Recently I read of a 67-year-old woman who wanted to run in a marathon. She had never run for exercise in her life, but her desire and passion led her to put on a pair of sneakers, leave the house, and walk a mile. Every day she walked through her neighborhood, extending the distance a little each time. Soon she was jogging and walking. In another six months, she was running. In the next seven years, she competed in several marathons and other long-distance races.
One step at a time, and sooner or later you can run a marathon. One page at a time, and sooner or later you can read Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization.
For more than a quarter of a century, a set of the Durant histories has decorated my bookshelves. I say “decorated” because I so rarely open them. They served as an infrequent source of reference during my teaching days, and on rare occasions a few minutes spent with Caesar and Christ or The Age of Voltaire have provided diversion and entertainment.
On New Year’s Day, for a variety of reasons, not excluding the possibility of temporary insanity, I set myself a goal: I would read my way through the Durants in one year. Having declared this intention to friends and family, I felt like a novice climber contemplating Everest. Could I tackle such a mountain of words? And more importantly, what would I gain by such a climb?
The mountain is formidable. The Story of Civilization weighs in at a hefty 36.6 pounds. Each volume is roughly 9″ in height and 7″ in depth. Excluding the photographs, bibliographical notes, footnotes, and indices, The Story of Civilization runs to 8,945 pages.
It is July, and my climb has carried me through Volume VI, The Reformation. I have flown through some passages—Chinese ceramics, for example, or descriptions of the minor Greek city-states—and have lingered over others: the stories of obscure poets, the explication of odd customs, the descriptions of various inventions. When I undertook my task, I determined to read the set as one might enjoy Proust or Anthony Powell—it was, after all, as the title proclaimed, a story—and though I greet each session armed with a yellow marker and a pen, I have found that this tactic of casual reading has brought great enjoyment.
Depending on their critical prejudices, readers might describe Durant’s style as either magisterial or pompous. (Here I will refer only to Will Durant, whose name, unlike Ariel’s, appears on all the volumes and who surely claimed Gibbon as one of his masters.) Durant loves aphorisms, many of them now wearing the yellow badge of my marker, sign of my intention to return and record them in a notebook. He also possesses a sly sense of humor, focuses less on politics than on culture, and resurrects in each volume a multitude of individuals, some famous, some little-known, through his use of miniature biographies. Though modern research and archaeological discoveries have refuted or altered some of his claims and data, Durant remains valuable as a lofty chronicler of the broad sweep of time and human achievement.
But I am not here to deliver a synopsis or literary critique of The Story of Civilization. No—I am writing because, set against the cultural destruction of our age, Durant’s histories astound as well as inform. Here is history as relevant to our time as today’s headlines, an antibiotic for an ailing culture, yet as unread and forgotten as a week-old tweet from President Trump. This neglect is unfortunate, for Will Durant’s histories offer all readers, especially conservatives, invaluable lessons, some explicit, some implicit, about the past and the present.
Before examining that last statement, let’s look at the man. Will Durant (1885-1981) was in his younger days a socialist and a self-professed free thinker who rejected his Catholic faith, though he maintained a lifelong affection for Rome and Christianity. In 1913, he married one of his students, a girl who had just turned 15 (Ariel arrived at the ceremony on roller skates), a circumstance that today would find him branded a sexual predator. Ariel helped him with his writing, gaining credit as a coauthor of the series beginning with Volume VII. Together they worked for 40 years researching and writing these histories.
Immersed in the study of history and philosophy, Durant rejected the radicalism of his youth. As historian Joan Rubin wrote of him, “Instead of tying human progress to the rise of the proletariat, he made it the inevitable outcome of the laughter of young children or the endurance of his parents’ marriage.” He remained a liberal, but he is to today’s progressive as John F. Kennedy is to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, in The Story of Civilization Durant often comes across as an historian in the camp of Paul Johnson. Consider, for example, this passage from Volume I, Our Oriental Heritage:
The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.
Sounds familiar, yes?
Here are some other observations from this volume equally pertinent to our current political and cultural wars:
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. . . .
Liberty is a luxury of security; the free individual is a product and a mark of civilization. . . .
Marriage was a profitable partnership, not a private debauch; it was a way whereby a man and a woman, working together, might be more prosperous than if each worked alone. . . .
The Queen’s rings were made of gold wire; one ring was inset with segments of lapis-lazuli; her necklace was of fluted lapis and gold. Surely there is nothing new under the sun; and the difference between the first woman and the last could pass through the eye of a needle. . . .
Civilization, like life, is a perpetual struggle with death. . . .
The intellectual man is a danger to the state because he thinks in terms of regulations and laws; he wishes to construct a society like geometry, and does not realize that such regulation destroys the living freedom and vigor of the parts.
Scores more such sentiments abound in Our Oriental Heritage, each one of which, if uttered today, would send the p.c. patrol into an uproar.
Durant’s organization of The Story of Civilization would also bring a burning rebuke from the left. Of the 11 volumes, only the first deals with societies outside of Europe. In the other books, we will still accompany Durant to other lands. We will go exploring with Columbus and De Soto; we will learn about conquistadors like John Smith, Robert Clive, and Cortés; we will see Japan and China forced to open their ports to trade and Western ideas. But the primary focus of the histories is on Europe and the importance of European civilization. Today the left would bludgeon Durant, were he able to find a publisher, with charges of ethnocentrism, white privilege, and lack of diversity.
In addition, The Story of Civilization gives the lie to our current obsession with “cultural appropriation.” Though he probably never heard the words “cultural appropriation,” Durant devotes page after page to that very subject. In fact, if you wanted to retitle these volumes, you could call the set The Story Of Cultural Appropriation.
What else might we expect? People throughout history have appropriated the ideas, inventions, and goods of other cultures, exchanging them like kids trading marbles. In The Story of Greece, for example, Durant tells us that the Greeks gave the West “schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history, rhetoric, physics, biology, anatomy, hygiene, therapy, cosmetics, poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, theology, agnosticism, skepticism, stoicism . . . ” and many other gifts.
Did the Greeks dream up all these things on their own? No.
As Durant explains, they took for their inspiration ideas from Egypt, Crete, Phoenicia, Persia, and other places, and developed those ideas. The genius of the Greeks lay in “cultural appropriation.” They expanded on and refined the thoughts and technology of other civilizations. As Durant points out, other cultures—the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hindu—also practiced “cultural appropriation.”
Finally, unlike so many progressives today both in and out of the academy, Durant recognizes the truth of what the novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Instead of condemning or rejecting the past, Durant seeks to understand it, drawing conclusions based on historical circumstances and culture rather than judging our ancestors by the self-righteous indignation that passes for virtue these days. Frequently, he allows this past to speak for itself through its poets, historians, kings, and nobles. Our Oriental Heritage, for example, contains several-hundred such quotations. When Durant does compare past and present, often it is the latter that is found wanting.
The current ignorance of history in our country is, I am convinced, a base cause for our disintegrating culture. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison looked to Greece and Rome for instruction; we preen before a mirror. We as a people may not be condemned to repeat the past we so willfully ignore, but we are guaranteed to make fools of ourselves. Those who whine about their victimhood, who wear pink pussyhats, who claim to be oppressed (all the while holding the whip), who obliterate statuary and alter place names, who want only secular saints for their heroes, who advocate “open borders”: All are deluded. Their conception of history generally extends no further back in time than the day of their own birth. They dig and tear up the roots of the past, and like an oak, a culture dies.
By reading Durant, by sharing him with my children, grandchildren, friends, and readers of my website, perhaps I may help prevent that death. At the very least, I may act as my own physician.
So hand me my boots and crampons, my helmet, pulleys, and carabiners.
The climb continues.
Leave a Reply