Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book: The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time

Will Durant is best known for his eleven-volume "Story of Civilization". THE GREATEST MINDS AND IDEAS OF ALL TIME (ISBN-13 978-0-743-23553-2, ISBN-10 0-743-23553-3) is a collection of his essays from various sources. Unfortunately, many of the things Durant says do not enhance his reputation as an historian. For example, he says that reason allowed us to defeat the dinosaur. We
did not defeat the dinosaur, by reason or otherwise. While he wrote before the discovery of the KT layer that led us to the knowledge of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, he should have known that they died off millions of years before reason arose. He also extrapolates from the idea that general intelligence is required for progress to the idea that genius is required for progress, which is not necessarily true. (Durant definitely subscribes to the "Great Man" theory of history.)

He also says things such as "[Bach] also had time to have twenty children." This is hardly an accomplishment per se. Now if Mrs. Bach had written all the music as well as having twenty children.... (My point, in case it is not clear, is that merely to
father twenty children requires very little time.) He talks about "the educated man" and "masculine poetry" as an ideal, and so on. He rhapsodizes ancient Greece was a glorious civilization, but then talks about how Rome was defeated by slavery without ever explaining why slavery was okay in Greece.

His list are at times idiosyncratic. His "Ten Greatest Geniuses" are Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Nicolai Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Immanual Kant, and Charles Darwin. His "Ten Greatest Poets" are Homer, King David, Euripides, Lucretius, Li Po, Dante, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman.

When talking about the "Ten Greatest Achievements", he says that measuring progress should be objective, not subjective, so we cannot define it through happiness. Then he defines progress as "increased control over the environment/external world." It is not clear that this is any less subjective. (The achievements are speech, fire, the conquest of animals [both domestication and the
ability to kill predators], agriculture, social organization, morality, tools, science, education, and writing/printing.)

The audiobook version has a whole set of additional problems. The reader mispronounces many words and names, including Flaubert, Goethe, and As(h)oka. But even more, listening to an essay which is primarily a list of "the hundred books necessary for a good education" does not give one much chance to retain the information. These turn out to be mostly texts and overviews--not "The Great
Books"--and one suspects many of them are either outdated, unavailable, or both.

As I said, although the brief biographies et al are somewhat informative, I do not think that this book enhances Durant's reputation.

Grade: C

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