On Knowing Everything

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 de Troyes; Leonin; Peter Abelard

13th century: Notre-Dame de Paris; Gottfried von Strassburg; Perotin; Thomas Aquinas; Fibonacci

14th century: Giotto; Chaucer; Machaut; William of Ockham

15th century: Robert Campin; Villon; Ockeghem; Leonardo da Vinci

16th century: Michelangelo; Shakespeare; Lassus; Erasmus; Luther; Copernicus; Machiavelli; Castiglione

17th century: Velásquez; Molière; Monteverdi; Descartes; Newton; Hobbes; Locke

18th century: Jefferson; Fielding; Bach; Kant; Euler; Smith

19th century: Turner; Austen; Beethoven; Kierkegaard; Darwin; Gauss; Marx

20th century: Picasso; Joyce; Bartók; Sartre; Einstein; Heisenberg; Freud

Having listed the artists, composers and authors, we must then choose particular works for each one. Again, I will illustrate with my own choices; other people would clearly produce a different list.

Ancient Greece: Parthenon; Homer, The Odyssey; Sophocles, Oedipus Rex; Plato, The Republic; Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics; Pythagoras; Euclid, Elements; Herodotus, Histories

Ancient Rome: Colosseum; Virgil, The Aeneid; Paul of Tarsus, Epistle to the Romans; Ptolemy, Almagest; Caesar, Commentaries on The Gallic Wars

5th-10th centuries: Book of Kells; Beowulf; Plainsong, Kyrie orbis factor; St. Augustine, The City of God; Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of History

11th century: Bayeux Tapestry; Song of Roland; Rise of Polyphony, Alleluia Justus ut palma; St. Anselm, Proslogion

12th century: St. Sernin de Toulouse; Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart; Leonin, Viderunt omnes; Peter Abelard, Sic et non

13th century: Notre-Dame de Paris; Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan; Perotin, Sederunt principes; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica; Fibonacci, Liber abaci

14th century: Giotto, Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem; Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales; Machaut, Ma fin est mon commencement; William of Ockham, Sum of Logic

15th century: Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece; Villon, Ballade des dames du temps jadis; Ockeghem, Missa prolationum; Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks

16th century: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam; Shakespeare, Hamlet; Lassus, De Profundis; Erasmus, In Praise of Folly; Luther, 95 Theses; Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres; Machiavelli, The Prince; Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

17th century: Velásquez, Las Meninas; Molière, Le Misanthrope; Monteverdi, Orfeo; Descartes, Discourse on the Method; Newton, Principia Mathematica; Hobbes, Leviathan; Locke, 2nd Treatise on Government

18th century: Jefferson, Monticello; Fielding, Tom Jones; Bach, B Minor Mass; Kant, Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals; Euler, The Seven Bridges of Königsberg; Smith, The Wealth of Nations

19th century: Turner, The Slave Ship; Austen, Pride and Prejudice; Beethoven, Symphony No. 9; Kierkegaard, Either/Or; Darwin, On the Origin of Species; Gauss, Theory of the motion of the heavenly bodies; Marx, The Communist Manifesto

20th century: Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; Joyce, Ulysses; Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Sartre, Being and Nothingness; Einstein, General Theory of Relativity; Heisenberg, Uncertainty Principle, Quantum Mechanics; Freud, Interpretation of Dreams

One could easily write a book about each work listed in the grid and, happily, many people have already done that. Our job, remember, is not to become the world expert on each tree in our sample but simply to become well enough acquainted with it that we can make meaningful comparisons with other trees.

Having filled the boxes in our matrix, we are now in a position to make meaningful generalizations, grounded in specific examples. Moving across the matrix, in a latitudinal slice, we can look for general principles underlying all of the works in a particular century. Moving down the matrix, in a longitudinal slice, we can comment on the history of a particular discipline, always using particular works in support of our observations. We may not be able to know everything, but through a study of representative trees, we can make confident assertions about the nature of the forest.

I have attempted this task in the book The Matrix of Western Culture: Perspectives on History, the Arts and Ideas, as an illustration of how one might carry out the process, certainly not as a claim to be the one definitive version. I would welcome the opportunity to see how other people might fill in the matrix as well as how they might introduce their choices of individual works.