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The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand His World

The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand His World

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by Daniel J. Boorstin

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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

From the author of The Discoverers and The Creators, an incomparable history of man's essential questions: "Who are we?" and "Why are we here?"

Daniel J. Boorstin, the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Americans, introduces us to some of the great pioneering seekers


A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

From the author of The Discoverers and The Creators, an incomparable history of man's essential questions: "Who are we?" and "Why are we here?"

Daniel J. Boorstin, the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Americans, introduces us to some of the great pioneering seekers whose faith and thought have for centuries led man's search for meaning.

Moses sought truth in God above while Sophocles looked to reason. Thomas More and Machiavelli pursued truth through social change. And in the modern age, Marx and Einstein found meaning in the sciences. In this epic intellectual adventure story, Boorstin follows the great seekers from the heroic age of prophets and philosophers to the present age of skepticism as they grapple with the great questions that have always challenged man.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Impressive. . . . Boorstin reminds us what intellectual history on the grand scale looks like." —The New York Times Book Review

"Unexcelled. . . . [It] confirms Boorstin's rank as one of the giants of twentieth-century American scholarship."  —George F. Will

"Delivered with . . . skill, unalloyed admiration, and a keen eye for detail." —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"An admirable volume, thoroughly researched and beautifully arranged." —Washington Times

NY Times Book Review
An impressive conclusion to a grand trilogy. . .The three books together [The Seekers, The Creators and The Discoverers] bring to mind a monumental library whose facade is decorated by statues of Moses, Socrates and Newton and whose reading room is framed by murals depicting the Progress of Technology and Law. In an age of Alexandrian pedantry and narrow specialization in the academy, Boorstin has slowly and carefully built a Library of Alexandria open to the public, a library, that is, without walls.
Michael Lind
The Seekers is an impressive conclusion to a grand trilogy and a grand career....In an age of Alexandrian pedantry and narrow specialization in the academy, Boorstin has slowly and carefully built a Library of Alexandria open to the public, a library, that is, without walls. -- New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In The Discoverers (1983), Boorstin introduced readers to scientists, explorers, historians and other pursuers of knowledge. Ten years later, The Creators did the same for innovators in art. "We glory in their discoveries and creations," he writes in the introduction to his latest, "But we are all Seekers. We all want to know why." Starting from that perhaps overbroad premise, Boorstin begins with an examination of Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers--those who seek from a higher authority and those who seek from within. From this point on there are rather few religious seekers; instead most are philosophers of systems, of systems for discovering truth (the reason of Descartes, the empiricism of Locke, the individual experience of Kierkegaard) or for describing it (the encyclopedia of Diderot, the cultural cycles of Spengler, Hegel's World-Spirit). Certain subjects seem rather out of place, and chapters like that on H.G. Wells and John Reed, another on Oliver Wendell Holmes and E.O. Wilson; and individual chapters on Samuel Beckett, Lord Acton and Andre Malraux, have the feel of an insatiable polymath's chapbook. There are many movements, many people and many big ideas here, all expounded with Boorstin's characteristic enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge. It's perhaps inevitable that in such a broad survey some simplification would slip in--e.g., identifying 13th-century universities as centers for training gentlemen, rather than for offering professional training in theology, law and medicine. But what Boorstin does so well is bring together many ideas that fertilize and cross-fertilize the reader's imagination and curiosity. Author tour. (Sept.)
This is former Library of Congress chief Boorstin's third book in a series that includes The Discoverers and The Creators. The three overlap like shingles, says Boorstin, and share a time frame "from antiquity to the present." He does not lay claim to all the answers: "we see how we have come from seeking meaning to finding meaning in the seeking." He begins by pointing to the biblical seers and prophets, who began, as did many ancients, with efforts to divine the future, then segued to speaking for God. Under the rubric of "seeking," he traces the phenomenon through the Greek philosophers, then through the Christian movement in both its Catholic and Protestant permutations. In the second half of the book, he moves to communal search, where, despite his use of the word communal, he continues to focus on individuals as they evolved methods of learning. He devotes chapters to thinkers most educated persons would recognize: Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Virgil, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and Descartes. He discusses "The Liberal Way," which includes Machiavelli, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Hegel. He moves on to those who articulated modern ideas of progress: Marx, Darwin, Spengler, Toynbee. "Sanctuaries of Doubt" are exemplified by Carlyle, Emerson, Kierkegaard, and James. The process of seeking continued through Acton, Malraux, Bergson, and Einstein. There is an interesting range as various disciplines pushed themselves to the fore: religion, philosophy, reason, science, politics, sociology. Boorstin gives an interesting perspective on how ideas have shaped human history and destiny. He does not deal with non-western cultures except as the western impactsthem. He does not project a longing for things as they once were; he sees seeking as an exciting process that will continue. This book will serve well in overviews of the history of significant ideas and their impact on the development of human society. AP high school students will find it accessible because it links abstract ideas to persons and events. All willing to devote some effort will find it an intriguing way to interpret their world today. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Random House/Vintage, 351p, 21cm, 98-15430, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Edna M. Boardman; former Lib. Media Spec., Magic City Campus, Minot, ND, July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
Library Journal
In this third volume of a trilogy that began with The Discoverers (LJ 3/1/85) and The Creators (LJ 8/92), Boorstin (formerly Librarian of Congress) is concerned with those seekers of the Western world whom he finds most helpful in his search for meaning and purpose in history. This is an account, generally chronological, of how the Western world's heritage of ideas of meaning and purpose was shaped by the thinking of the great philosophers and religious leaders from ancient times to the present. Until the rise of scientific thinking in the 17th century, Boorstin observes, answers were sought from history and human events, but in modern times, ideologies and dogmas overcame that way of thinking. The writing has a sweeping, didactic tone. A suitable but not mandatory choice for academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/98.]--Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York
School Library Journal
YA-The Seekers is the final book of Boorstin's trilogy, the previous two being The Discoverers (1983) and The Creators (1992, both Random). In his earlier volumes, the author recounts "our legacy of the sciences and the arts...discoveries and creations." This book deals with the question of our existence and the great figures in history who have probed its mysteries. "Book One: An Ancient Heritage" includes the prophets (Moses, Isaiah, Job); the philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle); early Christianity (church, monastery, and university); and Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin. "Book Two: Communal Search" deals with Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Virgil, Thomas More, Bacon, Descartes, Machiavelli, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Hegel. "Book Three: Paths to the Future" brings us into the 20th century with Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, Carlyle, Emerson, Kierkegaard, William James, Acton, Malraux, and Bergson, and concludes with Einstein. Boorstin's engaging narrative will help young adults unravel the arcane literature of the past and perhaps spark interest in subjects otherwise thought beyond their reach.-Pamela B. Rearden, Centreville Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Unabashedly Eurocentric, unashamedly positivist, and surprisingly short, Boorstin's follow-up to his bestselling The Discoverers (1983) and The Creators (1992) addresses the history of ideas as though it were a two-millennia brainstorming session.

At about half the length of his previous volumes of intellectual history, The Seekers is no less encyclopedic in its overall structure but considerably less detailed and encompassing. In tackling Western thought with his characteristic vividness and clarity, Boorstin divides up his history into three sections: antiquity's foundations in the biblical, classical, and medieval traditions; the evolution of political science from Thucydides and Machiavelli to Rousseau; and modern thinkers' branching quests for truth, whether Emerson's Transcendentalism or William James's pragmatism. Though Boorstin has equal attraction to the charms of medieval and Enlightenment thought and as much liking for Thomas Aquinas as Lord Acton, the book's highlight comes early in the Hellenic age. His stimulating chronicle of the intellectual lineage of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, put Boorstin's talents for sketching character and revivifying history on full display. Speeding through the following ages, Boorstin's summaries and simplifications keep up the pace of reading and advance the march of ideas, though one can argue with, say, his skimming over Marx's economic shortsightedness in favor of apocalyptic revolution or disregarding Einstein's unwillingness to accept quantum mechanics.

Given Boorstin's declared idiosyncratic approach, no reader should be surprised to find gaping omissions, such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell, whom Boorstin quotes extensively on other philosophers but otherwise ignores as to both his rigorous philosophical career and his restless, searching life. A readably sweeping history (with some sweeping generalizations) of the intellectual move from "Why?" to "How?"

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Read an Excerpt


We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret.
—Symmachus, on replacing the statue of victory in the roman forum, a.d. 384

Great Seekers never become obsolete. Their answers may be displaced, but the questions they posed remain. We inherit and are enriched by their ways of asking. The Hebrew prophets and the ancient Greek philosophers remain alive to challenge us. Their voices resound across the millennia with a power far out of proportion to their brief lives or the small communities where they lived. Christianity brought together their appeal to the God above and the reason within—into churches, monasteries, and universities that long survived their founders. These would guide, solace, and confine Seekers for the Western centuries.



When we do science, we are pantheists;
when we do poetry, we are polytheists;
when we moralize we are monotheists.
—Goethe, Maxims and Reflections


From Seer to Prophet: Moses' Test of Obedience

The future has always been the great treasure-house of meaning. People everywhere, dissatisfied with naked experience, have clothed the present with signs of things to come. They have found clues in the lives of sacrificial animals, in the flight of birds, in the movements of the planets, in their own dreams and sneezes. The saga of the prophets records efforts to cease being the victim of the gods' whims by deciphering divine intentions in advance, toward becoming an independent self-conscious self, freely choosing beliefs.

The Mesopotamians experimented with ways to force from the present the secrets of the future. Diviners watched smoke curling up from burning incense, they interpreted the figures on clay dice to give a name to the coming year. They answered questions about the future by pouring oil into a bowl of water held on their lap and noting its movement on the surface or toward the rim.

The Hebrew scriptures leave traces of how they too sensed the divine intention, and gave today's experience the iridescence of tomorrow. Jacob "dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, 'I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.' " And the chief priest used the Urim and Thummim, sacred stones carried in his breastplate. These gave the divine answer, by whether the "yes" or the "no" stone was first drawn out.

David consulted just such an oracle, manipulated by the priest Abiathar, before going into battle against Saul. When the "yes" stone appeared, forecasting his victory over the Philistines, he advanced in battle.

"A man who is now called a 'prophet' (nabi)," we read in the Book of Samuel, "was formerly called a 'seer.' " The "seer" was one who saw the future, and his influence came from his power to predict. The priest-predictor who admitted his clients into the intentions of the gods was held in awe when his predictions came true. The prophet had a different kind of power. He was a nabi ("proclaimer" or "announcer") and spoke with the awesome authority of God himself. So, the ancient Hebrew prophets opened the way to belief. "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, . . ." declared the Lord, "and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him" (Deuteronomy 18:18). They used the words "mouth" and "nabi" interchangeably. Our English "prophet" (from the Greek: a speaker before, or for) carries the same message.

While the seer forecast how events would turn out, the prophet prescribed what men should believe, and how they should behave. In ancient Israel the two roles at first were not always easily distinguished. But seers, mere forecasters, came to be displaced by prophets, touched by the divinity for whom they spoke.

It was this transformed role that opened the way to the discovery of belief, toward the self-consciousness that awakened people to their freedom to choose, and their responsibilities for choice. The history of ancient
Hebrew prophecy is a saga of this unfolding self. The seers, adept at interpreting signs and omens, sometimes drew on their own dreams and visions of ghosts and spirits for sights of the future. The seer could see things on earth that others could not see. But the prophet carried messages from another world. It is not surprising, then, that this "Man of the Spirit" heard his message in ecstasy and so seemed "touched" with madness.

His ecstasy was commonly a group phenomenon, sometimes expressed in song. This view of the prophet as messenger of God is distinctively biblical. With it came distrust of the techniques and tricks of the seer-the ways of the pagan Canaanite.

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don't follow the disgusting practices of the nations that are there. Don't sacrifice your children in the fires on your altars; and don't let your people practice divination or look for omens or use spells or charms, and don't let them consult the spirits of the dead. . . . In the land you are about to occupy, people follow the advice of those who practice divination and look for omens, but the Lord your God does not allow you to do this.

Instead, he will send you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your own people, and you are to obey him. (Deuteronomy 18:9-22)

When the founding prophet, Moses, spoke to the Pharaoh he spoke for God:

"Thus said Yahweh." And it was through the prophets that God governed His people. What proved crucial for the future of belief in the West was the Hebraic ideology that came with the Mosaic religion. The single all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent God would impose on mankind the obligation of belief-and eventually of choice. This "ethical monotheism" would create its own conundrums.

When the prophet brought no mere blueprint of the future but the commandments of God, he offered a new test of the believer, the Test of Obedience. Moses, who had seen God face-to-face, brought the Ten Commandments direct from God on Sinai. The first five commandments-prohibiting the worship of alien gods, forbidding idolatry and blasphemy, commanding observance of the Sabbath and honor to parents-affirmed the traditions of their society. But the remaining five commandments, all cast in the negative-prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false testifying, and the coveting of neighbors' goods-emphasize the freedom of the hearer to choose a way of right belief and so avoid sin. The Ten Commandments thus made obedience the mark of the believer. This idea would become, millennia later, the very heart of Islam (from Arabic, for "resignation," surrendering to God's will).

But another distinctive element of the Mosaic religion would open the gateways of belief. The intimate God of Moses had mysteriously shared powers with his creatures. He even treated his people as his equals by covenanting with them. The supreme paradox was that this all-powerful Creator-God sought a voluntary relation with his creatures. And the relation between God and his chosen people, the Children of Israel, was to be freely chosen on both sides. "If you listen to these commands and obey them faithfully, then the Lord your God will continue to keep his covenant with you and will show you his constant love, as he promised your ancestors." This peculiar covenant relationship between God and his creatures proclaimed God's preference for a freely given obedience. This signaled the divine intention that man's life should be ruled by his choices and was the historic Hebrew affirmation of free will. As the ancient Hebrews were His chosen people, so He was their chosen God.

About the eighth century b.c. the oracles of the Hebrew prophets were written down by the prophets or their scribes. Then the prophets assumed a role beyond the community where they lived to whom God had first addressed

His message. The prophet's oracles now addressed all who would know his words-even far beyond his own time and place. So the utterances of prophets became an enduring prophetic literature. And the words of the prophets became a body of divine teachings valid for people everywhere. Thus writing expanded tribal revelations into a world religion. Such a transformation had occurred before when the utterances of Zarathustra (late second millennium b.c.) became the foundations of Zoroastrianism. It would occur later, too, with the recording of the words of Jesus, and then with the utterances of Mohammed in the seventh century.

Meet the Author

Daniel J. Boorstin was the author of The Americans, a trilogy (The Colonial Experience; The National Experience, and The Democratic Experience) that won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1989, he received the National Book Award for lifetime contribution to literature. He was the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and for twelve years served as the Librarian of Congress. He died in 2004.

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