“We’re gonna turn it around, we’re gonna turn it around fast, we’re gonna become rich again, we’re gonna become great again!”
We all know, really, that campaign promises are a kind of fantasy. Nobody has a magic wand, although an enlightened despot might; but we have democracy to deal with here. It’s complicated at the best of times, and now we’re floundering at the apex of messy. Let’s hope it’s the apex.
So this feels like a good time to take a break, and I had a book on hand for just this moment: The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all Time by historian and philosopher Will Durant. Over fifty years, he wrote The History of Civilization, all eleven volumes of it. Too bad I haven’t read that. Thank goodness this book summarizes in only 118 pages.
And since there seems to be such a dearth of deep thinking in the moment, I was eager to discover who Durant thought had done the best job of that throughout history. In the chapter titled “The Ten ‘Greatest’ Thinkers,” he begins by providing his criteria. First of all, he assumes that these heroes will all be men. Then he explains that he will not include men like Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare because they were artists first and foremost. Men like Jesus, Buddha, and Augustine will not qualify either because they were moved by passion, mystic vision, and faith rather than intellect. Next, he dismisses men of action like Caesar, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln.
Instead, Durant says he will identify those individuals–philosophers and scientists–who have resided in quiet places, the obscure corners of the world, just thinking but ultimately having a profound influence on mankind. So who is the first on his list? It is Confucius, the moral philosopher who was born in China in 552 B.C. Durant begins by saying that Confucius came to life in “an age of confusion, in which the old power and glory of China had passed into feudal disintegration and factional strife.” How timely, this flashback.
Durant summarizes by saying that the philosophy of Confucius was basically conservative in nature, exalting manners and etiquette and scorning democracy. His thinking is illustrated by a theory on how to restore health and order to a troubled state, and it begins with the responsibility of the individual. That responsibility is to search for knowledge and truth, which will lead to clear thoughts and a perfected soul. After the self has thus been cultivated, then the family can be regulated, which will lead to states existing in “proper order.” Beyond that, the whole world will inevitably become peaceful and happy.
A tall order, one might say, and yet it feels relevant in the moment. All faces seem to be turned toward the presidential candidates to demand, “Fix this problem. Fix this country. Fix this government. Fix the world.” And yet everyday there is one news story after another highlighting individual acts–or failures to act–that steadily move us toward becoming a failed state.
If I were the incoming president, my inaugural speech would say something to the effect that “Each one of you has a job, whether it is raising a child, becoming educated, handling waste from a chemical company, playing professional sports, or serving as a legislator. If each one of you does your job as well as possible, and I mean conscientiously, ethically, and mindful of the common good, then my job is going to be easy.”
As Confucius would say, if we wish to “propagate the highest virtues in the world,” that effort has to begin with each of us.
There was an unintended postscript in Durant’s book. As I said at the outset, he assumed that the greatest minds of all time were those of men. Among all those individuals named as the ten greatest thinkers and poets and authors of the 100 best books for an education, only one woman is mentioned. That would be Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
The feminine has only recently won those rights, including the ability to maximize our intellectual potential, in a limited number of countries on earth. In view of that fact, perhaps there is reason to hope that we can help the path of mankind (sorry, humanity), lift a bit–a possibility that wasn’t apparently foreseen by the greatest male thinkers in history. Oh, well. They couldn’t think of everything.