The Words and Wisdom of Will Durant


Will & Ariel Durant in their later years

As readers of this blog know the historian and philosopher Will Durant is one of my intellectual heroes. He was not only a great scholar but a wonderful prose stylist and a good and decent man. I first discovered Durant will perusing the University of Missouri library in 1973, my freshman year of college. There I spent my break between classes reading. The first Durant book I discovered was The Mansions of Philosophy : A Survey of Human Life and Destiny. (It was later re-published as Pleasures of Philosophy.) I remember enjoying it tremendously, probably because as a public intellectual he wrote with an accessible style. This was a welcome relief from reading primary sources by academic philosophers.

The next book I remember reading was Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography. I still remember the delight I took in learning that the 28-year-old Will had wed the 15-year-old Ariel, who had roller skated to the ceremony in New York City! Through the years I read many of his books, some of the most memorable being: The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, The Lessons of History, On the Meaning of Life, and The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time.

I have also have perused parts of his magnum opus The Story of Civilization [Volumes 1 to 11] (Hardcover Set 1963-1975) through the years and recently was reading the first volume of that eleven volume work. The first few chapters provide a foundation for the entire series by discussing the economic, political, moral, and mental elements of civilization. Chapter III of this first volume is entitled “The Political Elements of Civilization” and there, on the very first paragraph, I found this:

Man is not willingly a political animal. The human male associates with his fellows less by desire than by habit, imitation, and the compulsion of circumstance; he does not love society so much as he fears solitude… in his heart he is a solitary individual pitted heroically against the world. If the average man had had his way there would probably never have been any state. Even today he resents it, classes death with taxes and yearns for that government which governs least. If he asks for many laws, it is only because he is sure that his neighbor needs them; privately he is an unphilosophical anarchist, and thinks laws in his own case superfluous.

This quote, like as so much of Durant’s prose, conveys sentiments that my sixty years of living confirm. Yet the human male (and female) change over time and the above is much less true of their older versions. Anarchy, war, and competition appeals less as vitality declines–people do generally mellow with age.

More than 600 pages later in the same volume, after Durant has made his way through the political and economic machinations, the wars and the cruelty, as well as the triumphs of Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, Judea, Persia and India, I came to China and the old master Lao Tzu. There I found another kernel of wisdom in Durant’s assessment of Taosim:

There is something medicinal in this philosophy; we suspect that we, too, when our fires begin to burn low, shall see wisdom in it, and shall want the healing peace of uncrowded mountains and spacious fields. Life oscillates between Voltaire and Rousseau, Confucius and Lao-tze, Socrates and Christ. After every idea has had its day with us and we have fought for it not wisely or too well, we in our turn shall tire of the battle, and pass on to the young our thinning fascicle of ideals. Then we shall take to the woods with Jacques, Jean-Jacques, and Lao-tze; we shall make friends of the animals, and discourse more contentedly than Machiavelli with simple peasant minds; we shall leave the world to stew in its own deviltry, and shall take no further thought of its reform. Perhaps we shall burn every book but one behind us, and find a summary of wisdom in the Tao-Te-Ching.

One lucky autumn day in 1973 I strolled into a public library and found Will Durant. I thank him for being there and I thank the civilization that made him accessible to me.

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1. Will Durant. The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, (New York: Simon  & Schuster, 1932) 21.
2. Will Durant. The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, (New York: Simon  & Schuster, 1932) 657.

3 thoughts on “The Words and Wisdom of Will Durant

  1. It’s a bit empty to just say “me too” but I want to stand up and be counted for the same thanks.

  2. Thanks for what you wrote. It’s very fine.

    Will Durant is one of the major influences on the way I think. Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley are two other major influences. There are many, many more of course but none take a back seat to Durant.

    The Story of Civilization changed the way I think about the world. Will Durant was about the wisest person of his time.

    The thing about Civilization is that it’s about wisdom just as much as it is about history. It’s a very fine series for learning history but it is also as quick a path to pure wisdom as one can expect to find.

    I have a friend who is a textbook example of a New England Aristocrat. He told me that everyone he knows has the complete Civilization series in their home libraries but I’m the only person he knows who has actually read them.

  3. Thanks for the comment Jon. Like you Durant, Russell, and Huxley have been some of the most major influences on my thinking. And like you I have the entire 11 volume set right behind me. Unlike you I have not read the entire thing. So kudos to you. Oh, and I do think Durant was very wise. You are right about that. Thanks again, JGM

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