Aristotle has been described as the last person to know everything there was to be known. To belittle this achievement by supposing that in his day there wasn’t really that much to know is to underestimate the breadth of Aristotle’s knowledge. His writings embraced physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology.
Nowadays, the very idea of knowing everything seems beyond our comprehension. One need only point to Wikipedia to demonstrate how such encyclopedic knowledge far exceeds the capacity of any one individual. We may know a lot about our chosen field, but we should have no illusions: our ignorance vastly exceeds our knowledge.
But isn’t there some way to get a sense of the “big picture”? After all, everyone now carries a mental image of the earth as seen from outer space, a perspective unavailable to-even unimaginable for-people a hundred years ago. Surely there must be some way to achieve a comparable picture of western culture.
Happily, we have a tool not available to Aristotle. Statistics tells us that a carefully selected sample allows us to make valid generalizations about a population. Even if we can’t know all the individual trees, we can get a pretty fair idea of the forest by examining particular specimens.
So how do we choose the specimens for a large-scale perspective of western culture? The matrix-the grid pattern familiar from spreadsheets-offers a powerful tool. Imagine a grid with time on one axis and six categories of culture-Art, Literature, Music, Philosophy & Theology, Science & Mathematics, History & Social Sciences-on the other.
The century offers a convenient, if arbitrary, unit of measurement for time. But when we start trying to fill in the grid, it quickly becomes apparent that the century becomes impractical before around 1000 A.D. For the sake of convenience, we might want to consider Ancient Greece as a single unit, Ancient Rome as another unit, and the Middle Ages (say, the 5th through 10th centuries) as a third unit, before proceeding with one-hundred-year intervals.
Having established an empty grid, the next step is to fill as many of the boxes as we can with separate artists, composers, and authors, corresponding to the individual trees in our forest of western culture. These choices can become highly personal, but we need not claim that our choice is the best possible candidate for that box, only that it be a defensible nominee.
I offer my own grid not to insist on my choices but simply to illustrate the process. (Unfortunately, this site cannot reproduce a matrix, but by viewing the contents of each row you can get an idea of what it might look like.)
Ancient Greece: Parthenon; Homer; Sophocles; Plato; Aristotle; Pythagoras; Euclid; Herodotus
Ancient Rome: Colosseum; Virgil; Paul of Tarsus; Ptolemy; Caesar
5th-10th centuries: Book of Kells; Beowulf; Plainsong; St. Augustine; Gregory of Tours
11th century: Bayeux Tapestry; Song of Roland; Rise of polyphony; St. Anselm
12th century: St. Sernin de Toulouse; Chrétien …