Some will obviously quibble over Will Durant's selections, but I will not. I got hooked on Durant after reading his 1916 doctoral disseration (a full thirty years after I acquired the multi-volume History of Civilization), and have been working my way through various “short books” in the past six months.
Here are my fly-leaf notes.
Slams H. G. Wells early on. Durant seems to be the anti-thesis to Marx.
He opens by pointing out that the greatest minds of history were those of philosphy and science, not captains of war, priests, or artists.
As is my tendency, I praise the book by summarizing it. Below are his lists.
Ten greatest thinkers:
01 Confucius as a moral philosopher
02 Plato for first university, philosophy as means of remolding world
03 Aristotle as philosopher and scientists, creating new science
04 St. Thomas Aquinas for bridging between knowledge and belief
05 Copernicus (Poland) for astronomy and mathematics, shifting attention from man to the cosmos
06 Sir Francis Bacon, for knowledge as remodeling power, opened eyes to nature (see my review of Intelligence in Nature, forthcoming).
07 Sir Isaac Newton, for scientific mastery of modern thought
08 Voltaire for ending despotism and starting the enlightenment, but see my review of Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West
09 Immanuel Kant for mind over materialism, restored faith to co-equal status with science
10 Charles Darwin for state of nature, life as conflict, natural selection
Ten greatest poets:
05 Li Po
Ten “Peaks” for Humanity
03 Conquest of Animals
05 Social Organization
06 Morality [see my review of The Lessons of History)
10 Writing & Print
I have a note to myself in which I iclude the Internet in #10, and see #11 as being “True Cost” accounting, see my reviews of, among others:
Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming
Ecological Economics: Principles And Applications
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Twelve Major Dates in Human History
01 4241 BC Egyptian Calendar
02 543 BC Death of Buddha
03 478 BC Death of Confucius
04 199 BC Death of Socrates
05 44 BC Death of Caesar
06 BC-AD Birth of Christ
07 AD 632 Death of Mohammed
08 AD 1294 Death of Roger Bacon, birth of gunpowder
09 AD 1455 Gutenberg Press
10 AD 1492 Columbus discovers America (see 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
11 AD 1769 James Watt and the Steam Engine
12 AD 1789 French Revolution
One can only speculate at what he might have picked in the past century or two, that alone would make a marvelous semester-long course.
The book has a lovely index of all names, both those considered and those considered but not selected.
I consider this a classic gift item, along with Ralph Nader's The Seventeen Traditions and Durant's Lessons of History linked above as well as his edited work drawing out others On the Meaning of Life
For my own contribution, a work marvelously edited by Canadian PhD candidate Mark Tovey, see Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace. All of the work I have sponsored or produced can be found for free at OSS.Net.