Will Durant: The Value of Philosophy

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

William James Durant (1885 – 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 earlier book, The Story of Philosophy (1926), was described as “a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy.”[1] Will and Ariel were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

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?

Ripeness is all. Perhaps philosophy will give us, if we are faithful to it, a healing unity of soul. We are so slovenly and self-contradictory in our thinking; it may be that we shall clarify ourselves, and pull ourselves together into consistency, and be ashamed to harbor contradictory desires or beliefs. And through this unity of mind may come that unity of purpose and character which makes a personality, and lends some order and dignity to our existence. Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which lifts us to serenity and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

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 harassed 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.

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7 thoughts on “Will Durant: The Value of Philosophy

  1. Mr. Durant is also one of my heroes. I read The Story of Civilization in the 1970s; then I read the whole thing again 30 years later, learning much more the second time around. I assembled some of the best quotations from the series in a web page:


    My favorite quote is this one:

    “Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws. Despotism may for a time retard the concentration; democracy, allowing the most liberty, accelerates it… In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength in number of the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or revolution redistributing poverty.”

  2. I’ve read this post several times in the hopes of seeing the “value of loving wisdom”, but fail each time. Perhaps it is too brief an excerpt of Durant’s writing and philosophy for me, a non-philosopher, to properly grasp his meaning. The first paragraph offers some insight, but the rest is mostly a lament against modern society. Durant seems to desire a simpler, more religious period having more conformity and less individualism; and judging it to be morally superior to the state of society at the time of his writing. He would probably be even more indignant of our current society. What is missing is any articulation of what “wisdom” is and how it can be used to reconcile the present with the past in order to look forward to the future.

  3. I think you are looking for too much here. It is just a brief excerpt meant to defend the idea that philosophy (the love of wisdom) has value given that so many students think of education merely as the means to a job. Instead wisdom is typically thought by philosophers to be a kind of knowledge or insight into how to live well, and how to make a good society in which we can thrive. Thanks for the comments.

  4. Bravo! Perfecto!
    Your excerpt is spot on!

    Will Durant has been my guiding force while pursuing serious studies for the past ten years on ancient history and world religions. I make reference to DURANT and PIERRE HADOT’s ‘Inner Citadel’ while teaching a course at the University of Arizona for their OLLI Study Group Program on the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

    How fortunate for those who discover the ‘REAL meaning of life’.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about two remarkable individuals…Will & Ariel Durant.

  5. My dad turned me on to Will Durant when I was a young man and I can truly say his Story of Civilization series has been a reservoir of nourishment for my soul. I find myself returning to these massive volumes for truth, wisdom and a better understanding of history and our western heritage. What a gift Will and Ariel Durant have given us. A true treasure where prose becomes poetry and the reader enlightened.

  6. Thanks much for your comments Ian. I feel the same way about Will and Ariel. JGM

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