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Wisdom (1) : The Greatest Ideas & Lessons… of History / The World

How much can we ‘compress’ wisdom? Are there general lessons that we can infer from history? from the intersections between different thinkers from around the world? Is there such a thing as ‘the greatest ideas of all time?

This post compiles ideas from 4 key books to reflect on history, philosophy, Wisdom and the applicability to our work and every day life.

The World’s Wisdom : “How The World Thinks” and the journey across perspectives

Baggini’s “How the World Thinks” is an amazing journey and a very ambitious work. I picked this book up from a small library in Frankfurt as a souvenir, partly because the cover looked really beautiful.. I was (very pleasantly) surprised by the scope covered by the writer and his ability to assimilate so much knowledge around these themes.

The book has 4 major parts :

  • How the World Knows
  • How the World Is
  • Who In the World Are We
  • How the World Lives

And they are all thoughtful and exciting. To my mind, the elegance and beauty stands in contrast to the overrated blandness of the much-hyped Sapiens…

Highlights from: “How the World Thinks”

My copy is full of highlights and folded pages, because every chapter has many valuable lessons and reflections. Here are a few (short, easier to copy) highlights from the book:

  • Did Confucius shape the Chinese mind, or did the Chinese mind shape Confucius?
  • “Words are for meaning. When you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words” (Zhuangzi)
  • It has been said that everything good, but more usually bad, about Western culture, can be found at McDonald’s.
  • Questions from the conclusion of ‘how the world is ‘ :
    • is metaphysics dead?
    • what about phenomenology?
    • how much can physics say?
    • is philosophy the leader of the sciences?
  • Intimacy vs Integrity are two directions in defining the self (Identity). The self is usually relational, but also atomized.
  • A koan :

Kyozan Ejaku asked Sansho Enen : “What’s your name?”Sansho said : “Ejako”

“Ejaku!” replied Kyozan, “That’s my name!”

“Well then”, said Sansho, “my name is Enen”

Kyozan roared with laughter..

Basically, the compilations around knowledge, existence, identity, and ethics and morals are quite enriching and indispensable discussions. The author’s work spans the east, west, middle, and even African and original islander ideas. Like good philosophical discussions, the book leaves you with a sense of wonder and contemplation… You end up with more questions and variables than when you started.

In some places the similarities in thought give the reader an appreciation of a deeper inherent truth, while in others, the stark differences shed the light on the beautiful richness of the world’s diverse perspectives.

Time’s Wisdom & Learning from History : The Greatest Minds & Ideas of all Time + The Lessons of History (By Will Durant)

Durant is more famous for his other work, but these two books are a great effort to distill so much history and so many events into small volumes. The dangers of reduction loom large, but there are certain things to be gained.

The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all Time

In the first (The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all Time), there is a subtle argument that the history of the world is not the history of all its people… A few (great) people shape history and its course.. Durant says:

The history of France is not, if one may say it with all courtesy, the history of the French people; the history of those nameless men and women who tilled the soil, cobbled the shoes, cut the cloth, and peddled the goods (for these things have been done everywhere and always)— the history of France is the record of her exceptional men and women, her inventors, scientists, statesmen, poets, artists, musicians, philosophers, and saints, and of the additions which they made to the technology and wisdom, the artistry and decency, of their people and mankind. And so with every country, so with the world;

Durant, from : The Greatest Minds & Ideas of all Time.

The greatest philosophers and thinkers (philosophers and scientists alone. because they “by their thinking, rather than by their action or their passion, have most influenced mankind”.) are listed in the book with a brief intro about their ideas. They are: 1. Confucius 2. Plato 3. Aristotle 4. Saint Thomas Aquinas 5. Copernicus 6. Sir Francis Bacon 7. Sir Isaac Newton 8. Voltaire 8. Immanuel Kant 10. Charles Darwin “Those whom we have omitted would make as fair a list: Democritus, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Abelard, Galileo, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Schopenhauer, Spencer, Nietzsche.”

The problem with Durant, as you can easily notice, disregarding the first name on the list, is his extreme west-centrism… “World” is 75% “Western World” to him, it would seem. He mentions this at the end of the book :

There is another list of ‘the greatest artists / poets / heroes of the imagination’, and a list of the greatest ideas, and of the greatest dates/events in the world’s history (similar bias, I believe). To me, this book seemed a bit ‘barbaric’, and Durant does acknowledge this towards the end:

I look back to the Orient and wonder how a Confucian scholar or a Hindu Brahman would smile at my dates. The one would inquire courteously where the T’ang Dynasty entered into my list— an age as great in China as the Enlightenment in France. The other would ask about Akbar or Asoka, and I could only answer that Asoka belongs to Buddha, and Akbar to Mohammed. I know how partial and provincial all lists must be.We are all born within frontiers of space and time and, struggle as we will, we never escape from our boxes. To us, civilization means Europe and America, and the Orient, which considers us barbaric, seems barbarous.

From “The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time”

A full list of excerpts can be seen in this file that includes highlights from Durant’s “The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time”..

The Lessons of History

The second relevant book by Durant, which expands our search for Wisdom is “The Lessons of History”.

This book is an interesting reflection on history, and what one can gain from the collection. There are – obviously – a few red flags.

How can we make (proper) conclusions? These are excessive generalizations, and extreme simplifications. Also, is the history we read actually history? How is the historical story created? Isn’t it around certain heroes and ‘collective heroes’ (countries) built in retrospect to fit present objectives?

Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”

The Historian always oversimplifies, and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.

Only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.

Quotes from “The Lessons of History” by Will Durant

A brief overview of the areas:

Lessons of History : Topics

The lessons of history have to be – more generally – about human nature, and the interaction of this nature with the ‘outer nature’ – the external resources and the environment. There are important questions here, relating to the variability of human nature and the deeper sense of evolution and change.

The breakdown above shows the arcs that Durant takes to extract the wisdom of ages.

A set of my selections and excerpts from the book can be seen in this document containing highlights from The Lessons of History.

Collective Wisdom : The Fates of human societies in Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond)

Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies

I have written a (relatively long) discussion of Guns, Germs, and Steel (an amazing book) previously. It is very relevant to the discussion here, and how what many people attribute to skill or intelligence can sometimes be reduced to change and the distribution of resources. Culture, Geography, and Chance interact to draw the fates of groups.

Beautifully, towards the end the author presents two extreme views of history, one by Thomas Carlyle, the other by Otto Von Bismarck.

Thomas Carlyle :

“Universal history, the history of what man [sic] has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”

Otto Von Bismarck :

“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to His coattails as He marches past.”

So the question we always have to ponder is: “How much of it is god (chance, external circumstances, nature), and how much of it is man (intelligence, will, effort)?”

My Lessons: Conclusions & The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom

All the above is great in and of itself… It is highly interesting to ponder and reflect on… It would be amazing, though, if we can infer personal lessons from them.

A great challenge is to try and make sense of all this for the individual.

What does this mean to me? How can this inform my work and action?

I had read these books quite a while before getting the idea to work on “The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom“, but in retrospect there are some themes that are common in these collective works that have influenced the synthesis in the Atlas and the selection of the different ‘super ideas’ that have been a part of it.

Common Themes & Practical Conclusions

Here are some of the common themes and ideas that I think can be extracted from a broad overview of history, societies, thinkers, and world philosophy, and that relate to personal work:

  • Plurality : There area always many factors and many agents at play in any social interaction situation. This leads to complexity and uncertainty. Understanding and evaluating the plurality of the world accurately must be the first step in a good understanding.
  • Chance and Risk : The inherent ambiguity and opacity (lack of clarity) of the world (because of plurality and complexity), means that if you want to achieve things, taking risk (doing something with a less-than-predictable outcome) is unavoidable. Courage is at the heart of wisdom!
  • Progress and Change : Everything is in constant flux and change… but also nothing is. It is all a matter of levels and perspectives. How are you examining this particular situation.
  • Resources Make Destiny: No matter how much you talk about sheer will and courage and intelligence, the material basis of the world is always present and extremely powerful. Going against it is possible sometimes, but if the winds of chance (nature, resources, luck) are on your side, you’ll probably sail faster and further.
  • The Hero: There are always people who (or times where any person can) achieve unpredictable things.
  • Contexts are important: Before judging a situation, an understanding of the peculiarities of a specific context are essential. Situations & Circumstances are unique

The Atlas of Worldly Wisdom is an online course about the bigger picture. It is about compiling hundreds of super ideas into a map for excellence and peak performance, and the creation of meaningful work. Check it out if you’re interested in the practical and managerial applications of wisdom.

More Resources

The Think-Grow Knowledge Modules

The Think-Grow Knowledge Modules are mini-libraries of book summaries, each giving a wide (wise) enough view of a specific field. Some are integrated in TAWW’s reading list.

They offer a simpler, wiser, and more convenient approach to reading about different fields. The Better Brain Library in particular has summaries of books on intelligence, thinking, and mental training.

Fuzzy on the Dark Side
Approximate Thinking, and How the mists of creativity and progress can become a prison of illusion

Check out the page describing “Fuzzy on the Dark Side”, where I explore approximate thinking and the problems that reside in the inadequate treatment of incompleteness.

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