In Personalities and Problems, historian Ken Wolf employs the great leaders approach to history befitting his premise that "history is the study of human beings who make it" (p. xiii). His choices of ôinteresting peopleö are grounded in his preferences and he acknowledges that others may have chosen different people as more interesting or worthwhile to write about. The historical figures in the book are political leaders, thinkers or religious leaders, and explorers. Wolf's thesis is that, ôwe cannot understand human beings adequately if we separate their political behavior from their religious beliefs, their social position, or their economic concernsö (p. xiv).
The historical figures who make up the book range from early civilization (Moses, Zoroaster, Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius, Plato) to the 17th Century (Louis XIV, Kangxi) and WolfÆs concern is primarily on issues such as the best way to create a strong society and the problem of evil in the world.
WolfÆs methodology is to pair leaders facing similar issues, the impact they made on their society, and their legacies. These parings are cross-cultural because one of the points Wolf makes is that ôhuman problems really do transcend the boundaries of race, creed, or nationö (p. xv). Another important point is that historical greatness is not simply a matter of luck or talent. ôHistory helps make us as surely as we help make historyö (p. xv). In writing of Hammurabi and Moses on the topic of law as a mirror of civilization, Wolf contends that ôthe actual lives of these men are less important than what the laws ascribed to them tell about the lifestyle of their peoplesö (p. 3).
Some of the other couplings in the book include Zoroaster and Buddha, and Confucius and Plato whose lives and times are related upon issues of the suffering caused by evil in the world, both external and internal. The issue of reforming an institution from within informs the pairing o...