Twelve Against The Gods is an interesting book that takes a look at the lives of twelve people who beat back the challenges of their time and wrote their names in history, sometimes in infamy.
What attracted me to read the book was hearing that it was one of Elon Musk’s favourite books, I had never heard of it before and figured if Elon liked it, then it must be a decent read.
Well, it didn’t disappoint!
I’ll be truthful, it can be hard to read in places due to the style of writing. William Bolitho, the author, tends to use several words when a few would do. There are also a lot of sexist remarks in the book, which was published in 1929 when things were different.
This does not excuse the comments, but it does provide context for why they are in the book. Apart from these quibbles, it’s a great book and different to many that I have read.
The unconventional lives of the twelve figures are dissected as we see how they battled against convention and sought to make their mark on the world.
The figures include Alexander the Great, Casanova and Napoleon among others. It provides a different take on their lives than conventional biographies and shows they have often succumbed to hubris.
Twelve Against The Gods summary
Takeaway 1 Pride comes before the fall
A common theme of the twelve figures featured in the book is that their lives follow a similar arc.
They all display potential in their early lives from varying backgrounds and rise to become influential figures making a mark on history.
Once they have become influential figures, whether due to circumstance or their own hubris, they have a tragic fall from grace.
All of these figures railed against society and believed they were destined to change the world, which it can be argued they did. But, they also pushed the boundaries too far and came crashing down in the end.
It’s similar to the tale of Icarus. All of these figures flew too close to the sun and paid the price in the end.
This is a lesson to be learned. We are never as good, or as great as we think we are.
Life will always find a way of bringing us down a peg or two. Even the greatest rulers and adventurers suffered from this fate.
Humility is the best way to counter this and ensure you don’t suffer a similar fate.
Takeaway 2 Adventure is the pursuit of the young
Another familiar theme that the twelve shares is that they were fond of adventure.
Alexander the Great conquered numerous lands while he was Emperor, as did Napoleon and Charles XII.
Their adventures took them far and wide and allowed them to write their place in history. However, they all did this while they were young.
Bolitho hints at an important of law and society in general. Laws, he states, are made by the old to keep the young in check.
When we are young, we are brash, bold and adventurous. The older we get, the more stoic we become and no longer desire to run off chasing adventures.
There is an argument that you should be adventurous when you are young and I subscribe to this. I spent time backpacking in Australia during my twenties and it was an eye-opening and fulfilling experience.
Now that I am older, I’m not sure I ave the same passion that I did back then. I still enjoy the odd adventure, but I don’t want to base my life around it.
Be adventurous when you can, the older you get, the more you might want to live a quieter life.
Takeaway 3 Adventure is the enemy of law
As mentioned above, Bolitho frames adventure as a battle against the law. It is in the interest of the old and timid to make laws that tame the young and reckless.
“We are born adventurers, and the love of adventures never leaves us till we are very old; old, timid men, in whose interest it is that adventure should quite die out. This is why all the poets are on one side, and all the laws on the other; for laws are made by, and usually for, old men.”
In today’s’ world it’s harder and harder to be an adventurer. The world is smaller and more interconnected than ever before. Fewer unknowns exist in the world thane ver before.
Certainly compared to the world Alexander the Great inhabited, there are fewer places that have not been touched by the spread of humanity.
Nowadays, we are kept in check by jobs, society and borders that did not exist for the majority of civilisation.
It is harder than ever to be an adventurer.
However, it is still possible. The move to working online means people can set up businesses and travel the globe while running them.
I was able to go on a six-month road trip around Europe while running my travel blog at the same time.
Maybe, the age of adventure is coming back as we move away from offices and more to a digital style of working.
The possibility for adventures still remains, but it’s not as easy as it was for Bolitho’s twelve figures!
Twelve Against The Gods review
One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was because it introduced me to several figures who I was unaware of or knew very little about.
I was familiar with Alexander the Great and Casanova, but I knew next to nothing about their lives. While this was the first time I’d come across Charles XII and Lola Montez.
The book gives some great insights into the lives of these figures of history. The theme of the bokk is how they challenged the Gods and went on grand adventures.
Bolitho explore s this well and, in some cases, it’s amazing to see the lengths these people went to for glory for adventure and glory.
One problem with te book is the writing style of Bloitho. It can be hard to follow due to his use of long sentences and falmoyant construction of them.
It’s certainly not like reading Books v Cigarettes by George Orwell, which flows easily. You will have to endeavour through the book, although who knows, you may come to appreciate Bolitho’s style!
Regardless, it’s a fantastic book and if it’s good enough for Elon, it’s good enough for me!
Who should read Twelve against The Gods?
History buffs will love this book and will enjoy swatting up on these twelve famous figures of history.
If you’re an Elon fanboy, you’ll probably enjoy reading Twelve Against The Gods too. The figures portrayed share a few traits with him and probably inform some of his thinking too!