The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time - by Will Durant

The real history of man is not in prices and wages, nor in elections and battles, nor in the even tenor of the common man; it is in the lasting contributions made by geniuses to the sum of human civilization and culture.

The Ten "Greatest" Thinkers

  1. Confucius. A highly conservative system; it exalted manners and etiquette, and scorned democracy; despite its clear enunciation of the Golden Rule it was nearer to Stoicism than to Christianity. The greatest fortune of a people would be to keep ignorant persons from public office, and secure their wisest men to rule them.

  2. Plato.

  3. **Aristotle. ** We find ourselves in the presence of an intellect of almost unbelievable depth and range. Here is a circumnavigation of the globe such as no mind has accomplished since; here every problem in science and philosophy has its consideration, its illumination, and a defensible solution; here knowledge is brought together as if through a thousand spies, and coordinated into a united vision of the world.

  4. Saint Thomas Aquinas.

  5. Copernicus. With him modernity begins.With him secularism begins.With him reason makes its French Revolution against a faith immemorially enthroned, and man commences his long effort to rebuild with thought the shattered palace of his dreams.

  6. Sir Francis Bacon. "The man who rang the bell that called the wits together" who sent out a challenge to all the lovers and servants of truth everywhere to bind themselves together in the new order and ministry of science; who proclaimed the mission of thought as no vain scholastic dispute, no empty academic speculation, but the inductive inquiry into nature's laws, the resolute extension of the mastery of man over the conditions of his life; the man who mapped out as with royal authority the unconquered fields of research, pointed a hundred sciences to their tasks, and foretold their unbelievable victories; who inspired the Royal Society of Great Britain and the great Encyclopedie of France, who turned men from knowledge as meditation to knowledge as remolding power; who despised worship and longed for control; who overthrew the Aristotelian logic of unobservant reason and turned the gaze of science to the self-revealing face of nature; who carried in his brave soul, beyond any other man of that spacious age, the full spirit and purpose of the modern mind.

  7. Sir Isaac Newton.

  8. Voltaire. It will shock scholastic minds to see Voltaire included among the supreme thinkers of mankind; they will protest that his thought was borrowed rather than original, and that his influence was immoral and destructive. But which of us is original except in form? What idea can we conceive today that has not enjoyed, in one garb or another, a hoary antiquity of time? It is easier to be original in error than in truth, for every truth displaces a thousand falsehoods. Granted that Voltaire, like Bacon, "lighted his candle at every man's torch" it remains that he made the torch burn so brightly that it enlightened all mankind. Things came to him dull and he made them radiant; things came to him obscure, and he cleansed and scoured them with clarity; things came to him in useless scholastic dress, and he clothed them in such language that the whole world could understand and profit from them. Never did one man teach so many, or with such irresistible artistry.

  9. Immanuel Kant. Now there are two modes of approach to an analysis of the world; we may begin with matter, and then we shall be forced to deduce from it all the mystery of mind; or we may begin with mind, and then we shall be forced to look upon matter as merely a bundle of sensations. For how can we know matter except through our senses?--and what is it then for us but our idea of it? Matter, as known to us, is but a form of mind. When Berkeley for the first time clearly announced this novel conclusion to the world, it made a stir among the pundits, and seemed to offer a splendid exit from the infidelity of the Enlightenment. Here was a chance to reassert the primacy of mind, to reduce its threatening enemy to a mere province in its realm, and so to restore the philosophical bases of religious belief and immortal hope. The supreme figure in this idealistic development was Immanuel Kant, perfect archetype of the abstract philosopher.

  10. Charles Darwin.

The Ten "Greatest" Poets

  1. Homer

  2. "David"

  3. Euripides

  4. Lucretius

  5. Li-Po

  6. Dante

  7. William Shakespeare

  8. John Keats

  9. Percy Bysshe Shelley

  10. Walt Whitman

The One Hundred "Best" Books for an Education

Read actively, not passively: consider at every step whether what you read accords with your own experience, and how far it may be applied to the guidance of your own life. But if you disagree with an author, or are shocked by his heresies, read on nevertheless; toleration of differences is one mark of a gentleman. Make notes of all passages that offer help toward the reconstruction of your character (not someone else's character) or the achievement of your aims, and classify these notes in such a way that they may at any moment, and for any purpose, be ready to your hand.

Take your time with the introductory books, for you must expect a long siege before you capture these obscure and lofty outworks of wisdom's citadel. If they burden your digestion spice them with easier morsels from the list: Plutarch, for example, or Omar, or George Moore, or Rabelais, or Poe (numbers 16, 31, 32, 45, and 91); indeed, most of the books in Groups X and XI will serve as hors d'oeuvres or relief when other volumes oppress you with their heaviness.

Skip if you will: learn the art of seizing out of every paragraph (usually near its beginning) the "topical sentence" in which the author lays down the proposition which his paragraph hopes to prove, and if this thesis falls outside your use or interest, leap on to the next topic, or the next, until you feel that the author is talking to you.

The Ten "Peaks" of Human Progress

Let us provisionally define progress as "increasing control of the environment by life," and let us mean by environment "all the circumstances that condition the coordination and realization of desire." Progress is the domination of chaos by mind and purpose, of matter by form and will.

When we look at history in the large we see it as a graph of rising and falling states--nations and cultures disappearing as on some gigantic film. But in that irregular movement of countries and that chaos of men, certain great moments stand out as the peaks and essence of human history, certain advances which, once made, were never lost. Step by step man has climbed from the savage to the scientist, and these are the stages of his growth:

  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

Twelve Vital Dates in World History

If one is condemned to live on a mental desert island, and can take only twelve dates with him, these dates should presumably be such as to carry in their implications the essential history of mankind. About them should cluster such associations that on their docket the greater achievements of the human mind would string themselves in a concatenation of development, in an order and perspective that would clarify old knowledge and facilitate the new. Since history is varied, and all aspects of human activity in any age are bound up with the rest, many such chains of pivotal events might be composed. What follows, then, are not the twelve world dates; they are merely twelve.








  8. 1294--THE DEATH OF ROGER BACON. This date is almost as good as any other to mark the first use of gunpowder, for the rebellious English monk who died in this year may be held partly responsible for its invention.



  11. 1769--JAMES WATT BRINGS THE STEAM ENGINE TO PRACTICAL UTILITY. This event inaugurated the Industrial Revolution.