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LITERATURE

The Greatest Minds & Ideas of All Time

 

OF LISTS AND NAMES
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: October 7, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Holocaust | The Ten Greatest Thinkers | The Ten Greatest Poets | A Shameless Worship of Heroes |
 

OF LISTS AND NAMES

The Greatest Minds & Ideas of All Time

Author : Will Duran and Simon & Schuster

Edition: Hardcover

ISBN: 9870743235532

Pages:142

Price: Rs 499

Among the modern historians—with the exceptions of Holocaust deniers and other loonies—no historian has been as derided by his peers as Will Durant has been. And for the most part, for no mistake of his own. His only mistake—in the eyes of his contemporaries—was that unlike his peers, he was an optimist and believed in the human capability to thrive amidst all the gloom.

“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 and our lasting life,” he had once said. Sacrilege!

His gloomy, pessimistic, almost Armageddonesque peers had jeered. But Durant gave little attention to such derision. He was a prolific writer. His classic work remains the 11 volume History of Civilisation. A better book on the history of human triumph has not been attempted.

But as good a writer as he was, Durant was some sort of a list and number junkie too. He has written aeons of essays naming ‘The Ten Greatest Thinkers,’ ‘The Ten Greatest Poets’ and lists to that effect. Someone recently decided to make a compilation and release it as a separate book. Voila! ‘The Greatest Minds And Ideas of All Time’ was born.

As mentioned above, the book is a compilation of several lists that Durant came up with as essays in numerous literary magazines throughout the 70s. The chapters of the book have been divided accordingly.

The opening chapter, ‘A Shameless Worship of Heroes’ lays down the groundwork for all the list that follows. It’s a brilliantly written chapter which talks at length about how human civilisation has been obsessed with hero-worship and this is something which is not abnormal. It also explains why some names have been included in a particular list and why others have been omitted. Like any list, the omissions are no less interesting than inclusions.

“And so with every country, so with the world; its history is properly the history of its great men... Therefore I see history not as a dreary scene of politics and carnage, but as the struggle of man through genius with the obdurate inertia of matter and the baffling mystery of mind; the struggle to understand, control, and remake himself and the world... I see men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little further ahead; ... Here is a process of creation more vivid than in any myth; a godliness more real than in any creed,” he writes, before delving into the numerous lists included in the book.

The first list, The Ten Greatest Thinkers, includes some obvious names and some surprises. In fact this is consistent through all his lists, except the list of 100 greatest books, which is mostly banal. The list starts with Confucius and talks about his attempts towards early philosophy. He is followed by Plato and Aristotle, but not Socrates for some strange reason. Like in any list, the writer’s bias is evident. Durant’s love for Plato is a known phenomenon, and it is at full display here too. However, the most interesting name in the list is that of Copernicus.

In spite of what his detractors believed, Durant was a thoroughbred rationalist. The inclusion of Copernicus in the list of greatest minds is an example of that. Writing about Copernicus, he says, “… but to the medieval world, whose whole philosophy had rested on the neighborly nearness of earth and God, on the constant moral solicitude of the Deity for man, this new astronomy was an atheistic blasphemy, a ruthless blow that seemed to overthrow the Jacob’s ladder which faith had built between angels and men. … 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. … With the Copernican revolution man was compelled to become of age.” Neat.

Similarly, the list of greatest poets has a fair number of Greeks and Romans as well as the Chinese poets. In fact, the Chinese inclusion in the list, Li-Po, is a surprise one. There are not many who know Li-Po outside academic circle in the West. Of course his poems are popular in China as well as the Indo-China region.

But Durant reserves his lavish praise for Dante. Of whom he writes, “How slowly Europe recovered from her long nightmare of Roman degeneration and barbarian invasion! … he could describe hell later because he went through every realm of it on earth, and if he painted Paradise less vividly, it was for lack of personal experience. Perhaps the poem which he now began to write saved him from madness and suicide. Nothing so cleanses the dross out of a man as the creation of beauty or the pursuit of truth, and if the two are merged in one with him, as they were with Dante, he must be purified."

The only shortcoming of this book, apart from the fact that no list can be exhaustive enough ever, is that more often than not, Durant too takes an Orientalist gaze of the things around. But it is something which is expected from any academician of his time and around. Don’t let this small drawback hold you from enjoying what is otherwise a remarkable book.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017