Category Archives: Durant – Will

Will Durant: The Value of Philosophy

Readers of this blog know that Will Durant is one of my intellectual heroes.

William JamesWillDurant (/dəˈrænt/; November 5, 1885 – November 7, 1981) was an American writer, historian, and philosopher. He is best known for The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes written in collaboration with his wife, Ariel Durant, and published between 1935 and 1975. He was earlier noted for The Story of Philosophy (1926), described as “a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy”.[1] … The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. (from Wikipedia)

For many years I introduced philosophy in my college classes by discussing the value of philosophy. One of the most beautiful statements on that topic is from the introduction to Durant’s Pleasures of Philosophy, a book I encountered in my late teens. Here is Durant’s beautiful prose:

The busy reader will ask, is all this philosophy useful? It is a shameful question: we do not ask it of poetry, which is also an imaginative construction of a world incompletely known. If poetry reveals to us the beauty our untaught eyes have missed and philosophy gives us the wisdom to understand and forgive, it is enough, and more than the world’s wealth. Philosophy will not fatten our purses nor lift us to dizzy dignities in a democratic state; it may even make us a little careless of these things. For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office and yet all the while remain ignorantly naive, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire and blindly miserable? …

Our culture is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanism and poor in purposes. the balance of mind which once came of a warm religious faith is gone; science has taken from us the supernatural bases of our morality and all the world seems consumed in a disorderly individualism that reflects the chaotic fragmentation of our character.

We face again the problem that harassed Socrates: how shall we find a natural ethic to replace the supernatural sanctions that have ceased to influence the behavior of men? Without philosophy, without that total vision which unifies purposes and establishes the hierarchy of desires we fritter away our social heritage in cynical corruption on the one hand and in revolutionary madness on the other; we abandon in a moment our idealism and plunge into the cooperative suicide of war; we have a hundred thousand politicians, and not a single statesman.

We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not thought where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harrassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge which has made us drunk with our power, and we shall not be saved without wisdom.

I know no better statement of the value of loving wisdom.

Will Durant on the Meaning of Life (A Second Look)


In his book On the Meaning of Life (1932) Will Durant argued that we cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in any absolute sense, for our minds are too small to comprehend things in their entirety. Still he believed we can say a few things about terrestrial meaning. Here are excerpts from a great thinker and wonderful prose stylist:

The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself … it must be sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments. Why, for example, should we ask for an ulterior meaning to vitality and health? … If you are sick beyond cure I will grant you viaticum, and let you die … But if you are well—if you can stand on your legs and digest your food—forget your whining, and shout your gratitude to the sun.
The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be thankful for our loved ones:

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to a whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.
If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Durant too finds meaning in love, connection, and activity. “The secret of significance and content is to have a task which consumes all one’s energies, and makes human life a little richer than before.[iv] Durant found the most happiness in his family and his work, in his home and his books. Although no one can be fully happy amidst poverty and suffering, one can be content and grateful finding the meaning in front of them. “Where, in the last resort, does my treasure lie?—in everything.”[v]

________________________________________________________________________

[i] Durant, On the meaning of life, 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.
[iv] Durant, On the meaning of life, 129.
[v] Durant, On the meaning of life, 130.

Examples of Great Writing: “The Value of Philosophy”

Will Durant                                                            Bertrand Russell

Yesterday’s column discussed good writing, mentioning the great prose stylists Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. (Who are also two of my intellectual heroes.) Here are examples of their extraordinary prose on the question of the value of philosophy. The first is from the introduction to Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy (1929), and the second is from the final chapter of Russell’s classic, The Problems of Philosophy (1912). I’ll let their beautiful prose speak for itself.

The busy reader will ask, is all this philosophy useful? It is a shameful question: we do not ask it of poetry, which is also an imaginative construction of a world incompletely known. If poetry reveals to us the beauty our untaught eyes have missed and philosophy gives us the wisdom to understand and forgive, it is enough, and more than the worlds wealth. Philosophy will not fatten our purses nor lift us to dizzy dignities in a democratic state; it may even make us a little careless of these things. For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office and yet all the while remain ignorantly naive, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire and blindly miserable? …

Our culture is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanism and poor in purposes. the balance of mind which once came of a warm religious faith is gone; science has taken from us the supernatural bases of our morality and all the world seems consumed in a disorderly individualism that reflects the chaotic fragmentation of our character.

We face again the problem that harassed Socrates: how shall we find a natural ethic to replace the supernatural sanctions that have ceased to influence the behavior of men? Without philosophy, without that total vision which unifies purposes and establishes the hierarchy of desires we fritter away our social heritage in cynical corruption on the one hand and in revolutionary madness on the other; we abandon in a moment our idealism and plunge into the cooperative suicide of war; we have a hundred thousand politicians, and not a single statesman.

We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not thought where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harrassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge which has made us drunk with our power, and we shall not be saved without wisdom.

And now we hear from Russell:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value — perhaps its chief value — through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps — friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad — it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Will Durant on the Meaning of Life

Excerpts from Will Durant’s On the Meaning of Life

The meaning of life, then, must lie within itself … it must be sought in life’s own instinctive cravings and natural fulfillments. Why, for example, should we ask for an ulterior meaning to vitality and health? … If you are sick beyond cure I will grant you viaticum, and let you die … But if you are well—if you can stand on your legs and digest your food—forget your whining, and shout your gratitude to the sun.

The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”

Postscript – From 1932 till 1981 my father cut meat. Now I don’t eat meat for moral, physiological, and environmental reasons. It’s bad for animals, bad for your health, and bad for the planet. But that meat cutting is partly responsible for this blog, and there are things we can do to make small contributions to this world. So go out there and work for those people who fall within your orbit. If you do, you will have been a success.

 

The Words and Wisdom of Will Durant

Image result for Will & Ariel Durant in their later years
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 PhilosophersThe Lessons of HistoryOn 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.