Intellectual Heroes


It is more than forty years since my higher education began, and in that time there have been hundreds of thinkers who have influenced me—Plato and Aristotle, Confucius and Buddha, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Hobbes and Descartes, Dennett and Dawkins, and many others. But in retrospect a few have had a special impact on my thought, and for them I feel the greatest affinity. All of them are from the Western philosophical/scientific tradition, the only tradition about which I’m qualified to make good judgments. I list them in the order I encountered their thought.

Will Durant – I always love reading this wonderful prose stylist; you sense his presence on all his pages. What shines forth is his intellect, integrity, and decency. I would have liked to have known him, and if I had one biography to write it would be of him and his beloved wife Ariel. I grow nostalgic thinking of those stacks of books in my undergraduate library where I found him so long ago. I’m glad he was there.

Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not A Christian awoken me from my dogmatic slumber when I was still a teenager. I think Russell was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and— measured by his vast contributions to so many different fields from logic and mathematics to politics and ethics, and from his literary contributions to popular philosophy—he may have been the greatest philosopher in the history of Western tradition. 

David Hume – I would have loved to be with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy, gossiping, and flirting with the ladies! I love the brave and honest skepticism of this fearless intellect. He was an honest, good, and courageous man, who faced death bravely. He was more noble than most of his detractors, past or present. “Be a philosopher but be still a man,” he advised, and then lived up to his credo.

E. O. Wilson taught me many lessons—that human behavior has biological roots; that nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution; that the biosphere is our only home; that most people would rather believe than know; and that the evolutionary epic is the grandest narrative that we will ever have. He is a great scientist and human being, and a man full of childlike wonder for the natural world. And he showed me that it is up to us to direct the course of our future evolution.

Charles Darwin – Darwin may have been the most influential person in human history. Today multiple sciences converge on his basic insight—which is true beyond any reasonable doubt. He gave us the greatest idea we have, and perhaps will ever have, an idea applicable to everything from the cell to the cosmos, and without it almost everything one believes is false. Without understanding evolution, one lives in intellectual darkness. Before encountering Darwin that’s where I lived, and I thank him for showing me the light.

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