It is almost fifty years since my higher education began, and in that time there have been hundreds who have influenced me—most notably Plato and Aristotle, Shankara and Buddha, Epictetus and Aurelius, Hobbes and Descartes, Schopenhauer, Orwell, Piaget. But in retrospect, a few have had a special impact on my thought, and for whom I feel the greatest affinity. All are from the Western philosophical or scientific tradition, the only tradition about which I’m qualified to make good judgments. I list them in the order I encountered their thought.
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.
Will Durant – I always love reading this wonderful prose stylist; you sense his presence on every page of his work. 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.
David Hume – I would love to have been with Hume and Franklin in the salons of Paris, sipping brandy, gossiping, and flirting with the ladies! I admire the brave and honest skepticism of this fearless intellect. He was a good, honest, and courageous man, who faced death bravely, and he was nobler 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.
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. Without a basic understanding of evolution, one lives in intellectual darkness. Before encountering Darwin that’s where I lived, and I thank him for showing me the light.
Carl Sagan instilled in me a love of science and clear thinking—the only means that we have to tease truth from reality. He knew that disregarding reason and evidence invites superstition, folly, and atrocities as well. His moral concerns were for his fellow human beings, as well as for the planet and cosmos from which we all sprang. How I miss his articulate, humane and virtuous voice in our selfish, reckless and irrational times.
E. O. Wilson taught me 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; that the evolutionary epic is the grandest narrative we will ever have; and that we must direct the course of our future evolution. He is a great scientist, and a man filled with a childlike wonder for the natural world.
Nikos Kazantzakis – Perhaps no one thought more deeply or wrote more poetically about the search for meaning in life than the Greek novelist Kazantzakis. He believed that we find meaning by playing our role in the long chain that leads (hopefully) toward higher levels of being and consciousness. And we should proceed bravely, without expecting success. His own journey complete his epitaph reads: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
(I’m sorry there aren’t any women or people of color here. That I wasn’t exposed to more of them was a lacuna in my education.)