Nietzsche will easily qualify as one of the most misunderstood human beings in history. For example, he was an inspiration for both Jewish philosophers as well as the Nazis. The ultra-leftists and anarchists worshipped him, so did militant right wing. How do you explain something like that?
Nietzsche was one the most phenomenal philosophical of 20th century, whose works touched everything from culture to science to religion and morality to questions of existence and so forth. One of his works, tastefully titled ‘Antichrist’ made him the cynosure of church’s eyes. His Ubermensch inspired many philosophers, Adolf Hitler and the creators of Superman alike. This man was and remains the biggest irony which walked on two legs and thought with a brain.
Combine with that syphilis, allegations of homosexuality, a mental breakdown, unabashed atheism and denouncement of every sort of faith and you get one of the most polarizing figures of history. It is not hard to imagine why the man used to call himself an “immoralist’.
2. William Godwin – The man who wrote the first mystery novel ever, is also considered one the first proponents of anarchism and utilitarianism.
Through anarchism he denounced every system, every dogma, and every ideology in the world. Anarchism says that there need not be any government, or religion or society. That a man cannot command another man and there are no hierarchies. Anarchism also denounced rights to property and rule of law advocating a man’s right to complete freedom over his conscience and absolute equality among men. While utilitarianism basically says, ‘the end justifies the means’. However, shady or wrong it may be. Because, according to Godwin’s philosophy no action was right or wrong in absolute terms.
The radical natures of his philosophies made him very unpopular and he had to remain in a self- imposed hiding for years. A man who famously quoted ‘God has no right to be a tyrant’ was bound to be fiercely hated. Anarchism and Utilitarianism conceived many a violent and hedonistic offshoots which made it one of the most controversial philosophical schools in history.
Apart from being a much derided thinker, Godwin also penned famous works like Mary’s and Lamb tales of Shakespeare, and his work St. Leon was an inspiration for Frankenstein the famous novel by his daughter Mary Shelley.
3. Martin Heidegger – Another of the greats of the 20th century philosophical scene, Martin Heidegger was as renowned for his work in existential philosophy of being as hi notoriety for his affiliation and sympathy for the Nazi movement, which he later privately called the biggest mistake of his life.
His most famous book Being and Time (1927) examines the questions of being, and we perceive the truth of what we are. He maintained the philosophy that our way of questioning defines our nature. The differences his philosophies had with the western way of thinking, led him to find refuge in Anti -Semitism and glorification of Nazism.
He referred to Nazi Movement as one filled with truth and greatness and truth. He once compared development of agriculture as industry with production of corpses in gas chambers, and manufacture of hydrogen bombs. He remained a controversial figure to the end of his days for his political and academic views.
4. Peter Singer – Anybody familiar with the story of Galileo Galilee will know that sometimes, an idea ahead of its time can ruffle many feathers the wrong way. Peter Singer’s most famous work Animal Liberation (1975) was precursor all the animal rights movement. He was the first one to argue that the difference between humans and other animals is arbitrary.
His work on speciesism, or the practice of privileging humans over other animals was boundary pushing but it was his later work that put his detractors on fire. His support of Euthanasia and abortion made many vanguards of society his ideological enemies. But, Singer was not one to be stopped. His work on zoophilic (bestiality, or sexual attraction between an animal and a human) behavior and his assertion that it is not morally wrong to kill handicapped newborns pushed the envelope to tearing point. Singer believes in what he calls effective altruism.
Singer has also maintained that protests against his work has only worked in increasing the coverage he gets.
5. Karl Marx – Probably the most popular and influential name on this list, Marx has come a long way from being a sort of demigod to just a chapter in history books. The man in whose name, the map of whole of Europe was drawn and redrawn many times in 20th century, and who inspired great movements all over the world was turned into a symbol of a pejorative of disgust by USA and its allies.
While China still stands tall, and so do a few Latin American nations, their socialism has little to do with Marx. With his self-proclaimed disciples using bloodbaths to implement his philosophies over the century and even uttering the word ‘socialism’ being a crime in most of the world, Marx can easily qualify as the most misunderstood philosopher of all time.
Still, The Communist Manifesto remains a must read for anyone trying to understand the politics and economics of the classes. Whatever be the future of socialism, you cannot take Marx out of contention or conscience.
6. Socrates – The first philosopher and the founder of Greek school of philosophy, paid the price of thinking ahead of his time with his life. Best known through the works of his illustrious pupil, Plato Socrates was renowned for his work on ethics. He is also famous for Socratic irony and Socratic Method which gave birth to the modern form of debate.
Socrates favored method of philosophical enlightenment was akin to playing a practical prank. He used to provoke unsuspecting citizens to make opinions and then indulge them in debate to drive his point home. This method of him irked many an Athenian and made him a notorious figure. His unorthodox political views and his forceful method of making officials act on his methods did not help either and he was sentenced to death by poisoning.
The fame and following he gained after his death, has led many to conclude that it was a deliberate ploy to publicize his philosophy and save Greece.
7. Charles Darwin – We all know the man who told us how we are off-springs of apes, not children of apple stealers from heaven. And, like any thinker who dared to discredit the mumbo jumbo taught by church, he bore the burnt for it. Charles Darwin was and remains one of the most infamous intellectual figures in history, and all for telling a perfectly evident scientifically proven truth. Last heard they were still asking to replace Origin of Species with the book of Genesis.
Darwin was a geologist and a paleontologist and an avid collector of insects, too. He chose curiosity and reason over belief, and earned immortality for it, mixed with a lot of hostility. He was opposed not only by the believers, but also by colleagues who found it hard to digest that we are just accidents of nature or like Darwin used to call it Natural Selection.
Well, as Darwin said the species with abhorrence to change have to disappear, and the present condition of humanity is a testimonial to the ring of truth in a statement made more than 150 years ago.
8. Ayn Rand – Ayn Rand is not your quintessential philosopher. Basically a fiction writer, who turned to writing non-fiction in order to promote her philosophy of objectivism she was ignored most of her life as a lightweight fluke by intelligentsia and critics. But, her ‘objectivism’ and her fictional characters based over it have become very popular over last decades. So, Howard Roark (protagonist of Fountainhead) became a fictional celebrity and critics including Imdb went back to reassess and came back with rave reviews.
The woman who escaped communist Russia showed us through reason that Selfish is good, and far fulsome than the hollow altruism. She parked her flag on the side of Lassiez faire capitalism, and broke the intellectual tradition of Communist sympathy. Her unabashed criticism of anything to do with collective earned her ire from many a quarters and many strong words in press and in person. But, here was a woman who practiced what she preached and remained true to her word.
9. Niccolò Machiavelli – In my opinion the villainy of Machiavelli is a perceived one rather than real. The people who coined the term ‘Machiavellian’ think otherwise. It’s true that Machiavelli was an unabashed realist and materialist, and all his life work could be read as ‘ways to capture power in any fucking way possible’. But, Machiavelli was more of an observer than a preacher.
Parallels can be drawn to the (in)famous Indian philosopher Chanakya whose works were similar. Both of them are considered the father of politics in their respective geographical regions. But, the difference lies in the fact that Chanakya used his philosophy to gain power then practice it, while Machiavelli had already lost his power when he created his masterpiece The prince and Discourses, and his unscrupulous philosophy has been practiced by almost every politician since then. A lot of US presidents would be perfect examples.
So, while Machiavellian is used to describe every stupid war fought in the name of patriotism to win votes, I doubt that Machiavelli ever got a chance to do that.
10. Marquis de Sade – Aristocrat, revolutionary, writer, Politician, philosopher, criminal, rapist, pervert and a lunatic is how this man is described.
The word sadism or sadist has been derived from his name.
His most famous book is called 120 days of Sodom (most perverted book I have ever read, but it is still better than fifty shades).
He spent 32 years of his life in prisons or mental asylums.
He was a leading figure in French revolution, and was elected to National Assembly but was thrown out due to charges of corruption, murder, rape and scandal. He escaped prosecution due to hi position and title. He called his lifestyle libertine (maybe he too his liberty too seriously).
The things he had to say about God will shame even the Satan, but at least he was witty about it.
He was a firm believer in unification of sexual act and violence, and his thoughts on sex makes Christian Grey look like a harmless toddler. He is one of the few men in history who never gave a shit about anything at all.
Need I say more about why this guy is controversial?