The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Times

Author – Will Durant (compiled by John Little)
Genre – History, Philosophy, Literature

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest teacher of them all? Browse through any of Will Durant’s works: The Story Of Philosophy (credited to have introduced more people to the subject of philosophy than any other work in the world), The Story Of Civilization (11 pain-staking volumes completed over fifty years of research) or this one, and we will know that Durant wins by a handsome margin. Winner of both The Pulitzer Prize and also The Medal Of Freedom, Durant combines deep cerebral knowledge with a poetry like prose, and tops it with a contagious passion to teach.

If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother”

This book is a compilation of his various Top Ten lists.

He starts with listing the Ten Greatest Thinkers, since our history is “but a history of our greatest men and women who have contributed to make the human race a little finer”. He celebrates Confucius for his moral philosophy devoid of any supernatural rewards; Plato for his Dialogues and Republic (Socrates is omitted because we know him through Plato); Aristotle for his sheer intellect and as a harbinger of science; Thomas Aquinas for valiantly trying to bridge science and belief; Copernicus for heralding the revolution of reason, secularism and modernity; and so on.

His next list of One Hundred Best Books for an education inspired me to create my own similar list. Durant lovingly asks his students to give him an hour a day, and in four years, he would make a scholar and philosopher of them, better than any doctorate holder [I am trying very hard to abide by his request!]. His canvas is large, starting with The Outline Of Science to The Outline Of History and even Principles Of Psychology to prepare ourselves for this great adventure. Golden Bough teaches us how religion began evolving from superstition to philosophy, The Human Adventure traces our history, Odyssey, Descent of Manand many others take you from history to philosophy to literature to music to science. Enjoy “the springtime of the modern soul”. “When life is bitter, or friendship slips away, or perhaps our children leave us for their own haunts and home, we shall come and sit at the table with Shakespeare and Goethe…”

The Ten Peaks of Human Progress will make us pause and think. Defining progress itself is difficult (it can’t be happiness, “for idiots are happier than geniuses, and those whom we most respect seek not happiness but greatness”). It is the conquering of chaos by mind; the domination of matter by will. Speech – our articulate expression moving “from the mating call of animals to the lyric flights of poetry” – is obvious. Fire, Tools, Science and Education are probably obvious too. Agriculture was a peak of progress too: “Man is perhaps the last creature that will be civilized by woman”. Durant, ever the optimist, believes we have made great strides in Morality too. For those of us perturbed by the present violence around us, let us not forget that just a few hundred years ago, “respectable people raided the African coast for slaves”, “miners were hereditary serfs”, “men might be hanged for stealing a shilling” and most disputes were settled at a sword through “a life for a life”. “Today’s unpretentious chivalry is a hundred times more real than when men mouthed chivalric phrases, enslaved their women, and ensured the fidelity of their wives with irons while they fought for Christ in the Holy Land”.

My only minor disappointment with Durant is his focus on Europe and then America. While understandable given his background, the wealth of Indian, Chinese and African heroes are only cursorily recognized in most of his works. And sometimes his selection, intellectually stimulating to the great master, can be drab and boring for ordinary mortals like us. I can’t picture myself reading The Literature of France or Conversations with Goethe! But let us not be too greedy nor judge too harshly.

From a thinker who always choose to exalt the positive in human species, The Greatest Mind and Ideas of all time stays true to Durant’s optimism.

Why should you read the book:To be dazzled by pure knowledge. Marvel at his erudition, his play with words and his sheer desire to educate us. Think about his lists and form your own opinion, choose what intrigues you and do more reading. Welcome then to “The Country Of The Mind”, a timeless realm where there is no jingoism or bigotry, only the heroes and peaks of our species dwell.