Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Heroism of the Individual Discoverer
In his introduction to The Discoverers, “A Personal Note to the Reader,” Daniel J. Boorstin writes “My hero is Man the Discoverer” and continues:
The world we now view from the literate West… had to be opened for us by countless Columbuses.
Boorstin’s approach is biographical, applying the “great man” theory of history to the discoveries of humanity. This theory was popularized by Thomas Carlyle in the nineteenth century and held that, as Carlyle put it, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Nineteenth-century historians tended to document the careers of military leaders such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon, but Boorstin is concerned here with the giants of intellectual history, whom he describes in a similar heroic style.
Christopher Columbus, whose name Boorstin uses in the introduction as synecdoche for all the heroes of the golden age of exploration (though he admits that Vasco da Gama, for instance, achieved far more in the short term) is a good example of the way Boorstin handles his subject. He mentions Columbus almost three hundred times in the course of his narrative, not only as an explorer himself but also in relation to other discoverers, as one of those who benefitted from, tested, improved, and inspired their discoveries. Discussing how sailors, faced with the vast emptiness of the sea, would “seek their bearings in the heavens,” Boorstin remarks:
It is no wonder that astronomy became the handmaiden of the sailor, that the Age of Columbus ushered in the Age of Copernicus.
The heroic, adventurous nature of exploration particularly appeals to Boorstin, and he attends to not only the achievements but also the personal lives, hopes, dreams and frustrations of men such as Columbus, da Gama, Balboa, Magellan, and Cook, all of whom he portrays as larger-than-life characters. He writes about the intellectual lives of Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Einstein in the same heroic spirit. This biographical structure gives The Discoverers the tone of a novel or an adventure story, an effect its author clearly intended.
The Crucial Inventions
Boorstin remarks that he has “included the story of only a few crucial inventions.” These few, however, he regards as truly essential to the story he is telling. They are vital engines of human progress, and he devotes a great deal of time to each one. They are “the clock, the compass, the telescope and the microscope, the printing press and movable type.”
In Book One, for instance, where Boorstin is concerned with time and its measurement, he devotes more than fifty pages to the development of the clock. He explains that he regards the clock and the calendar as innovations of vital importance because:
Only by marking off months, weeks, and years, days and hours, minutes and seconds, would mankind be liberated from the cyclical monotony of nature.
Boorstin begins with the sundial or shadow clock, proceeds to the water clock—so accurate that it was probably not surpassed “until the perfection of the pendulum clock about 1700”—and the hourglass. He then gives detailed descriptions of various types of mechanical clocks, such as clock towers. He goes on to give similarly meticulous accounts of the other crucial inventions with, in each case, an explanation of their importance to mankind, in terms of both convenience and intellectual development. The printing press, for instance, is credited not only with disseminating information more quickly, but with making possible vast schemes of systematization and taxonomic classification which permanently altered the landscape of human knowledge.
The Obstacles to Discovery
Boorstin writes that “The obstacles to discovery—the illusions...
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of knowledge—are also part of our story.” Much of Boorstin’s admiration for the individuals he describes is based on “the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers” in battling the dogmas of their time. Many of his most caustic observations are reserved for religious dogmatism, particularly in Christianity and Islam, which he says often held back progress for hundreds of years. For instance, Boorstin remarks that “fear of blasphemy and heterodoxy kept the printing press out of the Muslim world for centuries.” A whole section of Book One is titled “The Prison of Christian Dogma.” Boorstin particularly blames Christianity for “The Great Interruption,” a period of about a thousand years from the fourth century to the fourteenth when progress in geography and cartography ceased or was even reversed, for “Christian dogma and Biblical lore imposed… figments of the theological imagination on the map of the world.”
Boorstin is tolerant of some superstitions, such as the fantastical tales of mermaids and unicorns which accompanied the golden age of exploration. After all, “Columbus himself reported his encounter with three Sirens.” Generally, however, Boorstin favors the Whig view of history, and he structures his story of human history as one of ever-increasing enlightenment. As such, Boorstin expresses impatience with anything that appears to impede progress.