Will Durant died 25 years ago this past November, but in 2002 a collection of some of his essays and speeches was published, The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time. I purchased the audio from iTunes yesterday –it is a fine reading by John Little– and have been struck again by how accomplished a historian and superb a writer Durant was. The above line is how Durant caps a brief review of the turbulent lives of the musical geniuses of the nineteenth century, in particular Tchaikovsky, and is just one of dozens and dozens of phrases that Durant sprinkles in these wonderful essays.
The six chapter headings give you an overview:
1. A Shameless Worship of Heroes. Durant says “The real history of man is not in prices and wages, nor in elections and battles, nor in the tenor of the common man; it is the lasting contributions made by geniuses to the sum of human civilization and culture.” Durant then introduces us to these people.
2. The Ten “Greatest” Thinkers. From Confucius to Charles Darwin, Durant describes the accomplishments of the ten individuals who have had “the greatest influence on the lives and minds of men.”
3. The Ten “Greatest” Poets. Okay, you guessed William Shakespeare. But you may benefit from increasing your familiarity with the other nine writers “who, beyond all others, have brought us that strange mixture of music, emotion, imagery and thought, which is poetry.”
4. The One Hundred “Best” Books For an Education. “Let me have seven hours a week,” Durant says, “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.” His list of the 100 most important books ever written is the course syllabus.
5. The Ten “Peaks” of Human Progress. This will refresh your memory of the real sweep of human history. From the mastery of fire, to the conquest of the animals, to the industrial revolution, Durant describes step by step the road we took “from the savage to the scientist.”
6. Twelve Vital Dates in World History. We all know in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but do you draw a blank about 4241 B.C.? How about A.D. 1294? The American Revolution, the Civil War and the two World Wars didn’t even make the top 12 dates. Provocative reading, to say the least.
Do yourself or a friend a favor (or a college student tempted to blow their gift of four years on pop culture courses) and buy the audio book. You will be amazed at how quickly three hours can fly by.