5 Loners and Introverts Who Changed History
In a time dominated by flashes of celebrity, screaming talking heads on TV, and cities that don’t sleep, introverts and loners have few places to fit in. But as Laurie Helgoe argues in Psychology Today, those that are slightly uncomfortable with a noisy culture often have the biggest impact on society.
Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy and anti-social. Introverts simply become overwhelmed by too much social engagement, tend to process more information than others and prefer quiet environments. They “seek time alone because they want it … making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture.”
So for those us stuck wandering in our heads during conversations, craving the solitude to hear ourselves think and distracted by the noisiness of modern culture, here is a list of my favorite introverts and loners that have revolutionized the same societies they are slightly unable to cope with.
1. H.L. Mencken
As a journalist and essayist, Mencken was truly a hybrid of the past and the present time in which he lived. He penned articles and books with a tenacity and wit that, with apologies to the great Samuel Clemens, was unmatched then and now, blending an unapologetic intellectualism with a conservative fondness for aristocracy and high culture. His targets were politicians, religious fundamentalists, democracy, and an American culture that he thought was beginning to celebrate and wallow in mediocrity. He wrote because he had to. Like Jefferson and Adams, he wrote to his fellow travelers often, maintaining few, but always intimate, friendships. When Will Durant asked Menken his thoughts on the meaning of life, Mencken was humble, gracious, and in characteristic introvert fashion, slightly pessimistic. “What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts …” Mencken replied. “When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good for ever.”
I regard Mencken as the greatest American journalist ever, and his Notes on Democracy is the best single work on American politics, culture and society I have ever read. It is because of him that I wanted to be a writer, and I know I am not alone when I say that every personal keystroke is a futile, poor imitation of the Sage of Baltimore.
2. Ayn Rand
The Russian-born Rand undoubtedly fit the qualification of a loner and introvert. While authoring essays on philosophy, logic and writing several books that continue to be some of the most popular in the world, she had few friends, and drove away most that stayed long enough to know her.
She constantly stressed the value of reasoning and logic, never failing to remind us that A is A. In unrepentant confidence (narcissism?), she said, “In philosophy, I can only recommend the three A’s: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.” Famous for her fieriness and aggressiveness in social behavior, she chastised others for their religious beliefs and preferred cigarettes and solitude. Although admired by many libertarians, she hated us (objecting to her statism and inconsistency apparently makes me a “right-wing hippie”).
Whether one agrees with her or not, she remains one of the most influential people in history.
3. Nikola Tesla
Tesla is a scientific legend who, like many introverts before and after, has really not been given the credit and respect that he deserves. A Serbian-Croatian immigrant, Tesla was a pioneer in electrical theory and technology. He was the first to utilize alternating current, conceiving an effective system for its generation, transmission, and utilization. He invented new forms of dynamos, transformers, condensers, and induction coils. He discovered the principle of the rotary magnetic field, upon which Niagara Falls and other dams are built.
Thomas Edison warned that Tesla’s alternating current was dangerous, would harm its users, and that only Edison’s direct current would do the job. Tesla, the ultimate recluse, did not want any part of Edison’s games, calling Edison an “inventor” and himself a “discoverer.”
Tesla’s legacy stands on its own, and his eagerness to not just stand, but improve upon, the shoulders of giants before him inspires those today who also question the echo-chambers and dogmas of modern science.
4. Ludwig von Mises
In a just world, Mises would be considered the world’s greatest modern economist. But history and fortune are not always very kind. After escaping Europe for America when the Nazis took over his native Austria and threatened Switzerland, having his entire library burned down and speaking little English, he was resigned to being a visiting professor at NYU. When proposing to his wife, he told her that while he planned on dedicating his life to studying money, he knew he would never have any.
That is because, as he put it, “I regret only my willingness to compromise, not my intransigence.” In the face of fascism, militarism, and state interventionism, Mises became the standard-bearer for classical liberalism and free market economics. After discovering Carl Menger’s work and the Austrian school, he pioneered theories on credit, interest rates, money and wrote Human Action, a nearly 1,000-page magnum opus on economics.
Thanks to a renaissance in libertarianism, Mises is now more read and studied than ever before. While conservatives like to praise their sainted President Reagan for bringing down the Soviet Union, it was Mises in 1920 that predicted the inevitability of a Soviet collapse in a work that has yet to be refuted. Without market prices to coordinate and guide economic decisions, chaos and poverty are the result.
Mises was not only a great scholar, philosopher and economist, but he was humble, aristocratic, bourgeoisie and a man of peace.
5. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It’s hard to think of a more inspiring figure in recent history than Solzhenitsyn. After fighting in World War II for the Red Army, he was caught not properly licking Joseph Stalin’s boots in his private letters and was sent to multiple prison camps. He spent nearly 10 years in the Soviet gulags, and despite his writings being severely restricted and suppressed, exposed the horrors of those gulags and communism for a world (and unfortunately, much of the West) that was sympathetic to the Soviet regime.
His courage in the face of what he went through and his desire to make it public is alone enough to put Solzhenitsyn on this list, but what also stands out is his post-gulag life and transformation. Solzhenitsyn was stubborn, lonely and even combative in his personal relationships (him and his wife divorced just a year after he was released). But it was these introverted traits that led him ponder and reflect upon his life, his mistakes, and to dig deep internally for answers.
Like Fyodor Dostoyevsky before him, Solzhenitsyn wandered inside of his mind for answers. He soon embraced a deeply philosophical Christianity, rejected his previous affinity for Marxism and publicly defended the conservative institutions – or, rather, conserving classical liberalism – he felt were necessary to preserve Western civilization and prevent it from committing suicide on the altar of collectivism. Because of this, he also repented for his actions as a captain in the Red Army, comparing what he did in the war to the crimes perpetrated at the gulags.
It is this spiritual and internal odyssey that captures the essence of being a loner yet a legend, of what Helgoe calls “collectors of thoughts, and solitude is where the collection is curated and rearranged to make sense of the present and future.”