10 of the Greatest Minds of History

10 of the Greatest Minds of History

Peter Baxter - May 21, 2018

Choosing ten of the greatest minds in history proved not to be quite so easy as this particular writer thought. Intelligence is measured by numerous different standards, ranging from simple IQ to great scientific or artistic achievement. Those achievements might be cumulative, in terms of a lifetime’s work, or a single, startling accomplishment that implants a person in the pantheon of human brilliance, never to rise – or shine – ever again.

Our good and loyal friend Merriam-Webster defines intelligence variously as: the ability to learn or understand; to deal with new or trying situations; to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment; to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria; to comprehend and to perform computer function.

What this definition implies, however, is simply the coordination of brain and body in the business of living, and survival. Such is the basic requirement of advanced life on earth. It does nothing to explain reason, philosophy, science and art, the three areas where mankind rises, and soars above the common run of earthly creatures. It is within the realm of reason that this higher element of intelligence, vaguely described as ‘genius’, is typically to be found. In this list we are not going to rely on simple IQ to make our selection, because raw intelligence is not always a factor of genius, but instead we will dig into some of the more celestial elements of human creation, and see what we come up with.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Jedediah Buxton, the first documented ‘Autistic Savant’. HNF Blog

Jedediah Buxton, the first recognized autistic savant

We’ll kick off with a rather obscure name in the annals of genius. Jedediah Buxton was what is known today as an ‘autistic savant’, which differs from the original French definition of the word ‘savant’. In the original, the word ‘savant’ simply implies an expert in some field or another. Napoleon, for example, in his famous expedition to Egypt in 1798, was accompanied by a corps of ‘savants’ who provided the academic ballast for a venture that was to be part military, part cultural and part scientific. These were simply men of science and engineering, and although brilliant, they did not typically rise to that higher level that we are trying to identify here. Savant in the modern context, however, means something different, and something much more.

An autistic savant implies a brain damaged by a syndrome, and dysfunctional in the conventional sense of the word, but in the unconventional sense, gifted with a brilliance that is often difficult to quantify. Who was Jedediah Buxton? He is described by Wikipedia as ‘a mental calculator’, which, of course, recalls the ‘Rain Man’ phenomenon that is today something a benchmark of autistic savantism. There is a very thin line between genius and insanity, and prior to modern psychoanalysis, a great many autistic savants were classified as the latter. Buxton was fortunate that he appeared on the scene at a time when European intellectual society was emerging from the Dark Ages, and as enlightenment was replacing superstition and ignorance as the basic social standard.

He could neither read nor verbally communicate with any particular competence, and his general knowledge and literacy was quite limited. What caught the eye of the amateur sociologists who eventually took him in hand was his extraordinary grasp of numbers. He saw the world in numbers, instinctively understanding their relative proportions and their progressive denominations. The first recorded incident of this was his precise measurement of a tract of land of some one thousand acres, simply by waking over it. His first measurement was in acres, but then he narrowed it down to roods and perches, common measurements of the time, and then square inches, and finally hair’s breadths.

Bearing in mind that mathematics, although taught in rural schools, was understood on only a rudimentary level, and moreover, that Buxton had no real education at all, it is easy to see that such an odd preoccupation could be construed as madness. When he appeared in London in 1754, however, he became an object of fascination to contemporary scholars, and was granted a gratuity simply to be available for study, and to further develop his mathematical genius. A generation or two earlier he may well have been banished or burned at the stake, but thanks to enlightenment, he is now remembered as one of the greatest minds in history.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Voltaire, one of the great Enlightenment thinkers. National Post

Voltaire, leader of the enlightened generation

It is hard, perhaps impossible to quantify the gift that Enlightenment bestowed on the human race. It was thanks to a generation of men, and women, painfully groping free of the shackles of the Dark Ages, who introduced these monumental changes. Religion, of course, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, ruled the known world during those depressing times, and it was Voltaire who put things in perspective with his now famous comment: ‘A man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle.’

Voltaire was the nom de plume François-Marie Arouet, described usually as a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher. He is remembered for his many works of literature and philosophy, and also for his sparkling wit, which produced such memorable comments as that concerning French admirals. ‘Every now and then we should hang one. It would do wonders for the morale of the others.’

Closer to the bone, however, were such comments as: ‘Judge a man by his questions, not his answers’, and ‘The hallmark of a free society is that I may totally disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it until I die.’

This was, and is the stuff of Enlightenment. To quantify Voltaire’s individual genius is easy enough: he did what was required of him by his generation with brilliance, flair and an uncanny depth of understanding. However, simple quotes such as these do not answer to the quantum leap of consciousness that Voltaire and others made. In the Dark Ages, decrying religion, simply upon the basis of dissent, was punishable by an awful death, and it took a great deal of courage and moral surety to for the pioneers of Enlightenment to do so.

Voltaire died in 1778, a decade before the French revolution. In that brilliant age, such simple concepts as human rights, individual liberty, freedom of worship and freedom from tyranny were reborn. We take such things for granted today, and it is hard to imagine that a few hundred years ago, the world was defined by slavery as a commercial institution, religious persecution and routine punishment so ghastly as to defy imagination.

Voltaire produced major works of literature, both literary and philosophical, but it was in his actions that one can read the progression of his mind. He was a deist, taking the view that God exists is some form of creation, but not as a factor of day-to-day life. He defended freedom of religious expression, adopted vegetarianism, and by extension animal rights, and was admiring of the Hindu as a ‘peaceful and innocent people, equally incapable of hurting others or of defending themselves.’

Enlightenment no doubt would have come to the world without the intercession of the likes of Voltaire, but never without the midwifery of great genius. Innovation and progression are the by-product of original thought, and surprisingly rare that is. Voltaire was one of the great original thinkers.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Ibn Rushd, standing on the transfer of knowledge from East to West. Destination KSA

Ibn Rushd, a great Islamic scholar and philosopher

One of the earliest enlightenment philosophers was René Descartes, who gave us the immortal phrase: ‘Cogito ergo sum’, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Such a simple philosophical concept contains within it millennia of accumulated thought. Reason, and the ability to reason, opened the door of human consciousness, allowing our species to embark upon a journey into the universal.

The Islamic world, or the Arab world perhaps, gifted the human race with many of its original concepts of medicine, hygiene, calculation, mathematics, literacy and law. There are numerous Arab and Islamic scholars and philosophers to chose from, but we have chosen Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, better known in philosophical circles simply as ‘Averroes’.

This gift of Arab philosophy to the west very much informs the life and career of Averroes, since he was active precisely as Islamic interest in philosophy was waning, and European interest emerging. The centre of Islamic philosophy, and science and arts in the 12th century was Spain, and among the foremost of that school was Ibn Rushd. He was without doubt one of the last, and certainly one of the most influential Muslim philosophers of that vital, transitionary period.

He was a jurist and a physician, and if he is remembered for anything, it is his re-examination of classical philosophy, and his juxtaposition of that against an ideal Islam. He was intercepted by conservative elements of his faith, and he therefore stood very much for a dying tradition within Islam. In this regard, he is also viewed as one of the great Islamic scholars, and again, one hailing back to a regime of freer thinking and more open expression. He nonetheless alerted an emerging school of European philosophy to something that had almost been forgotten in time. Classical philosophy. The great European philosophical revival had begun.

This, however, reflects on Averroes’ career mainly for the effect that it had on others. The specific merits of his work are that he was a polymath, supremely competent, original in thought and accomplished in numerous professional fields. His field of study was broad, and his originality of thought still echoes through many modern philosophical concepts that we all take for granted today. It is also an ironic fact that a watered down version of his message is claimed by Islam today, and a much-embellished version claimed by Christendom. He certainly was a man for all seasons.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Aristotle, the father of modern philosophy, according to some at least. Maya, Inca, Aztec

Aristotle, one of the originals

We place Aristotle here, not because he exactly belongs here, but because he was the foundation of Averroes’ work, and a discussion of one somewhat leads into a discussion of the other. However, Aristotle was a member of a great club of philosophers of which he was neither the founder nor leader. He was a student of Plato, who was in turn a protégé of Socrates, and collectively, these three men represent the acme of ancient Greek philosophy.

It would be pointless to delve into any discussion of the nature of this philosophy here, but of what Aristotle gave to the world, and to where his creativity wandered, Aristotle is best known for his views on virtuousness. This, of course, is what made him popular with the Catholic Church, and when the suppression of knowledge stopped being practical, the Church attempted to own all knowledge by seconding one of its most famous proprietors. Aristotle advocated a strong personal and moral constitution, and the exercise of personal moderation in both thought and action.

In his life, he was offered the opportunity to do a great deal of thinking and writing while he tutored the young Alexander, upon a commission from Philip of Macedonia. One can imagine that his pupil was impatient of study, and subsequently not around much. And then later, during Alexander’s long absence from Macedonia, Aristotle remained at liberty to think more, and to write more, and his output was prodigious.

One of the frustrating things about trying to quantify polymathy is that it contains no single element, but an abundance of just about everything. Aristotle’s writing, however, reveal a man with an insatiable interest in, and a desire to master every discipline that he encountered. Technical treatise on everything from nature to astronomy are punctuated by frequent long and abstract speculations of a very general nature. In fact, if one was to pinpoint one area that commanded his interest most, it would certainly be the natural world. One-quarter of his surviving works, for example, are on the subject of biology.

According to Posterior Analytics, one of the better-known work of Aristotle: ‘A science can be set out as an axiomatic system in which necessary first principles lead by inexorable deductive inferences to all of the truths about the subject matter of the science.’

Logic and deductive reasoning, those two great enablers of scientific knowledge, can be attributed to Aristotle as much as to Plato and Socrates. Once armed with basic those tools of scholarship, the advent of our modern world of liberty and technology was simply a matter of time.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Galileo Galilei, a man prepared to risk his skin for the truth. Newsela

Galileo Galilei, a man too far ahead of his times

Here we have another of the great polymaths of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, representing the scientific achievements of the Renaissance. Galileo described himself as an astronomer, but besides that, he was so much more. His was an age of transition from natural philosophy to modern science. This is easily said, but against the dark and dangerous backdrop of the Middle Ages, to advance in such major degrees towards the basis of modern science was both profoundly courageous and unimaginably brilliant. This is simply part of the marvel of this elite club of men, Leonardo da Vinci among them.

This may have been the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment, but ignorance certainly still had a solid grip on the minds of the masses, and in particular the mind of the Church. Galileo’s revolutionary work in optics caused him to observe celestial movement more acutely, and from that he concluded that all things did not revolve around the earth, but that the earth revolved around the sun. This, of course, quickly put him at odds with the Catholic Church, a story that has ever since been a parable of the power of ignorance over knowledge.

The concept of ‘heliocentrism’ was naturally classified as heresy, and heresy carried with it very notable risks. In 1616, Galileo was summoned to appear before the inquisition, but on this occasion he was not interrogated, but simply warned to abandon the whole idea. Nicolaus Copernicus’ book ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ had been banned that same year, and the climate was certainly not friendly towards radical ideas challenging established church doctrine.

All of this, however, Galileo ignored, and sixteen years later, he produced his landmark Dialogue on the Two World Systems, which proved he had not desisted in this provocative area of study at all. Needless to say, before long he was seated once again before a panel of inquisitors. This time he was prosecuted, and clearly the threat was intimidating. In a plea bargain, he distanced himself from his concept of heliocentrism, and this managed to slip through the net. He was imprisoned for a day, and committed to house arrest, where he maintained his scientific position on earth and sun rather more quietly.

Nonetheless, he continued to develop the concept, passing it on to the next generation, occupying his mind in the meanwhile with the million and one things that polymaths have to think, very deeply, about.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 photograph Hypatia, one of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of the Alexandrian Period. Wikicommons

Hypatia, one of the great thinkers of ancient Alexandria

One of the most enduring legacies of Alexander the Great is the legendary Egyptian seaport of Alexandria. The city was established for all of its proximities to east and west. It was also founded as a centre of thought and reason, and thus it remained for a very long.

Philosophy during the early fifth century was very much a male preserve, and very sporadic was the input of women. One of the great thinkers of the Alexandrian period, however, was Hypatia, incidentally credited with devising the earth-centric model of the universe that would not be overturned for almost a millennia, causing a great deal of risk and trouble to none other than Galileo and Copernicus.

Born sometime between 250 and 370 CE, she was the daughter of the Alexandrian philosopher Theon, and as such, she grew up in the rarefied atmosphere of scholarship and learning. Theon produced the first working astrolabe, among other advances in the field of astronomy. His daughter no doubt absorbed all of this, and perhaps her greatest contribution was made in the field of astronomy, and moreover, it has been suggested as likely that she was in part responsible for the development of the astrolabe. She also made a great, individual contribution to the field of modern mathematics.

The times, however, were turbulent, and with the advance of Christianity throughout the civilized world, and as avowed pagan, and a female teacher, mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia was positioned for an uncomfortable ride towards the end of her life. She emerged somewhat as the poster child for for the surviving creed of organized paganism, and this made her a specific target as Christianity’s takeover became increasingly more violent, and less tolerant. In the year 415 CE, she was murdered by radical Christian monks who tortured her, stoned her with slate, stripped her bones of flesh and burned the mutilated remains.

It was a messy business, and this was more or less the end of the free-thinking age of scholarship and philosophy, commencing the slow, intellectual decline of the Middle Ages.

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Michelangelo, one of the most recognizable genius’ of history. Biography

Michelangelo, probably the best

We are going to leap forward now to the period of intellectual re-emergence, and the casting off of the ignorance of the Dark Ages that began as Hypatia breathed her last. Michelangelo represents the absolute acme of Renaissance artistic achievement. The soil from which his genius grew was a congruence of wealth, leisure and intellectual and philosophical liberation. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom, and the availability of patronage triggered the creative explosion that was the Renaissance. Ironically, it was the Roman Church, hitherto responsible for suppressing individual creativity, that suddenly became the major patron of arts, offering wide latitude of subject matter and interpretation.

But, of course, there was much more to it than just that. Whatever touches a generation or an era to produce such a concentration of virtuosity is impossible to quantify, but Michelangelo certainly did not live in a vacuum of genius. The Renaissance hailed back to that other age of intellectual brilliance, the classical period, and certainly Michelangelo’s work was deeply influenced by classical form and technique. Michelangelo was not merely a genius, but a polymath, for the scope of his work extends far beyond the more commonly recognized works of art that he is responsible for. Although not quite as versatile as Aristotle, nor as densely productive as Leonardo da Vinci, he nonetheless produced astonishing work in architecture and poetry, as well as in marble and tempera.

But in each of those disciplines, Michelangelo strove towards the same goal, to capture an artistic, indeed a spiritual ideal that he could imperfectly describe in his work, but which he could see in clear, literal terms. This is something invisible to the rest of us, but which great genius understands instinctively.

Indeed, the story goes that when be put down his mallet and chisel, and looked up at the complete David, he was so impressed with its physical perfection that he commanded in to speak. As he himself remarked: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Bertrand Russel, a very English kind of genius. OTRCAT

Bertrand Russell, from the English school of clever chaps

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy describes Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872-1970) as ‘a British philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic best known for his work in mathematical logic and analytic philosophy.’

As usual, such dry descriptions tell only half the story. Russell himself tended to present his ideas in crisp and amusing terms, and one gets the feeling that an evening in his company would have been worth the going rate at the time. ‘The whole problem with the world.’ He once remarked. ‘Is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.’

He also was of the modern British school of philosophy, influenced by the great universities of the age, and as such his work is technical, and for the most part wholly inaccessible to the lay philosopher. He worked in the areas of logic, specifically the position that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to logic. He refined Gottlob Frege’s predicate calculus, which apparently still remains at the root of contemporary systems of logic. He championed the concept of neutral monism, which is the notion that the world consists of a single type of substance, which is neither exclusively mental nor exclusively physical. When time allowed, he explored definite descriptions, logical atomism and logical types.

You get the idea. Bertrand Russell was no polymath, but he certainly was a man of notable genius. In the course of a long career – he was ninety-seven when he died – he made notable contributions to subjects and diverse as ethics, politics, educational theory, the history of ideas and religious studies.

His great advantage, however, was that, like Voltaire, he wrote with flair and wit, and his many writings on many themes were read as much for their didactic value as their creative brilliance. He was not without controversy, however, for a man with such a powerful intellect, educated to the degree that he was, he was apt to be both supremely self-confident and entirely unafraid of stirring up heresy. He was dismissed from both Trinity College, Cambridge, and City College, New York, which was an achievement he was extremely proud of. At the age of seventy-seven, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and ended his days on the front line of the anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Some words of wisdom from Bertrand Russell to end:

‘It may seem to some that I care only about knowledge and reason. That is not so. I know how precarious is the foundation of knowledge in the mind of man; that each of us knows the world through our senses and that we may be deceived as to the nature of reality. But it is impossible to live without faith in a world beyond our individual sense perceptions. We cannot possess knowledge of ‘right and wrong’ but we are bound to have opinions. And we are such that reason is the mere servant of passion.’

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Albert Einstein, the original genius. Yousuf Karsh

Albert Einstein, the Original Brainiac

When you think of Albert Einstein you think immediately of a clever guy. Ask a challenging question, and you might well get the reply ‘Who do you think I am, Einstein?’

Einstein belongs in this list because he is the poster child of groundbreaking intelligence, and although his theory of relativity is not quite so infallible now as it was a few decades ago, it is still the last word in what sheer mental computation can achieve if you have enough of it.

In a nutshell Einstein, born in 1879, was a German-born theoretical physicist who devised the most famous equation of all time. He emigrated from Germany to the United States, ostensibly to escape the difficulties created by his Jewish heritage. By then he was a Nobel laureate, and already highly respected in his field. As a physicist, Einstein was responsible for many important discoveries, but it was the theory of relativity, and the E+MC2 equation that cemented his reputation.

Relativity is described by dictionary.com as ‘…the modern theory of gravitation, proposed in 1915, also by Albert Einstein. The central point of the theory is the principle of general relativity, which states that all observers, regardless of their state of motion, will see the same laws of physics operating in the universe.

This would seem an obscure point to base a career, but when in possession of an intellect of such scope as his, then the world, and the universe that contains it is a more accessible place.

Einstein was also a cult figure, and a personality of popular culture. He had a touch of the celebrity about him, and his odd hair-do and his Chaplinesque persona somewhat offset the deep intellectual world within which he lived. When asked once to explain his theory of relativity, he replied, ‘put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty women for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That is relativity!’

10 of the Greatest Minds of History
Leonardo d Vinci, the first and last renaissance Man. Wikicommons

Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest of them all

If you run a search of the greatest polymaths of all time, and everyone from The ‘Artist Formerly Known as Prince’ to Steve Jobs will pop up as a possible candidate. However, among the handful of constants will at all times be Aristotle, Plato and Michelangelo, almost always led by the charismatic, multi-faceted genius of Leonardo da Vinci. And where do we go from here. Do you need me to tell you that da Vinci was an Italian renaissance ‘creator’, responsible for everything from the Mona Liza to early helicopter flight? No indeed, we all know that Leonardo applied his creative genius to everything from human anatomy to powered flight. In fact, it was he who gifted the world with the word ‘Renaissance Man’, a more colourful version of the word polymath.

The Bizarre thing about Leonardo is that he has left an almost empty record of his day to day life, so as a consequence not much is known about him. He was born in the hamlet of Vinci, just outside Florence. At age fifteen he was apprenticed to the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, launching the career of one of history’ most enigmatic genius. The great works of art of Leonardo were something of a by-product of his more intimate fascinations. Historian Kenneth Clark once remarked that posterity was left much poorer for the fact that Leonardo painted so little, and wasted so much time pursuing his hobbies of engineering, architecture, pageantry, military strategy, cartography, etc etc

This certain was Leonardo, but he also was a Renaissance Man in the more contemporary sense of the word. He was gay, vegetarian and extremely flamboyant, erratic in his work habits and infuriatingly difficult for anyone the, or now, to pin down. At the age of twenty-four, he was accused and charged with sodomy against a seventeen-year-old boy. A co-defendant happened to be related to the Medici family, and the whole thing was swept under the carpet.

‘Whoever does not curb lustful desires puts himself on the level of beasts,’ he once wrote, acknowledging also that his penis ‘possesses a life and an intelligence separate from the man.’

Unsurprisingly Leonardo, like Michelangelo, created infinitely more erotic portrayals of the male than the female form

Of all of the many threads of Leonardo’s polymathy, it is in anatomy that his most detailed and brilliant work was done. With his busy intellect, he delved deeper into the question of form and proportion than any other artist of the age. ‘From the top of the ear to the top of the head is equal to the distance from the bottom of the chin to the duct of the eye.’

Of all that he did investigate and report upon, there seems to also be much that he did not have time for. A scribbled not survives reminding himself to ‘Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock … Observe the goose’s foot … Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.’

Of all that Leonardo neglected to do, the most tragic is that he never wrote a memoir. One can only imagine that a Leonardian journey of introspection would have been a book very much worth reading, and one that would have done away with the centuries of speculated that has come about as a consequence.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“13 Most Intelligent People In The History Of The World.” Finances Online

“The Greatest Minds of All Time.” Ranker, Walter Graves.

“Who are the women polymaths?” Quora

“Voltaire.” Biography, March 2018

“Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, H. Chad Hillier, University of Toronto

“Introduction to Aristotle.” University of Washington, S. Marc Cohen, Department of Philosophy, 2005

“The truth about Galileo and his conflict with the Catholic Church.” UCLA Newsroom, Jessica Wolf, December 2016

“Bertrand Russell.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 1995