The Ten Greatest Thinkers of All Time (according to Will Durant)

UNDER CONSTRUCTION (Iʻm planning to clean this up ASAP)

An initial question may be plaguing you right at the outset: “Who the @*#% is Will Durant? And why should I believe him?” Well, Durant (1885 – 1981) was one of the preeminent historians of philosophy and ideas, with a PhD from Columbia (1912) and who is best known for his multi-volume work, written with Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization.

Will and Ariel Durant

 His 10 greatest thinkers of all time:

1. Confucius – This is an interesting choice for first, for several reasons. For one thing, Kung Fu Tsu (his non-latinized name) is the only non-European on the top ten (there are also notably no women – Durant was very old school). But perhaps more interestingly, when he himself met Lao Tzu (who may have been apocryphal, and is not on the list) Confucius said he had met someone with knowledge far beyond his own. But Durant defends his first choice by showing how the world’s largest and longest-lasting civilization still adheres to the precepts of the great sage (who was not apocryphal).

Confucius travelled as an itinerant teacher and advisor, teaching that harmony was the prime goal of society and that it could be achieved through filial obligation and respect. Confucius also practiced what he preached: he was mayor (or magistrate) of a town, which allegedly flourished with virtue under this philosopher-king.

2. Plato – As I wrote in my blog post on Plato:

When we read Plato we can’t be sure whether it is the philosopher himself, or his teacher Socrates. Sometimes this “voice” is called Platosocrates. Socrates called himself a “gadfly,” a kind of hindrance or pest who questions those who are said to have knowledge. I.F. Stone has criticized Socrates for his lack of commitment to a philosophy and says it represents instead a method of doing philosophy.


Socrates was convicted in Athens of corrupting  the youth and was sentenced to death, which traumatized Plato, who seemed to lose faith in Athenian democracy, and dedicated three dialogs to the trial, the most famous of which is The Apologywhich is not much of an apology, but rather an argument that those who claim to know, in fact know nothing, whereas he, knowing he knows nothing is wiser than all of them. Socrates was in a sense trying to prove the oracle of Delphi right – the oracle had proclaimed Socrates the wisest of all men.

But Iʻll let the sagacious Alain de Botton succinctly explain Plato:

3. Aristotle – As I wrote in my post on Aristotle:

Aristotle’s output was so monumental that it set the tone, in fact the content, little changed for over a thousand years in Europe, with Catholic scholastics synthesizing Aristotelian thought with Biblical scripture (although there is a fair amount of debate over the extent of his influence). His principal work can be grouped in nine basic categories:

1) Logic

2) Natural Science

3) Zoology

4) Psychology

5) Metaphysics (famously only called this because it came after the physics)

6) The Nichomachean Ethics

7) Politics (or, “On Statecraft”)

8) The art of oratory

9) The art of Poetry

It is impossible to summarize this output here, but possible to give a taste of his thought. The Metaphysics begins with questions on the nature of knowledge, and how we know (epistemology):
ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to doanything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to lightmany differences between things.

Again, Alain de Botton:

4. Thomas Aquinas – Aquinas was a reconciler. He made Aristotelian, Platonic and Neoplatonic thought (mainly seen in the work of the great Plotinus) resonate with scripture. This was the edifice upon which the entire European medieval consciousness would rest. He was dogmatic, but his sheer importance cannot be denied. According to

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the existence of God could be proven in five ways, mainly by: 1) observing movement in the world as proof of God, the “Immovable Motor”; 2) observing cause and effect and identifying God as the cause of everything; 3) concluding that the impermanent nature of beings proves the existence of a necessary being, God, who originates only from within himself; 4) noticing varying levels of human perfection and determining that a supreme, perfect being must therefore exist; and 5) knowing that natural beings could not have intelligence without it being granted to them it by God. Subsequent to defending people’s ability to naturally perceive proof of God, Thomas also tackled the challenge of protecting God’s image as an all-powerful being.

5. Copernicus – “And then came a voice out of Poland” begins Will Durant – and what a voice it was. The monkish scientist’s efforts to bring truth and understanding to the world brought instead the most radical decentering of human consciousness yet seen. In short, he made humanity grow up and humbled us down.

6. Francis Bacon – As I wrote in my post on Bacon, his goal:

was to integrate scientific understandings with classical (mainly Roman) wisdom. Ironically, after a meteoric rise in the court of King James I (under whom the King James bible was published), it was a swift fall that gave him the time to pursue these more cerebral goals.

King James I (1566 – 1625)

Despite having tremendous personal connections, Bacon floundered politically under Queen Elizabeth I, but James seemed to take a liking to him, knighting him and granting him several titles and positions, including his father’s, Attorney General, Viscount St. Albans, and Lord High Counsellor. A bribery scandal, which Bacon admitted to, led to a swift fall and time in the Tower of London, but also to an early retirement in which he followed his literary pursuits. Equally ironic was that Bacon’s utopia, New Atlantis, depicts an official who accepts bribes as “twice paid.”

7. Voltaire – When I read Candide the ludicrousness of its protagonist and his mentor only slowly began to dawn on me. Perhaps it is that we live (until recently) in an optimistic age, but Voltaire’s scathing mockery of his Pollyanna protagonist grates against modern sensibilities. Durant points out himself that a belief in progress is a comparatively new phenomenon, but Voltaire was certainly part of that phenomenon – he wanted to point out the problems from which progress could emerge.

8. Isaac Newton – One list I read of the greatest scientists of all time said that if one had to choose the second best scientist, it would be a nearly impossible task. But to the first was no contest: it was Isaac Newton. The Newtonian model of the cosmos – the “great clock” – was to be the basis of all progress of modern technology for nearly half a century.

9. Immanuel Kant – Pushing back against the materialist drive in physical and social sciences, Kant tried to reconcile Christian doctrines (“love thy neighbor as thyself”) with rational, moral philosophy. And he did it in a way that has pretty much held up to the present day. As my professor Michael Shapiro used to say, “we are all post-Kantists.” His categorical imperative secularized the “golden rule:”

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

 In other words, if everyone couldnʻt do what you are planning to do, donʻt do it – it would cause chaos, environmental destruction, or some type of harm.

10. Charles Darwin – I took a course on the “comparative reception” of scientific theories in the History of Science department at Harvard. What struck me was the Darwin’s thought had permeated so many fields of thought. My paper focused on Marx and Engels’s reception of evolutionary theory and selective adaptation and their reconciling it with historical materialism. They saw natural selection as a parallel with their theory of dialectical change in history – change came not through a divine plan (or telos), but through an interplay or conversation, between historical actors and forces. Some go further: Integral theory, for instance, sees evolution as “consciousness becoming conscious of itself.”


Filed under academia, intellect, Uncategorized

5 responses to “The Ten Greatest Thinkers of All Time (according to Will Durant)

  1. How is it personality like Bhagavan Budha is not considered, nor Ashoka the great? Can somebody throw light on this issue please.
    A. C. Lakshmana


  2. Derick

    A newspaper at the time of his lectures said the list in chronological order was:
    1. Confucius
    2. Plato
    3. Aristole
    4. Copernicus
    5. Spinoza
    6. Bacon
    7. Newton
    8. Voltaire
    9. Kant
    10. Darwin

    I’m sure it changed over the years. Will and Ariel Durant are truly great writers and historians. Would have loved to attend one of their lectures.


  3. Abdul

    What Happened to Albert Einstein? Why isn’t he on the list?


  4. I agree with Kant, Aristotle, Plato, and Newton. But what about Hegel? Objective methods have previously determined him to be the most influential thinker of all time, and believe me, his actual thoughts and accomplishments are far greater than e.g. Voltaire, Bacon, Spinoza. Sounds like Will Durant doesn’t have sufficient comprehension of Hegel to judge.


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