So, Who Are the Ten Most Brilliant Britons of the 20th Century? SATURDAY ESSAY

Daily Mail (London), March 27, 1999 | Go to article overview

So, Who Are the Ten Most Brilliant Britons of the 20th Century? SATURDAY ESSAY


Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

AS WE near the end of the century, many organisations are compiling their centennial - or millennial - lists of 'greats'.

This week Time magazine produced its 20 top intellects of the 20th century.

Seven of the places in this global total were awarded to Britons. But how would we list our greatest brains? What would be our top ten?

When selecting the most powerful British minds of the 20th century, it is vital to cast the net wide. Most such lists tend to concentrate too narrowly on scientists.

But great men of science are often like children outside the specific limits of their speciality.

So breadth and not just depth of intellect is important And I have also awarded the accolade to those who meet three criteria. First, they must possess not just brilliance but power of mind - the ability to grapple with major issues.

Second, they must have the gift of emerging from their own line of work into a wider world - they must be able to communicate what they have discovered to large numbers of people. And, third, they must have used their brains to enlarge our understanding of life in some way.

Once these three tests are applied, it is amazing how quickly most of those with outstanding intellects eliminate themselves.

I am thinking, for instance, of the philosopher A. J. Ayer, the cleverest man I ever knew. But I never heard him make a memorable remark on any matter of life or death.

Many fine minds exhaust their energies grappling with academic problems which seem of no consequence to the rest of us.

My biggest regret, in compiling my list, is that I found it impossible to include any women. It will be totally different in 100 years' time, but in the 20th century, women of great minds, as a rule, simply lacked the opportunities to display them.

I believe that, on balance, women have more interesting minds than men. Given the choice, I would rather converse with a woman than with a man.

And I have known women with minds which were remarkable by any standards.

FOR sheer mental willpower, I have never found the equal of Margaret Thatcher. Her mind is dynamic, persistent and tenacious to an extraordinary degree. She has a sense of scale, which politicians often lack, and can instantly distinguish between what is important and what is secondary. But she is a plodder. I sometimes had to explain a concept to her in words of one syllable before she grasped it.

When it comes to sheer inventiveness, what 20th-century British mind topped Agatha Christie's?

But it is sheer brainpower applied to major matters that qualifies for my list. So here it is - two writers, two philosophers, two academics, two scientists, two statesmen. It includes those who shook the world, those who changed it permanently and those who made it think.

First George Bernard Shaw, playwright, controversialist, non-stop talker, lecturer and know-all. His plays were superb exercises in high-level argument on every issue under the sun, from feminism and God, to war and eternity, but they were also hits - and still are.

Shaw encouraged more people to think seriously on a greater variety of issues than any other man of the century and he did it the easy way by sugaring his intellectual pills with laughter.

Shaw was also vain, self-centred, an exhibitionist and just plain wrong about a whole variety of topics: war, God, Hitler, Stalin, fascism, Communism, sex, capitalism and race. But he devoted his life to making people think - and succeeded.

Second, David Lloyd George, politician, reformer and war winner. No one ever doubted his brain power, or his mesmerism with words. He was universally known as 'the Welsh Wizard'.

Lord Boothby told me that, in 60 years in politics, he never heard such a clever speaker.

He was wonderfully persuasive in cabinet, deadly in controversy, irresistible in private conclave. …

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