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The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time by Will Durant

October 23, 2012

History was never really my thing in school. I had some good history teachers (some real duds too) but I never felt that sense of immediacy, the drama that comes with any good human story. History was just what had happened. I didn’t feel the connection with what was happening. If Will Durant had been my history teacher, I think it would have changed everything.

Durant (1885-1981) won the Pulitzer prize in 1968 and spent more than a half century writing the eleven-volume The Story of Civilization. He approaches history as a philosopher, interested as much in the thoughts of humankind as the events that take place. And then he relays that history as a poet, not using grandiose language for the sake of the language, but for the sake of the events that deserve it. I had never heard of Durant before I heard him mentioned on the podcast Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin was lamenting that there are no historians like Durant. I’m not sure there have ever been other historians like Durant. Regardless, I’m glad I came across him.

This book anticipated the Internet phenomenon of list-making. It’s a collection of five “list” essays: “The Ten Greatest Thinkers,” “The Ten Greatest Poets,” “The One Hundred Best Books for an Education,” “The Ten Peaks of Human Progress” and “Twelve Vital Dates in World History.” They are kind of a collective greatest hits of history, which may seem like a fool’s errand, but if anyone’s qualified to do it, it’s a guy whose spent half his life writing a series covering all of human history.

In making his case for his selections, Durant argues why he has not included other likely candidates. Thus, we are whizzed along the timeline of history from Confucius to Charles Darwin, from Homer to Whitman, from the introduction of the Egyptian calendar in 4241 B.C. to the French Revolution, frantically scribbling notes of people and events to research more later. And we come across descriptions such as this summation of the impact of Saint Thomas Aquinas: “…a man who took the universe as his specialty, and flung a frail bridge of reason across the chasms between knowledge and belief.”

Or this description of Copernicus:

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. Heaven becomes mere sky and space and nothingness, or it descends upon the earth and breeds visions of Utopia in the hungry hearts of men who once had hoped for Paradise. It was in the fable Plato told, of the gods who had cared for man till he had come of age, and then had disappeared, leaving him to the devices of his own intelligence. It was in the ancient savage days, when the Old Man of the tribe drove the young men forth and bade them seek some other soil and raise upon it their own homes and their own happiness. With the Copernican revolution man was compelled to become of age.

I underlined passages like this throughout the book, noting if I liked the notion or simply the way Durant phrases it (often both). This is what history well-told should be—epic and breathtaking. It is a fight for survival, a search for truth. These people and events changed the world. Durant writes like they did.

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