If a reader says that a particular work he had read is a book for all times, one would feel that it is a blurb. But that verdict could also be a viewpoint tightly gripped by that reader. I too felt the same on rereading Makers of the Western Tradition as compiled by T Kelly Sowards. It is a work that covers 25 portraits from history; from Akhenaton, the heretic king to Albert Einstein, and the atomic age, raising various types of social issues that sprang up from time to time. At the outset, the researcher cum compiler in his preface raises a question: are men and women able to force change upon history by their skill and wits, their nerve and daring? Are they capable of altering its course by their actions? Or are they hopelessly caught up in the grinding process of great impersonal forces over which they have no real control? Having raised these questions, Sowards responds:

“Historians, like theologians, philosophers and scientists, have long been fascinated by this question. People in every age have recognized great forces at work, in their affairs, whether they perceived those forces as supernatural and divine, climatological or economic.”

Historical trends

On scanning the pages, the reader feels that Sowards selects these portraits from history representing a variety of facets that enable the reader to delve more in each subject area. The reader feels that the purpose of the compilation is to examine the functions and the impact of the selected persons who significantly influenced the historical trends of the western civilization or who embodied much that is significant about the periods in which they lived, and at the same time to introduce the reader at large to the chief varieties of historical and cultural interpretation.

On tracing the image of Socrates, the great philosopher, as one of the main trendsetters, the compiler takes into account the satirical play as written by Aristophanes on Socrates in order to ridicule the vision of the latter. The short play is left as it is to help the reader to gauge the impact it had on the vision of Socrates. Followed by this episode, comes the comments of Plato the chief pupil who wrote down what Socrates said. 

The reader comes to grips with Plato’s Apology to feel the sensitive pulse of what Socrates had uttered. Followed by these comes a learned essay titled Socrates: A Modern Perspective by Moses Hades and Morton Smith. This is an assessment as well as an evaluation of Socrates, the thinker and the vision as it applies to the modern context of knowledge.

Revolutionary figures

Suggestions for further reading provide annotated notes on each portrait covered in the work. This enables the reader to find his own path in the process of knowing more on each portrait drawn from history. Some other portraits covered in the work include Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Napoleon, Lord Byron, Charles Darwin and the Evolutionary Revolution and its impact on the human existence. The portrait of Lenin is presented as an anatomy of a revolutionary as versus Hitler as the nightmare and/or tyranny of the existence.

Finally enters Einstein. It is a portrait representative of an atomic age with a question of human responsibility.

The entire work on the makers of the western tradition is a representative collection which may include a few more as time passes. A few personalities or events stand without comment in the historical record; contemporary as well as controversial documents and records. The reader feels the extent to which a compiler could go on hunting for original sources.

The readings in this work of Sowards have been chosen presumably to help and quite the discerning the reader to explore more from other sources. Most of these writings go as pioneer findings that enable explorative research to find more and more sources at his own will. As such, they are not mere biographies nor are they strict historical notes.

Disagreements and controversies

They are mostly pioneer insights to 25 portraits that set a certain type of trend that paved the way for agreement as well as disagreements and controversies. This is clearly noted in the portrait of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Perhaps the historians of the respective culture may have more to state in their own accord.

As the historian, Arnold Toynbee, once remarked, the learning of history underlines the learning of historical portraits and historical trends of nations. In this respect, Sowards represents the Western Tradition in keeping touch with the chief portraits of at least five member countries (France, Russia, England, Greece and Germany).

Needless to say that history covers a galaxy of portraits; some dark and some bright. Each chapter presented with an artist’s vision of a facial profile. The total attempt looked like a resourceful tribute from the past to the present, a gift for all times.

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