History’s all-stars

“The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time” by Will Durant

Will Durant is considered as one of the greatest historians that has ever lived, a Pulitzer Prize winner for literature in 1967 who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

This book was published posthumously and contain a somewhat conclusion to his years of covering history: his best list of greatest minds and ideas from the past. Now the list of people here are amazing, but the best part is the reasoning behind his choice of people. The followings are the list, organized under several sub headers.

The 10 greatest thinkers: (1) Confucious over Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha because Confucious is a moral philosopher who is secular by nature but yet can have huge influences even towards nations. (2) Plato and (3) Aristotle, but not Socrates because unlike the half myth Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were real. Both wrote compelling books and had much direct influence towards the Western Society. Plato also created the Academy. (4) St Thomas Aquinas, for becoming the bridge between knowledge and faith. (5) Copernicus, on transforming our understanding of the universe.

(6) Sir Francis Bacon, the voice and symbol of the enlightenment age, who binds all of new knowledge together. (7) Sir Isaac Newton, on his role in science including the theory of gravity. (8) Voltaire, who ignited the age of enlightenment in France and eventually the Western civilisation and mankind. (9) Imannuel Kant, for restoring mind over matter in the days of religious backlash over logic. (10) Charles Darwin, whose work became the turning point of Western civilisation by introducing the theory of evolution.

10 greatest poets: (1) Homer, the pioneer (2) David, the Biblical character which is referred here due to his songs and lyrics expressed in the Old Testament. (3) Euripides, the Greek poet that was the first to tell stories as it is, without censor or propaganda. (4) Lucretius, a Roman poet, the greatest philosopher of Rome. (5) Li Bo, the multitalented Chinese poet with an incredible life story (told in the book).

(6) Dante, whose poem, the Divine Comedy, is among the greatest poems ever written. (7) William Shakespeare, for obvious reasons. But the gem in this book is his antics and shenigans that I have never heard before. That his best, more complex, works were produced after a dark period of time. (8) John Keats, which Durant said that he has left behind poems more perfect than Shakespeare. (9) Percy Bysshe Shelley, English poet with the most controversies. (10) Walt Whitman, the American poet in the revolutionary era, whose work captured perfectly the causes of the common men.

Durant then proceeded to what I think the best part of the book: his take on the best 100 books. He doesn’t list them all in chronological order anymore, but instead guide us through the importance of books and how to read them properly. Durant remarks “let me have 7 hours a week, and I’ll make a scholar and a philosopher out of you,” which is roughly 1 book a week and 52 books a year, broken down into just 1 hour a day. He teaches how to mix the reading list, how to endure a big book and topic, how we should take notes and avoid dwelling too long in a topic that doesn’t interest us, as Durant remarks, “there will be blocks along the line, occasionally you will come to an obscure or lengthy book, a bad upgrade, and all of your strength will need to be subpoenad to your task.” Skip few pages if you will, Durant elaborates, and if you find it irrelevant keep skipping until you find the sentences that speak to you.

It is an honest portrayal of the ups and downs of reading a book, where “you must not expect any material gain from this intimacy with great men.” “Indeed, you will be losing time from your profession or your business.” Moreover, Durant teaches us to read actively not passively, read with the intention of seeking knowledge that can be applied in our lives. If we find something that we disagree with? Read on, as tolerance towards what we disagree with is one mark of a gentleman. Make notes, and classify them.

And the mix of the best books are then mentioned in a manner so fast I swear it could easily get mistaken as a rap lyrics, containing his mashed up random thoughts on history, which is immense and incredible. The mix includes the topic of the latest science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, conflicting ideas about science, William James on psychology, read on how religion evolve into philosophy, a lot of Greek thinkers, learning from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, religion and its political influences in history, and so, so much more.

Durant then continues with the 10 peaks of human progress: (1) Speech. (2) Fire. (3) The conquest of the animals. (4) Agriculture. (5) Social organization. (6) Morality. (7) Tools. (8) Science. (9) Education. (10) Writing and print.

And he concludes the book with 12 vital dates in history. While the majority of the dates are related with the death of an historical figure, it is not to celebrate the death of the person but rather to witness the continuity of their respective influences to the world or the evolution that the death ignited. Here are the dates: (1) 4241 BC: the introduction of the Egyptian calendar. (2) 543 BC: The death of the Buddha. (3) 478 BC: the death of Confucius. (4) 399 BC: the death of Socrates. (5) 44 BC: the death of Caesar. (6) Unknown BC: the birth of christ. (7) 632 AD: the death of Muhammad. (8) 1294: the death of Roger Bacon. (9) 1454: the first printed press by Gutenberg. (10) 1492: Columbus discovered America. (11) 1769: James Watt brings the steam engine to practical utility. (12) 1789: the French revolution.

Oh, that was so amusing to read.