The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time | Notes & Review

Will Durant, John Little, ed. The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all time. Simon & Schuster, 2002. (127 pages)

I recently discovered Will Durant and his work, and will be engaging with it for the next several years. Very readable, accessible, and extremely quotable, the Durants (Will and his wife Ariel) have written an 11-volume work entitled the Story of Civilization, (of which my notes and review will most definitely not be posted any time soon). In the meantime, visit, and pick up The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time as a excellent start to this consummate historian.

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. – Will Durant

“…humor is akin to philosophy for they are both viewpoints born of a large perspective of life.” (2)

CHAPTER ONE: A Shameless Worship of Heroes

shameless: “Our democratic dogma has leveled not only all voters but all leaders; we delight to show that living geniuses are only mediocrities, and that dead ones are myths. … Since it is contrary to good manners to exalt ourselves, we achieve the same result by slyly indicating how inferior are the great men of the earth.” (5)

“…for why should we stand reverent before waterfalls and mountaintops, or a summer moon on a quiet sea, and not before the highest miracle of all: a man who is both great and good? So many of us are mere talents, clever children in the play of life, that when genius stands in our presence we can only bow down before it as an act of God, a continuance of creation.” (6)

“No, the real history of man is not in prices and wages, not 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.” (6)

“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.” (7)

“To contemplate such men, to insinuate ourselves through study into some modest discipleship to them, to watch them at their work and warm ourselves at the fire that consumes them, this is to recapture some of the thrill that youth gave us when we thought, at the altar or in the confessional, that we were touching or hearing God.” (7)

“Let us change the icons, and light the candles again.” (7)

CHAPTER TWO: The Ten “Greatest” Thinkers

“What is thought? It baffles description because it includes everything through which it might be defined. It is the most immediate fact that we know, and the last mystery of our being.” (8)

“Thought and invention began: the bewilderment of baffled instinct begot the first timid hypotheses, the first tentative putting together of two and two, the first generalizations, the first painful studies of similarities of quality and regularities of sequence, the first adaption of things learned to situations so novel that reactions instinctive and immediate broke down in utter failure. It was then that certain instincts of action evolved into modes of thought and instruments of intelligence: what had been watchful waiting or stalking a prey became attention; fear and flight became caution and deliberation; pugnacity and assault became curiosity and analysis; manipulation became experiment. The animal stood up erect and became man, slave still to a thousand circumstances, timidly brave before countless perils, but in his precarious way destined henceforth to be lord of the earth.” (9)

“If ideas do not determine history, inventions do; and inventions are determined by ideas. Certainly it is desire, the restlessness of our insatiable wants, that agitates us into thinking; but however motivated or inspired, it is thought that finds a way.” (9-10)

“Perhaps…all history is a succession of inventions made by genius and turned into conventions by the people, a series of initiatives taken by adventurous leaders and spread among the masses of mankind by the waves of imitation. There is no doubt that at the beginning and summit of every age some heroic genius stands, the voice and index of his time, the inheritor and interpreter of the past, the guide and pioneer into the future. … But as we face the task of selecting these persons of the drama, about whom the play revolves, a dozen difficulties daunt us. What shall be our test of greatness? How, in the roster of human genius, shall we know whom to omit and whom to name?” (10)

The Criteria: “Well, we shall be ruthless and dogmatic here; and though it break our hearts we shall admit no hero to our list whose thought, however subtle or profound, has not had an enduring influence upon mankind.” (10)

1. CONFUCIUS. A pupil having asked him should one return good for evil, Confucius replied: “‘With what then will you recompense kindness? Return good for good, and for evil, justice.” He did not believe that all men were equal; it seemed to him that intelligence was not a universal gift. … 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. Why do we love Plato? Because Plato himself was a lover…because he was alive every minute of his life, and never ceased to grow; such a man can be forgiven for whatever errors he has made. … How much of Plato’s Socrates was Socrates, and how much of it was Plato, we shall probably never know. Let us take Plato as implying both. … Here is an immortality of the soul which makes almost insignificant the passing of the flesh.

3. ARISTOTLE. 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. Here the phraseology of philosophy is born, and today it is hardly possible to think without using the mintage of Aristotle’s brain. Here are new sciences, founded with almost casual ease, as if these supreme creations of the human intellect were but the recreations of a philosopher; here it is that biology appears, and embryology, and logic. Not that no man had ever thought of these matters before, but that none had controlled his thinking with patient observation, careful experiment, and systematic formulation and results. Barring astronomy and medicine, the history of science begins with the encyclopedic labors of the tireless Stagyrite.

4. SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS. “How long and dreary was that second adolescence of the conscious European mind! … What Dante did to the hopes and fears of the Catholic Renaissance, Aquinas did for its thought: unifying knowledge, interpreting it, and focusing it all upon the great problems of life and death. The world does not follow him now, preferring a doubting Thomas to a dogmatic one…

5. COPERNICUS. 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.

6. SIR FRANCIS BACON. Oh, the zest of those bright Renaissance days, when the poverty of a thousand years was almost forgotten, and the labor of a thousand years had made men richer and bolder, scornful of barriers and bounds! … “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. …For it is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, and not to those who enslave them by violence, that we owe our reverence.”

8. VOLTAIRE. 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. … 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.

9. IMMANUEL KANT. 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. … It was Kant who labored best to rescue mind from matter;…The world heard him gladly, for it felt that it could live by faith alone, and did not love a science that merely darkened its aspirations and destroyed its hopes. … Apparently Kant had won the battle against materialism and atheism, and the world could hope again.

10. CHARLES DARWIN. And then Darwin came, and the war waged anew. …it may well be that for posterity his name will stand as a turning point int he intellectual development of our Western civilization. If Darwin was wrong, the world may forget him as it has almost forgotten Democritus and Anaxagoras; if he was right, men will have to date from 1859 the beginning of modern thought. … For what did Darwin do but offer, quietly, and with a disarming humility, a world-picture totally different from that which had contented the mind of man before? … Copernicus had reduced the earth to a speck among melting clouds; Darwin reduced man to an animal fighting for his transient mastery of the globe. Man was no longer the son of God; he was the son of strife, and his wars made the fiercest brutes ashamed of their amateur cruelty.

CHAPTER THREE: The Ten “Greatest” Poets

“What is your test of greatness in a poet?” It is a sorry dilemma. … No; let me not pretend to do more here than to reveal my prejudices…

1. HOMER. It seems unimportant and irrelevant that the tale as Homer tells it is not true…it is so well invented, and so vivaciously recounted, that if the facts were different, so much the worse for the facts. Beauty has its rights as well as truth;…these ancient epics are not complex in art or thought; they were addressed to the ear, not to the mind, and to the people, not to subtle lords; … Today we lead intricate and often introverted lives, in which action as the Greeks knew it is a rare exception, found chiefly in the press and gathered from afar; man is now an animal that stops and thinks. Therefore our literature is an analysis of motives and thought; it is in mental conflict that we find the profoundest wars and the darkest tragedies. But in Homer’s day life was action…

2. DAVID. No matter who wrote them, or when; there they are, [the Psalms] the profoundest lyrics in literature, so vivid with ecstasy that even those who doubt all dogmas feel in the blood a strange response to their music still. It is true that they complain too much; that they echo or anticipate Job’s wonder why the just should suffer so while the ruthless prosper; that they conceive the deity in a narrow and nationalistic sense; that they beg too pugnaciously for the punishment of enemies; that they coax Jehovah with fulsome praise, reproach him for negligence…. Never was religious feeling so powerfully or so beautifully expressed; with language that remains, in English, a model of simplicity, clarity, and strength, and in Hebrew rings out in full organ tones of majesty; with phrases that are part of the currency of our speech (“out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” “the apple of my eye,” “put not your trust in princes”);

3. EURIPIDES. Here is all the power of Shakespeare, without his range and subtlety, but with a social passion that moves us as nothing in all modern drama can, except the dying Lear.

4. LUCRETIUS. He is a strange man, this Lucretius, obviously nervous and unstable; … He is a dark pessimist, who sees everywhere two self-canceling movements–growth and decay, reproduction and destruction, Venus and Mars, life and death. All forms begin and have their end; only atoms, space, and law remains; birth is a prelude to corruption, and even this massive universe will thaw and flow back into formlessness:

5. LI-PO. Legend, unsatisfied with a common end for so extraordinary a soul, told how he was drowned in a river while attempting to embrace the water’s reflection of the moon.

6. DANTE. 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. “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” … It would not have been medieval had it not been an allegory: our human life is always a hell, says the poet, until wisdom (Virgil) purges us of evil desire, and love (Beatrice) lifts us to happiness and peace. … People remarked that he was never known to smile.

7. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. …being asked why Shakespeare had written such plays, answered, “One must eat.” Such is fame. A man should never read his reviewers, nor be too curious about the verdict of posterity. … “all things are with more spirit chased than enjoyed” … love is never quite content; in its secret heart is a poisonous anxiety, a premonition of alienation and decay. “Love,” says Rosalind, “is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves a dark-house and a whip as madmen do.” …. He became through despair the greatest poet of all. What we like in him most is the madness and richness of his speech. His style is as his life was, full of energy, riot, color, and excess; “nothing succeeds like excess.”

8. JOHN KEATS. …I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, … “Here lies one whose name is write in water.”

9. PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY. No one was ever more completely or exclusively a poet. … But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon nor Milton had ever existed; if Raphael and Michelangelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its beliefs. … Cor cordium–“heart of hearts.”

10. WALT WHITMAN. …he would incarnate…his own rough country, his own dubious democracy, his own turbulent and growing time. What Homer had been to Greece, Virgil to Rome, Dante to Italy, Shakespeare to England, he was to be for America, because he dared to see in her, with all her faults, her material of song. “The originality of Leaves of Grass,” says a French Critic, “is perhaps the most absolute which has ever been manifest in literature.” Originality in first words:…masculine adjectives and nouns, plain blunt words, daringly raised from the streets and the fields to poetry…originality of form: no rhymes, except in occasional failures like “Captain, My Captain” … the vivid identification of himself with every soul in every experience.

CHAPTER FOUR: The One Hundred “Best” Books for an Education

If I were rich I would have many books, and I would pamper myself with bindings bright to the eye and soft to the touch, paper generously opaque, and type such as mend designed when printing was very young. (64)

“Let me have seven hours a week, and I will make a scholar and a philosopher out of you; in four years you shall be as well educated as any new-fledged Doctor of Philosophy in the land.” (65) “Remember that we are not making a list of the absolutely best one hundred books, no list merely of the masterpieces of belles lettres; we are choosing those volumes that will do most to make a man educated.” (66)

Intium dimidium facti, said the Romans–“the start is half the deed.”

“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.” (67-8) “Why is our list henceforth historically arranged? First, because it is well to study history as it was lived and made…” (69)

“Life without music, as Nietzsche said, would be a mistake.” (73)

“And so the Revolution comes [after 1789], aristocracy is guillotined, art and manners droop, truth replaces beauty, and science remakes the world nearer to its head’s desire.” (76)

“Apparently beauty is born in suffering, and wisdom is the child of grief. The philosophers of our parent-century were almost as unhappy as the composers…” (78)

“It is always easier to love the weak than the strong; the strong do not need our loove, and instinctively we look for flaws in their irritating perfection; every statue is a provocation.” (80)

“These are sad books, but by the time we reach the end of our list we shall be strong enough to face truth without anesthesia.” (81)

Life is better than literature, friendship is sweeter than philosophy, and children reach into our hearts with a profounder music than comes from any symphony, but even so these living delights offer no derogation to the modest and secondary pleasures of our books. (81)

“For these are friends who give us only their best, who never answer back, and always wait our call. When we have walked with them awhile, and listened humbly to their speech, we shall be healed of our infirmities, and know the peace that comes of understanding.” (81)


The Road To Freedom:
Being One Hundred Best Books for an Education


1. THOMSON, J.A., The Outline of Science. 4v.
2. CLENDENING, LOGAN, The Human Body.
*3. KELLOGG, J.H., The New Dietetics; pp.1-531, 975-1011.
4. JAMES, Wm., Principles of Psychology. 2v.
*5. WELLS, H.G., The Outline of History; chapters 1-14.
6. SUMNER, W.G., Folkways.
7. FRAZER, SIR JAS., The Golden Bough. 1-vol. ed.


*8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, The Human Adventure. 2v. Vol. I, chs. 2-7.
5. WELLS, chs. 15-21, 26.
9. BROWN, BRIAN, The Wisdom of China.
*10. THe Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and Epistles of St. Paul.
*11. FAURE, ELIE, History Of Art. 4v. Vol. I, chs. 1-3; vol. II, chs. 1-3.
12. WILLIAMS, H.S., History of Science. 5v. Bk.I, chs. 1-4.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. I, chs. 8-19.
5. WELLS, chs. 22-25.
13. BURY, J.B., History of Greece. 2v.
14. HERODOTUS, Histories (Everyman Library.)
15. THUCYDIDES, The Peloponnesian War. (Everyman Library.)
*16. PLUTARCH, Lives of Illustrious Men (es. Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles, Alcibiades, Demosthenes, Alexander).
17. MURRAY, G., Greek Literature.
18. HOMER, Illiad. Trans. Bryant. Selections.
19. HOMER, Odyssey. Trans. Bryant. Selections.
20. AESCHYLUS, Prometheus Bound. Trans. Eliz. Browning.
21. SOPHOCLES, Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone. Trans. Young. (Everyman Library.)
22. EURIPIDES, all plays so far translated by Gilbert Murray.
23. DIOGENES LAERTIUS, Lives of the Philosophers.
*24. PLATO, Dialogues. Trans. Jowett. Esp. The Apology of Socrates, Phaedo, and The Republic (sections 327-32, 336-77, 384-85, 392-426, 433-35, 481-83, 512-20, 572-95). 1-vol. ed. by Irwin Edman.
25. ARISTOTLE, Nicomachean Ethics.
26. ARISTOTLE, Politics.
12. WILLIAMS, History of Science, bk. I, chs. 5-9.
11. FAURE, History of Art, vol. I, chs. 4-7.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. I, chs. 20-30.
5. WELLS, chas. 27-29.
16. PLUTARCH, Lives (esp. Cato Censor, Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, Marius, Sylla, Pompey, Cicero, Caesar, Brutus, Antony).
27. LUCRETIUS, On the Nature of Things. Trans. Munro. (Certain passages are admirably paraphrased in W.H. Mallock, Lucretius on Life and Death.)
28. VIRGIL, Aeneid. Trans. Wm. Morris. Selections.
*29. MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations. (Everyman Library.)
12. WILLIAMS, bk. I, chs. 10-11.
11. FAURE, vol. I, ch. 8.
*30. GIBBON, E., Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6v. (Everyman Library.) Esp. chs. 1-4, 9-10, 14, 15-24, 26-28, 30-31, 35-36, 44, 71.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. II, chs. 1-11.
5. WELLS, chs. 30-34.
30 GIBBON, chs. 37-38, 47-53, 55-59, 64-65, 68-70.
*31. OMAR KHAYYAM, Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald’s paraphrase.
32. MOORE, GEO., Heloise and Abelard. 2v.
33. DANTE, Divine Comedy. Trans. Longfellow, or C.E. Norton.
*34. TAINE, H., History of English Literature, bk. I.
35. CHAUCER, G., Canterbury Tales. (Everyman Library.) Selections.
36. ADAMS, H., Mont St. Michel and Chartres.
12. WILLIAMS, bk. II, chs. 1-3.
11. FAURE, vol. II, chs. 4-9.
37. GRAY, C., History of Music, chs. 1-3, 5.


5. WELLS, ch. 35.
38. SYMONDS, J.A., The Renaissance in Italy. 7v.
39. CELLINI, B., Autobiography. Trans. Symonds.
40. VASARI, G., Lives of the Painters and Sculptors. 4v. Esp. Giotto, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
41. HOFFDING, H., History of Modern Philosophy. 2v. Sections on Bruno and Machiavelli.
42. MACHIAVELLI, N., The Prince.
37. GRAY, chs. 6, 8.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. II, chs. 13-14.
43. SMITH, P., The Age of the Reformation.
44. FAGUET, E., The Literature of France; sections on the sixteenth century.
45. RABELAIS, Gargantua and Pantagruel.
*46 SHAKESPEARE:, Plays. Esp. Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timon of Athens, and The Tempest.
34. TAINE, bk. II, chs. 1-4.
37. GRAY, chs. 4, 7.
12. WILLIAMS, bk. II, chs. 4-8.
11. FAURE, vol. III, chs. 4-6.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. II, ch. 15.
44. FAGUET, sections on the seventeenth century.
49. LA ROCHEFOUCAULD, Reflections.
50. MOLIERE, Plays. Esp. Tartuffe, The Miser, The Misanthrope, The Bourgeois Gentleman, The Feast of the Statue (Don Juan).
*51. BACON, F., Essays. All. (Everyman Library.)
52. MILTON, J., Lycidas, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Sonnets, Areopagitica, and selections from Paradise Lost.
12. WILLIAMS, bk. II, chs. 9-13.
41. HOFFDING, sections on Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Leibnitz.
53. HOBBES, Leviathan. (Everyman Library.)
54. SPINOZA, Ethics and On the Improvement of the Understanding. (Everyman Library.)
11. FAURE, vol. IV, chs. 1-4.
37. GRAY, chs. 9-10.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. II, chs. 16-21.
5. WELLS, chs. 26-27.
44. FAGUET, sections on the eighteenth century.
55. SAINTE-BEUVE, Portraits of the 18th Century.
56. VOLTAIRE, Works. I-vol. ed. Esp. Candide, Zadig, and essays on Toleration and History.
57. ROUSSEAU, J. J., Confessions.
58. TAINE, H., Origins of Contemporary France. 6v. Vols. I-IV.
*59. CARLYLE, The French Revolution. 2v. (Everyman Library.)
34. TAINE, History of English Literature, bk. III, chs. 4-7.
*60 BOSWELL, Life of Samuel Johnson. 2v. (Everyman Library.)
61. FIELDING, H., Tom Jones. (Everyman Library, 2v.)
62. STERNE, L., Tristram Shandy. (Everyman Library.)
*63. SWIFT, J., Gulliver’s Travels. (Everyman Library.)
64. HUME, D., Treatise on Human Nature. 2v. (Everyman Library.) Esp. bks. II and III.
65. WOLLSTONECREAFT, MARY, Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
66. SMITH, ADAM, The Wealth of Nations. 2v. (Everyman Library.) Selections.
12. WILLIAMS, bk. II, chs. 14-15.
41. HOFFDING, sections on the eighteenth century.
11. FAURE, vol. IV, chs. 5-6.
37. GRAY, chs. 11-12.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. II, chs. 22-28.
5. WELLS, chs. 38-39.
58. TAINE, Origins of Contemporary France. Vol. V, The Modern Regime, pp. 1-90.
67. LUDWIG, E., Napoleon.
68. BRANDES, G., Main Currents of 19th Century Literature. 6v.
*69. GOETHE, Faust.
70 ECKERMANN, Conversations with Goethe.
71. HEINE, Poems. Trans. Louis Untermeyer.
34. TAINE, History of English Literature, bks. IV-V.
*72. KEATS, Poems.
*73. SHELLEY, Poems.
*74. BYRON, Poems.
44. FAGUET, sections on the nineteenth century.
75. BALZAC, Pere Goriot.
*76 FLAUBERT, Works. I-vol. ed. Esp. Mme. Bovary and Salambo.
77. HUGO, Les Miserables.
78. FRANCE, ANATOLE, Penguin Isle.
79. TENNYSON, Poems.
80. DICKENS, Pickwick Papers.
81. THACKERAY, Vanity Fair.
82. TUREGENEV, Fathers and Children.
83. DOSTOIEVSKI, The Brothers Karamazov.
84. TOLSTOI, War and Peace.
85. IBSEN, Peer Gynt.
12. WILLIAMS, bks. III-IV.
86. DARWIN, Descent of Man.
41. HOFFDING, sections on the nineteenth century.
87. BUCKLE, Introduction to the History of Civilization in England. Esp. part I, chs. 1-5, 15.
88. SCHOPENHAUER, Works. I-Vol. ed.
89. NIETZSCHE, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
11. FAURE, vol. IV, chs. 7-8.
37. GRAY, chs. 13-17.


*90. BEARD, C. and M., The Rise of American Civilization. 2v.
91. POE, Poems and Tales.
92. EMERSON, Essays.
93. THOREAU, Walden.
*94. WHITMAN, Leaves of Grass.
95. LINCOLN, Letters and Speeches.


8. BREASTED and ROBINSON, vol. II, chs. 29-30.
5. WELLS, chs. 40-41.
96. ROLLAND, R., Jean Christophe. 2v.
*97. ELLIS, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Vols. I, II, III, VI.
*98. ADAMS, H., The Education of Henry Adams.
99. BERGSON, Creative Evolution.
*100. SPENGLER, O., Decline of the West. 2v.

*Books marked with a star are recommended for purchase. Number of books starred, 27; approximate cost (based upon a survey of secondhand bookstores), $90. Number of volumes in the list: 151; approximate cost (based upon a survey of secondhand bookstores), $300. Time required for reading: 4 years at 7 hours per week, 10 hours per volume.

CHAPTER FIVE: The Ten “Peaks” of Human Progress

1794, Marquis Marie Jean de Condorcet wrote Esquisse d’un tableau des progres de l’espirit humain (A Sketch of a Tableau of the Progress of the Human Spirit). “Given 100 years of liberated knowledge and universal free education,” he said, “and all social problems will, at the close of the next century, have been solved. . . . There is no limit to progress except the duration of the globe upon which we are placed.” (89)

I have never ceased to marvel that a man so placed–driven to the very last stand of hope, with all his personal sacrifices of aristocratic privilege and fortune gone for nothing, with that great revolution upon which the youth of all Europe had pinned its hopes for a better world issuing in indiscriminate suspicion and terror–should, instead of writing an epic of despondency and gloom, have written a paean to progress. (89-90)

“Search through all ancient Greek and Latin literature, and you will find no affirmatory belief in human progress. … It is a relatively new idea for men to have and to hold.” (90)

Progress–A Definition: Let us provisionally define progress as “increasing control of the environment by life,” and let us mean by environment “all 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. (90)

And in assessing epochs and nations we must guard against loose thinking. We must not compare nations in their youth with nations int he mellowness of their cultural maturity, and we must not compare the worst or the best of one age with the selected best or worst of all the collected past. … each age and place calls for and needs certain brands of genius rather than others,… these stars did not all shine on the same night. Our problem is whether the total and average level of human ability has increased, and stands at its peak today. (91)

Under the complex strain of city life we sometimes take imaginative refuge in the quiet simplicity of savage days, but in our less romantic moments we know that this is a flight-reaction from our actual tasks, that this idolatry of barbarism, like so many of our young opinions, is merely an impatient expression of adolescent maladaption, part of the suffering involved in the contemporary retardation of individual maturity. (91-92)

A study of such savage tribes as survive shows their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their inferior speed, their inferior stamina, their inferior will, and their superior plagues. … The savage, however, might turn the argument around, and inquire how we enjoy our politics and our wars ,and whether we think ourselves happier than the tribes whose weird names resound int he textbooks of anthropology. The believer in progress will have to admit that we have made too many advances in the art of war, and that our politicians, with startling exceptions, would have adorned the Roman Forum in the days of Milo and Clodius. As to happiness, no man can say; it is an elusive angel. Presumably it depends first upon health, secondly upon love, and thirdly upon wealth. As to wealth, we make such progress that it lies on the conscience of our intellectuals; as to love, we try to atone for our lack of depth by unprecedented inventiveness and variety. Our thousand fads of diet and drugs predispose us to the belief that we must be ridden with disease as compared with simpler men in simpler days, but this is a delusion. We think that where there are so many doctors there must be more sickness than before. But in truth we have not more ailments than in the past, but only more money; our wealth allows us to treat and cherish and master illnesses from which primitive men died without even knowing their Greek names.

The Outline Of History: …certain great moments stand out as the peaks and essence of human history, certain advances which, once made, were never lost.

1. SPEECH. …the slow development of articulate expression.

2. FIRE. Fire made man independent of climate, gave him a greater compass on the earth, tempered his tools to hardness and durability, and offered him as food a thousand things inedible before. Not least of all it made him master of the night…

3. THE CONQUEST OF THE ANIMALS. …there was a time when man was hunted as well as hunter, when every step from cave or hut was an adventure, and the possession of the earth was still at stake.

4. AGRICULTURE. For civilization came through two things chiefly: the home, which developed those social dispositions that form the psychological cement of society, and agriculture, which took man from his wandering life as a hunter, herder, and killer, and settled him long enough in one place to let him build homes, schools, churches, colleges, universities, civilization. But it was woman who gave man agriculture and the home; she domesticated man as she domesticated the sheep and the pig. Man is woman’s last domestic animal, and perhaps he is the last creature that will be civilized by woman. The task is just begun: one look at our menus reveals us as still in the hunting stage.

5. SOCIAL ORGANIZATION. Here are two men disputing: one knocks the other down, kills him, and then concludes that he who is alive must have been right, and that he who is dead must have been wrong–a mode of demonstration still accepted in international disputes. Here are two other men disputing: one says to the other, “Let us not fight–we may both be killed; let us take our difference to some elder of the tribe, and submit to his decision.” It was a crucial moment in human history! For if the answer was “No,” barbarism continued; if it was “Yes,” civilization planted another root int he memory of man: the replacement of chaos with order, of brutality with judgment, of violence with law.

6. MORALITY. Here we touch the very heart of our problem–are men morally better than they were? So far as intelligence is an element in morals, we have improved: the average of intelligence is higher, and there has been a great increase in the number of what we may vaguely call “developed” minds. So far as character is concerned, we have probably retrogressed: subtlety of thought has grown at the expense of stability of soul; … We are a slightly gentler species than we were: capable of greater kindness.

We think there is more violence in the world than before, but in truth there are only more newspapers. (98)

There is less brutality between men and women, between parents and children, between teachers and pupils, than in any recorded generation of the past. The emancipation of woman and her ascendancy over man indicate an unprecedented gentility in the once murderous male. Love, which was unknown to primitive men, or was only a hunger in the flesh, has flowered into a magnificent garden of song and sentiment, in which the passion of a man for a maid, though vigorously rooted in physical need, rises like incense into the realm of living poetry.

7. TOOLS. These multiplying inventions are the new organs with which we control our environment … the airplane has its highest meaning for us: long chained, like Prometheus, to the earth, we have freed ourselves at last, and now we may look the eagle in the face.

The menial labor that degraded both master and man is lifted from human shoulders and harnessed to the tireless muscles of iron and steel; soon every waterfall and every wind will pour its beneficent energy into factories and homes, and man will be freed for the tasks of the mind. It is not revolution but invention that will liberate the slave. (100)

8. SCIENCE. …we progress only in knowledge, and these other gifts are rooted in the slow enlightenment of the mind. … Already in our day man is turning round from his remade environment, and beginning to remake himself. (101)

9. EDUCATION. More and more completely we pass on to the next generation the gathered experiences of the past. … We have not excelled the selected geniuses of antiquity, but we have raised the level and average of human knowledge far beyond any age in history. (101) …in the perspective of history the great experiment of education is just begun. … What will the full fruitage of education be when every one of us is schooled till twenty, and finds equal access to the intellectual treasures of the race? … Adolescence lengthens: we begin more helplessly, and we grow more completely toward that higher man who struggles to be born out of our darkened souls. We are the raw material of civilization.

Consider it not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates, but as an ennobling intimacy with great men. Consider it not as the preparation of the individual to “make a living,” but as the development of every potential capacity in him for the comprehension, control, and appreciation of his world. Above all, consider it, in its fullest definition, as the technique of transmitting as completely as possible, to as many as possible, that technological, intellectual, moral, and artistic heritage through which the race forms the growing individual and makes him human. Education is the reason why we behave like human beings. We are hardly born human; we are born ridiculous and malodorous animals; we become human, we have humanity thrust upon us through the hundred channels whereby the past pours down into the present that mental and cultural inheritance whose preservation, accumulation, and transmission place mankind today, with all its defectives and illiterates, on a higher plane than any generation has ever reached before. (103)

10. WRITING AND PRINT. …if one generation forgot or misunderstood, the weary ladder of knowledge has to be climbed anew. …it created that Country of the Mind in which, because of writing, genius need not die. … And now, as writing united the generations, print, despite the thousand prostitutions of it, can bind the civilizations. …and accumulation of technical knowledge and cultural creation; … Nothing but beauty and wisdom deserve immortality. (104)

We need not fret, then, about the future. …Never was our heritage of civilization and culture so secure, and never was it half so rich. We may do our little share to augment it and transmit it, confident that time will wear away chiefly the dross of it, and that what is finally fair and worthy in it will be preserved, to illuminate many generations. (104)

CHAPTER SIX: Twelve Vital Dates in World History

…the inclusion of dates in the text would make the story as accurate and dull as a good encyclopedia; that the transformation of dead data into living narrative would require some other disposition of dates than one that would infest with them every page of the tale. (105) … I should hardly be content to have my pupils know only twelve dates, and I presume that the choice of this baker’s number would not suggest an optimum, but rather a minimum–(106)…If, however, one is condemned to live on a mental desert island,…

1. 4241 B.C.–THE INTRODUCTION OF THE EGYPTIAN CALENDAR. The implications of that calendar are endless…development of astronomy and mathematics,…it divided the year into twelve months of thirty days each, with five intercalary days at the end for roistering…

2. 543 B.C.–THE DEATH OF BUDDHA. No other soul, I suppose, has ever been so influential. …in truth, Buddhism does not follow Buddha,…But Buddha means India, for the spirit of India lies in religion rather than in science, in contemplation rather than in action, in a fraternal gentleness rather than in the application of mathematics to artillery, or of chemistry to bombs. Life, said Buddha, is full of suffering; it can be made bearable only by doing no injury to any living thing, and speaking no evil of any man–or woman either.

3. 478 B.C.–THE DEATH OF CONFUCIUS. Never has one man so written his name upon the face and spirit of a people as Confucius has done in China.

4. 399 B.C.–THE DEATH OF SOCRATES. …when for the first time a whole civilization liberated itself from superstition, and created science, drama, democracy, and liberty, and passed on to Rome and Europe half of our intellectual and aesthetic heritage.

5. 44 B.C.–THE DEATH OF CAESAR. …the death of Caesar standas as the door to the Golden Age of Rome.

6. ? B.C.–THE BIRTH OF CHRIST. This date the reader may place ad lib., since no man knows it. For us it is the most important date of all, because it divides all history in the West, gives us our greatest hero and model, provides us with that body of myth and legend which is now passion from the theological to the literary stage, and marks the beginning of that Christan age which seems today to be approaching its close. After us the deluge; God knows what a mess of occult faiths will in the present century replace the tender and cruel theologies that praised and dishonored Christ.

7. A.D. 632 –THE DEATH OF MOHAMMED. There is no surety that the future is not theirs.

8. 1294–THE DEATH OF ROGER BACON. This date is almost as good as any other to mark the first use of gunpowder…It was Roger Bacon who first definitely described the explosive that would revolutionize the world and offer to all pious statesmen a substitute for birth control. (113) … Perhaps this is the most important date in the story of the fall of man; though some cynic might argue that a still more tragic event was the invention of thinking, the liberation of intellect from instinct, the consequent separation of sex from reproduction, and the abandonment of the perpetuation of the race to the selected morons of every land.

9. 1454–THE PRESS OF JOHANNES GUTENBERG (AT MAINZ ON THE RHINE0 ISSUES THE FIRST PRINTED DOCUMENTS BEARING A PRINTED DATE. One hardly knows, today, whether printing does more harm than good, or whether the growth of knowledge and learning has not weakened character as much as it has stocked the mind–but let us try it a little further! (114)


11. 1769–JAMES WATT BRINGS THE STEAM ENGINE TO PRACTICAL UTILITY. This event inaugurated the Industrial Revolution…it was Watt’s stone that capped the arch and changed the world. …It transformed society and government by empowering the owners of machinery and the controllers of commerce beyond the owners of titles and land. It transformed religion by generating science and its persuasive miracles and inducing many men to think in terms of cause and effect and machines. It transformed the mind by substituting novel and varied stimuli, necessitating thought, for the old ancestral and domestic situations to which instinct had been adapted and sufficient. It transformed woman by taking her work from the home and forcing her into the factories to recapture it. It transformed morals by complicating economic life, postponing marriage, multiplying contacts and opportunities, liberating woman, reducing the family, and weakening religious and parental authority and control. And it transformed art by subordinating beauty to use, and subjecting the artist, not to a favored few with inherited standards of judgment and trained tastes, but to a multitude who judged all things in terms of power and cost and size. … All this and more–Capitalism, Socialism, the Imperialism that must come when industrialized nations need foreign markets and foreign food, the wars that must come for these markets, and the revolutions that must come from these wars. … Seventeen-sixty-nine stands for the whole modern age.

12. 1789–THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. …the political signature to economic and psychological facts that had accumulated for centuries…that humanity is an interlude in biology, biology an interlude in geology, and geology an interlude in astronomy… all in all I consider it the peak of human history, greater even than Periclean Greece, or Augustan Rome, or Medicean Italy. Never had men thought so bravely, spoken so brilliantly, or lifted themselves to a greater height of culture and courtesy. …Yes, they had destroyed one France, but they had liberated another, not to speak of freeing America through their disciples, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson.(117)

We are all born within frontiers of space and time and, struggle as we will, we never escape from our boxes. (117)

— VIA —

My only lament is that this is just the beginning to the rest of my life’s learning about the history of humanity. The ease of this challenge is found in the education, the purchasing and reading of books, and the observations of principles, every day, to see them exemplified before my very eyes. The difficulty is more utilitarian, to take this history, and to find something useful to do with it in the short time I have in my “box.” While my soul races with enthusiasm for the education, the intrigue, and the pure joy of fascination, my soul droops with the impulse to feel discouraged and despaired that humanity will continue to behave poorly, that suffering will continue, and that the Teacher (קהלת-Ecclesiastes) is unfortunately right; that everything is meaningless.

But, even as I write this, this thought comes to my mind. Perhaps my despair persists in my mind as the contrasting element to highlight and exacerbate the hope that I also continually reach for. Shall I still hold out a longing for good things to occur within me, and through my life? Shall I depress the depression of pessimism in favor of, or rather, as the fuel that drives my clear sense that all things, in life, in history, in humanity, can reach their maximum potential; that suffering does not have to be, and that lessons from the past can truly create a better future?

Shall I go pick up the next book to find out?

About VIA


  1. David w. Young

    I love this book, some one asked me what would be a good book for his daughter to read I bought will Durante greatest minds and ideas of all times,I hope she read it

  2. Thanks for sharing this post. Will Durant was a great writer and educator.

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  5. Ferdinand Veltman

    A most keen and prodigious insight to the education of man….

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    Thanks for sharing this post. Will Durant was a great writer and educator. I will share this post with others. Meru The Succubus Hoodie

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