Will Durant On Cultural Progress

Will Durant (1885-1981) was a prolific writer, historian, and philosopher best known for his magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (11 Volume Set), and his book, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. He is generally regarded as a gifted prose stylist, was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was one of the most beloved public intellectuals of the twentieth century.

In a 1941 magazine essay entitled “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” Durant makes a historian’s case for cultural progress. He begins by retelling the story of Nicolas de Condorcet, the young French aristocrat, mathematician, and Enlightenment philosopher who penned one of the greatest tributes to progress ever written while hiding from the guillotine, the Historical Record of Progress of the Human Race. Given expanding scientific knowledge and universal education, Condorcet believed that there was no limit to human progress. Of him Durant exclaims:

I have never ceased to marvel that a man so placed—driven to the very last stand of hope, with all his personal sacrifices of aristocratic privilege and fortune gone for nothing, with that great revolution upon which the youth of all Europe had pinned its hopes for a better world issuing in indiscriminate suspicion and terror—should, instead of writing an epic of despondency and gloom, have written a paean to progress. Never before had man so believed in mankind, and perhaps never again since.[i]

Of course many legitimately question whether progress is real, whether our knowledge and technological achievements are good, for though knowledge is power, it is not justice or wisdom or beauty or kindness or hope. Civilizations have crumbled to dust and our technology may destroy us—thus pessimism may be warranted. So is progress real? Despite misgivings, Durant answers in the affirmative, for though history is full of war, it is also full of genius, the true source of the advance of civilization. The achievement of genius, preserved and transmitted as cultural heritage, transcends the fleetingness of states and empires, leaving us a legacy for which we are richer. Progress is real.

To specify this progress, Durant focused on ten salient progressive steps that together reveal cultural progress as self-evident. They are:

1) speech; 2) conquering animals; 3) conquering fire and light; 4) agriculture; 5) social organization; 6) morality; 7) developing the aesthetic sense; 8) science; 9) communication; and 10) education to transmit our cultural heritage.

Seen from a distance these steps show progress to be real and optimism justified. In the end, this upward trajectory left Durant as optimistic about the future as Condorcet and Voltaire.

Do I have doubts about the future? Yes. Certainly, we shall pass through misery and terror. But I envy our children. I feel toward them as Voltaire felt when he came to Paris in 1778, aged 83, to die. He looked at the young men in Paris; he could see in their eyes the coming revolution. He knew they would suffer. That great men had died so many deaths to live so many lives—how gladly he would have died one more death to live one more life for those young men in Paris, to go through with them their revolution and their terror, their suffering and their creation. So he said to them what I should say to you: “The young are fortunate, for they will see great things. For us older ones, parents and teachers, it only remains to make straight their way.”[ii]

Summary – There has been cultural progress.


[i] Will Durant, “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” The Rotarian, January 1941, 10.
[ii] Durant, 56.

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