The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant






Will and Ariel Durant

This is yet another review of a book that is about nothing less than everything.

From the outset of this gargantuan work that spans 11 volumes with over 10,000 pages, and four million words, Will Durant warns us:

“I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind – to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy, and the achievements of art. I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is, nor how immodest is its very conception … Nevertheless I have dreamed that despite the many errors inevitable in this undertaking, it may be of some use to those upon whom the passion for philosophy has laid the compulsion to try to see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and understanding through history in time, as well as to seek them through science in space. … Like philosophy, such a venture [as the creation of these 11 volumes] has no rational excuse, and is at best but a brave stupidity; but let us hope that, like philosophy, it will always lure some rash spirits into its fatal depths.”

Written over a fifty year period, The Story of Civilization presents a compendium of the human experience.   Once these hard-bound tomes graced the shelves of households all over America, along with the gilt edges pages of encyclopedias.   It remains one of the top bestselling works of all time.  If you flip through the pages, you’ll find dense tracts of print interrupted by occasional black and white photographs of statuary and architecture, along with colorless reproductions of paintings.  It has the outward appearance of a run of the mill reference tool.  It was sometimes dismissed as one of many historical summaries prepared with enteric coating for popular consumption.  Even in its day, one suspects it was purchased more often than it was read, especially given its daunting bulk. But if you take the time to look beyond the indexes and tables of contents—if you actually read the work– you’ll find an intellectual adventure quite unlike any other.  It approaches the study of history as if it were a puzzle, using a holistic approach. 

Through the process of considering the human experience as a unified whole, taking into account the intricate connections of politics, religion, science, sociology, anthropology, art, and economics, the authors provide us with a unique perspective, revealing the paradoxes of truth and perception, the cycles of change, innovation, resistance and reversion.  It is astonishing to see the ways that so little has changed throughout history, and yet so much. 

The work, even though it was concluded in 1975, feels relentlessly contemporary:

“Forced to choose, the poor, like the rich, love money more than political liberty; and the only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlety and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes.”

Scarcely a chapter goes by without passages that take the breath away.  Here is but one diamond amid myriad gems:

“Life is in its basis a mystery, a river flowing from an unseen source; and in its development an infinite subtlety too complex for thought, much more so for utterance. And yet the thirst for unity draws us on. To chart this wilderness of experience and history, to force into focus on the future the unsteady light of the past, to bring into significance and purpose the chaos of sensation and desire, to discover the direction of life’s stream and thereby in some measure to control its flow: this insatiable metaphysical lust is one of the nobler aspects of our questionable race.”

The Durants capture the horrors of history with a skill to rival the masters of genre fiction.  Here is one of the most terrifying sentences in the language: “After his victory in 1014, Basil II blinded 15,000 prisoners, leaving one eye in every hundredth man to lead the tragic host back to Samuel, the Bulgarian Tsar.”

The Story of Civilization was written as a collaboration between husband and wife.  Will Durant was a Jesuit trained one time aspirant to the priesthood and Ariel Durant was a Jewish woman.   The nature of the collaboration itself gives rise to a spirit that informs the entire work:

“As men are members of one another, and generations are moments in a family line, so civilizations are units in a larger whole whose name is history; they are stages in the life of man.  Civilization is polygenetic– it is the cooperative product of many peoples, ranks, and faiths; and no one who studies its history can be a bigot of race or creed.  Therefore, the scholar, though he belongs to his country through affectionate kinship, feels himself also a citizen of the Country of the Mind which knows no hatreds and no frontiers; he hardly deserves his name if he carries into his study political prejudices, or racial discriminations, or religious animosities; and he accords his grateful homage to any people that has borne the torch and enriched his heritage.”

Will was 28 when the couple married, and Ariel was but 15. The love between the collaborators is infused into the work as well.  They write:

“All things must die, but love alone eludes mortality. It overleaps the tombs and bridges the chasm of death with generation. How brief it seems in the bitterness of disillusion; and yet how perennial it is in the perspective of mankind — how in the end it saves a bit of us from decay and enshrines our life anew in the youth and vigor of the child! Our wealth is a weariness, and our wisdom is a little light that chills; but love warms the heart with unspeakable solace, even more when it is given than when it is received.”

“Youth, if it were wise, would cherish love beyond all things else, keeping body and soul clear for its coming, lengthening its days with months of betrothal, sanctioning it with a marriage of solemn ritual, making all things subordinate to it resolutely. Wisdom, if it were young, would cherish love, nursing it with devotion, deepening it with sacrifice, vitalizing it with parentage. Even though love consumes us in its service and overwhelms us with tragedy, even though it breaks us down with its passing and weighs us down with separations, let it be first.”

 The marriage between the Durants lasted for nearly seventy years, and ended when they died within two weeks of one another.

The prose they generated is nothing short of majestic, peppered with brilliant aphorisms and witty charm, such as:

“If you wish to learn which sex is the more intelligent, watch any man in relation with any woman, and see which of the two will twist the other around her finger.”

“A wise man can learn from another man’s experience; a fool cannot learn even from his own.”

“Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”
“One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”

“Literary immortality is a moment in geological time.”

The following passage is just as true of today’s world as when it was originally written:

“Education does not mean that we have become certified experts in business or mining or botany or journalism or epistemology; it means that through the absorption of the moral, intellectual; and esthetic inheritance of the race we have come to understand and control ourselves as well as the external world; that we have chosen the best as our associates both in spirit and the flesh; that we have learned to add courtesy to culture, wisdom to knowledge, and forgiveness to understanding.”

In contemporary society, the onslaught of relentless technological advances is fostering a process of extreme intellectual specialization.  We lose sight of the nuances and complexities of problems that lie outside of our individual specialties.  We resort to generalizations about areas we don’t fully understand.  We tend think in absolute terms, like whether our economic system should be capitalist or communist, whether our morals stem from scientifically or religiously understandable origins, whether we should be driven by the spirit of competition or cooperation.  As a civilization, we polarize in our views and lose the ability to communicate effectively.  We lose sight of the basic truth that these social influences and philosophies are inseparable and entirely interdependent on one another, and must be maintained in appropriate balance in order for us to thrive as a society.  The Story of Civilization, with its broad view of the forces that foster and inhibit intellectual growth and its deep contemplation of humanity as a whole, provides us with an antidote for the narrow analysis and divisive polarization that is so pervasive in modern life.