Book review — Great Thinkers (The School of Life)

Great Thinkers is a compilation of 60 short essays — about 1,500 to 3,000 words each — published by The School of Life, which dedicates itself to “developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture”. It describes the book as a volume of some of the most important ideas of Eastern and Western culture, drawn from the works of philosophers, political theorists, sociologists, artists, and novelists “whom we believe have the most to offer us today”.

The individual essays are well written and easy to read. They provide the essential lessons through each concise biography.

For the individuals that you may already recognise and/or have studied as a youth, there are refreshing insights. For example, students of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are familiar with his maxim, “God is dead”, but did you know that he hated alcohol for the same reason that he scorned Christianity — because both numb pain and sap us of the will to act for what we really want?

However, there are frequent references to characters’ sex lives and preferences, which many times seemed superfluous. This dimension might be better served in another book on its own?

Another criticism is the dearth of women. The first female great thinker appears over halfway in (p. 265), Margaret Mead. (I concede the relevance of her sexual history.)

And while there are illuminating perspectives of Eastern philosophy, Western culture and capitalism prevail. That can be grand; this is just to point out the book’s orientation.

The School of Life wants you to go to great thinkers to contemplate and consider how better to handle the dilemmas, joys, and griefs of daily life. It very much has a classical not romantic view of life, and the selections in Great Thinkers reflect that.

Perhaps the climax (!) of this view of life is encapsulated in the essay about Marcel Proust, which provides an interesting argument of art for the meaning of life:

“It’s to get us to look at the world, our world, with some of the same generosity as an artist, which would mean taking pleasure in simple things — like water, the sky or a shaft of light on a roughly plastered wall.”

In other words, whatever provokes a stream of memories that provides hope and gratitude.


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