A History of Ideas

The most intriguing, relevant and helpful concepts from the story of humanity

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Pub Date 15 Aug 2023 | Archive Date 28 Jul 2023

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A collection of humanity’s most inspiring ideas throughout time, bringing perspective to the challenges and wonders of being alive. 

This is an unusual sort of history book: a history of ideas – and not just any old ideas, ideas from across time and space that are best suited to healing, enchanting and reviving us.

Along the way, we travel around the world, from the very beginnings of our species right up to the modern age. We hear about the Ancient Greeks and Romans, we learn about Buddhism and Islam, we acquire ideas from Hinduism and the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Modernity. Deliberately eclectic, the book gives us a panoramic, 3,000-year view over the finest insights of a diversity of civilisations. 

Every idea hangs off an image – it could be a place, a document, a building or a work of art – that has something very specific to teach us. There are ideas here that will stick in our minds because they can help to answer the biggest puzzles we may have: about the direction of our lives, the issues of relationships, the meaning of existence. 

The book amounts to a feast for the intellect and the imagination – to make us into the best sorts of historians, those who know how to use the past to shed light on their own lives.

A collection of humanity’s most inspiring ideas throughout time, bringing perspective to the challenges and wonders of being alive. 

This is an unusual sort of history book: a history of ideas – and...

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ISBN 9781912891962
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Featured Reviews

I devour ideas. One way to sate the appetite is dining out on Radio 4’s In Our Time archive. The show’s host Melvyn Bragg politely and firmly guides academic experts so that they share their wisdom and insight with the listener. Among these great teachers, one title stands out for me. It’s Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas. It was held by the late Justin Champion of Royal Holloway University. While I may never aspire to don his mantle, I do love the idea of, well, a professor of ideas. So much to discover and explain.

Sharing that teaching load, The School of Life’s new History of Ideas is a collection of what is calls humanity’s most inspiring ideas throughout time, It curates ideas ‘best suited to healing, enchanting and revising us’. Its stated goal is to answer the biggest puzzles we may have: about the direction of our lives, the issues of relationships, the meaning of existence.

Given the School of Life’s was started by authors, therapists and educators, A History of Ideas could be considered its textbook but it is no academic text book. Instead, every idea it addresses hangs off a full page image accompanied by essay, often based on articles the School has published.

Arranging ideas is always challenging. The book documents the history of the world’s ideas in 12 chapters. Good news for Julian Barnes, who remains on top of the concise world history league by one and a half chapters. Prehistory and The Ancients, and Modernity bookend chapters on the great religions, Europe, The Americas. Industrialisation and Africa.

Within chapters, fine art, architecture and objects illustrate the ideas. Grand masters can be expect on the pages but they are joined by lesser works. Such selections serve their purpose well. The Scullery Maid, by Jean-Baptise-Simeon Chardin, depicts the drudgery of washer work yet brings to visual life, the accompanying first essay on Christianity. It is no art history exposition of some baroque high altar piece. ‘Central to Christianity has been the argument about the value of ordinary people…this was a religion that never stopped stressing that God's mercy was offered to all irrespective of social status.’

Nor does it shy away from tackling what today, may be seen as problematic ideas. On original sin, the book asks, ‘why would it be helpful to keep this in mind? Because once we accept the bleak verdict, we are spared the risks of misplaced expectations. To know that everyone we encounter will, at some level, be flawed reduces our fury and our disappointment with this or that problematic aspect of their character’ Wise words in an age where few can disagree agreeably.

The ideas of industrialisation is, perhaps, foreshadowed by the 18th century scullery maid’s crude washing tub. From today’s perspective, it seems that some of the big ideas has been vigorously scrubbed away by the industrial revolution and allied revolutionary thoughts. However, the book’s commentary on the Scullery Maid concludes: ‘an ideology can be said to have achieved true victory when we forget it even exists. We can tell that Christianity has been one of the most powerful movements of ideas there has ever been, in part because of how seldom we notice that it has ever had the slightest influence on us.’

Living in a ‘decade of disruption’, to quote Rory Stewart, there are many big questions being asked. Among them, will it be OK? The History of Ideas is a carefully curated gallery that illustrate the big ideas helping answer those questions. Given the authors set out to curate ideas that could enchant, it may also re-enchant those asking with what they have forgotten exists.

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This was an interesting and thought -provoking presentation of important ideas. I think that many readers will benefit from the approach and the content.

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Philosophy and history, a little bit of everything for nerds like me. I don't always like reading philosophy, the thoughts of someone else, but having the series of ideas humanity followed is similar information presented in a story instead of a textbook. Well done.

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Like any other book by the Scholl of Like it must be read slowly, some pages at a time and taking your time to reflect and elaborate.
This is one of the most complex and intellectually satisfying as it deals with ideas.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher for this arc, all opinions are mine

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I always appreciate the way that The School of Life is able to merge art with philosophy, and this book is no exception. I was concerned that the book would focus only on western influences on history and historiography, but it was pleasant to see other cultures held in high accord.

This is a book, like many others by School of Life, that could be read in one sitting, but I'd advise against it. This is a book to read a few pages each day and let yourself ruminate about it for a day. I found myself philosophizing about some of the ideas that were described, and thinking about how our current era should be described

My only criticism is that I wish there was more of a clearer explanation about why the perspectives that are included were chosen. It doesn't seem to be like a random romp through different views, but I also don't feel like there is a strong connection that is weaved throughout.

Nevertheless, a great book to help readers think about how our perceptions and understanding of the world has provided paradigms for understanding of the past.

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