So, there I was, 20 years old, working in a picking and packing warehouse in Plainview, New York. I had gotten married, dropped out of college after my sophomore year and intended to work for a year until we were sure my wife could support us. That never happened. The separation came sometime after a year (actually, we had a lot of fun too, but that’s not what this post is about). Work was not so good. I was one of the youngest ones there, and the few my age, were friendly enough, but not people I would have been friends with normally and the older men there did not like that I was a “college boy” and didn’t seem real crazy about my Jewish roots (it is the only time in my life as an adult I ever experienced prejudice. I was so bored at this job that I decided to start educating myself during lunch breaks. I had always loved history and picked Herodotus’ Histories, the story of the Greco-Persian Wars and what led to them. I never looked back and have been studying history for the last 31 years.
Sometime after I became a lawyer, but probably in '84, I was in a bookstore when an old black hard covered book caught my eye. I took a closer look. It was the second volume of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, The life of Greece. Perhaps it was fate that the first volume I found was about Greece, which I had loved since a child. I bought it and devoured it. Sometime in the next few years I was able to purchase the entire collection of eleven volumes for $1 by joining a book club. I read the first ten over the course of the next few years, somehow never reading the eleventh volume - The Age of Napoleon fully. Some day.
Will Durant was an astonishing scholar. His breath of historical knowledge may have been unparalleled as he covered the entire history of much of the world up to and through Napoleon, reluctantly leaving out America due to his age. His wife, Ariel, helped him and therefore must get some credit, but no one doubts it was his writing and scholarship that made it the success it was. If they had been immortal, the next two books would have been The Age of Darwin (Durant also wrote on evolution) and The Age of Einstein.
Incidentally, Will Durant was 13 years Ariel’s senior, and she was his student when they met. She was 15 when they married and they stayed together about 80 more years until they died within weeks of each other, her first, because she stopped eating when he was hospitalized, and he when he learned she had died on the television. Of course, today he would be arrested, stigmatized as a pedophile and they never would have been together. But, don’t start me on our arbitrary age restrictions when it comes to sex. It makes me very unpopular.
The Story of Civilization was made possible by an earlier book of his, published in 1927, called The Story of Philosophy. It was a one volume history of philosophy, covering most of the biggees in philosophy and a couple you might not have known about. I have read it cover to cover twice and parts numerous times. It is astonishing how much information he covers in a relatively short book (compared to, for example, Bertrand Russell’s more mammoth effort, which is more comprehensive and also wonderful, but not as easy to read and understand as Durant). Making philosophers like Kant understandable in a chapter is an astonishing feat. I have recommended to college students on occasion that they do not need to take any philosophy classes if they read this little book (well, logic is a good idea, but you know what I mean).
The Durants did not intend to discover anything new; they wanted to tell a synthetic story of how we got here – hence the title. But, it is not only the breadth of knowledge which is startling, it is the writing. Perhaps there are other historians who write as well. I don’t think there have been, but, that is subjective. But, I certainly don’t believe I’ve come across anyone who has approached the level of aesthetically pleasing writing and depth of knowledge as has Will Durant. Below are just some examples of his writing that thrilled me, one from each book. There is no attempt at a pattern here, just to celebrate the beauty and scope of his writing. If it just happens to interest a reader or so in him, all the better. I’ll try to keep them short.
Vol 1: Our Oriental Heritage
Hindu philosophy begins where European philosophy ends – with an inquiry into the nature of knowledge and the limitations of reason; it starts not with the physics of Thales and Democritus, but with the epistemology of Locke and Kant; it takes mind as that which is most immediately known, and therefore refuses to resolve it into a matter known only mediately and through mind. It accepts an external world, but does not believe that our senses can ever know it as it is. All science is a charted ignorance, and belongs to Maya; it formulates, in ever changing concepts and phrases, the rationale of a world in which reason is but a part—one shifting current in an interminable sea. Even the person that reason is Maya, illusion; what is he but a temporary conjunction of events, a passing node in the curves of matter and mind through space and time?—and what are his acts or his thoughts but the fulfillment of forces far antedating his birth? Nothing is real but Brahman, that vast ocean of Being in which every form is a moment’s wave, or a fleck of froth on the wave. Virtue is not the quiet heroism of good works, nor any pious ecstasy; it is simply the recognition of the identity of the self with every other self in Brahman; morality is such living as comes from a sense of union with all things.* “He who discerns all creatures in his Self, and his Self in all creatures, has no disquiet thence. What delusion, what grief can he with him?”
*Cf. Spinoza: “The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature.” “The intellectual love of God” is a summary of Hindu philosophy.
There Durant summarizes Western and Indian philosophy and counterposes them in a mere paragraph and even sneaks in a little Spinoza (an important philosopher to Durant). Honestly, I have trouble keeping my emails that short.
Vol 2: The Life of Greece
As we enter the fairest of all waters, leaving behind us the Atlantic and Gibraltar, we pass at once in to the arena of Greek history. “Like frogs around a pond,” said Plato, “we have settled down upon the shores of this sea.” Even on these distant coasts the Greeks founded precarious, barbarian-bound colonies many centuries before Christ: at Hemeroscopium and Ampurias in Spain, at Marseilles and Nice in France, and almost everywhere in southern Italy and Sicily. Greek colonists established prosperous towns at Cyrene in northern Africa, and at Naucratis in the delta of the Nile; their restless enterprise stirred the islands of the Aegean and the coasts of Asia Minor then as in our century; all along the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmora and the Black Sea they built towns and cities for their far-venturing trade. Mainland Greece was but a small part of the the ancient Greek world.
* * *
In these propitious waters the acquisitive Phoenicians and the amphibious Greeks develop the art and science of navigation. Here they built ships for the most part larger or faster, and yet more easily handled, than any that had yet sailed the Mediterranean. Slowly, despite pirates and harassing uncertainties, the water routes from Europe and Africa into Asia—through Cyprus, Sidon, and Tyre, or through the Aegean and the Black Sea—became cheaper than the long land routes, arduous and perilous, that had carried so much of the commerce of Egypt and the Near Eaast. Trade took new lines, multiplied new populations, and created new wealth. Egypt, then Mesopotamia, then Persia withered; Phoenicia deposited an empire of cities along the African coast, in sicily, and in Spain; and Greece blossomed like a watered rose.
“ - and Greece blossomed like a watered rose.” Not only beautiful, but true, as Greece, deserving of a thousand thousand volumes, advanced civilization in a burst of energy like from a super-nova.
Vol 3: Caesar and Christ
Suddenly Nero’s spies brought him word of a widespread conspiracy to put Calpurnius Piso on the throne (65). His agents seized some minor personages in the plot, and by torture or threat drew from them confessions implicating, among others, Lucan the poet and Senca. Bit by bit the whole plan was laid bare. Nero’s revenge was so savage that Rome credited the rumor that he had vowed to wipe out the whole Senatorial class. When Seneca received the command to kill himself he argued for a while and then complied; Lucan likewise opened his veins and died reciting his poetry. Tigellinus, jealous of Petronius’ popularity with Nero, bribed one of the epicure’s slaves to testify against his master, and induced Nero to order Petronius’ death. Petronius died leisurely, opening his veins and then closing them, conversing in his usual light manner with his friends and reading poetry to them; after a walk and a nap he opened his veins again and passed away quietly. Thrasea Paetus, the leading exponent of the Stoic philosophy in the Senate, was condemned not for taking part in the plot, but on the general ground of deficient enthusiasm for the Emperor, for not enoying Nero’s singing, and for composing a laudatory life of Cato. His son-in-law Helvidius Priscus was merely banished, but two others were put to death for writing in their praise. Musonius Rufus, Stoic philosopher, and Cassius Longinus, a great jurist, were exiled; two brothers of Seneca—Annaeus Mela,father of Lucan, and Annaeus Novatus, the Gallio who in Corinth had freed Saint Paul—were ordered to commit suicide.
This is one reason I have always preferred Greece to Rome. There was a vicious sickening aspect to the Roman culture that did not permeate Greece.
Vol 4: The Age of Faith
Every cultural flowering finds root and nourishment in an expansion of commerce and industry. Moslem seizure of eastern and southern Mediterranean ports and trade, Moslem, Viking, and Magyar raids, political disorder under the successors of Charlemagne, had driven European economic and mental life to nadir in the ninth and tenth centuries. The feudal protection and reorganization of agriculture, the taming of Norse priates into Norman peasants and merchants, the repulse and conversion of the Huns, the recapture of the Mediterranean by Italian trade, the reopening of the Levant by the Crusades, and the awakening contact of the West with the more advanced civilizations of Islam and Byzantium, provided in the twelfth century the opportunity and stimulus for the recovery of Europe, and supplied the material means for the cultural blossoming of the twelfth century and the medieval meridian of the thirteenth. For society, as well as for an individual, primum est edere, deinde philosophari—eating must come before philosophy, wealth before art.
Read the first sentence again alone. Then the rest of the paragraph. Topic sentence. Topic sentence! Whatever happened to them. Durant knew how to start with a beaut that summed the whole shebang up and filled the rest in as if gleaming words poured right out of his pen.
Vol 5: The Renaissance
All in all, Giotto’s work was a revolution. We feel his faults because we know of the painting skills that were developed by the movement that he began. His drawing, modeling, perspective, and anatomy are painfully inadequate; art, like the medical science of Giotto’s time, was just beginning to dissect the human body, to learn the place, structure, and function of each muscle, bone, tendon, nerve; men like Mantegna and Masaccio would master these elements, and Michelangelo would perfect them, almost make a fetish of them; but in Giotto’s day it was still unusual to study, scandalous to represent, the nude. What is it, then, that makes the work of Giotto in Padua and Assisi a landmark in the history of art? It is the rhythmic composition, drawing the eye from every angle to the center of interest; the dignity of quiet motion, the soft and luminous coloring, the majestic flow of the narrative, the restraint of expression even in deep feeling, the grandeur of the calm that bathes these troubled scenes; and, now and then, the naturalistic portraiture of men, women, and children not as studied in past art but as seen and felt in the movement of life. These were the components of Giotto’s triumph over Byzantine rigidity and gloom, these were the secrets of his enduring influence. For a century after him Florentine art lived on his example and his inspiration.
Maybe that seemed like just a boring narrative about a painter you don’t know and don’t care about. He tells why we don’t appreciate him enough and then explains why we should. When you look at Giotto’s work, and you read Durant's description, you how he zeroed in on Giotto's importance and limitations without using superlative words like beautiful and amazing and the like. It’s as if he could describe a color to a blind women.
In this next paragraph, Durant surveys the man of the renaissance in his many forms and finishes with a sentence that expresses the renaissance in a way that perfectly counterposes it with the preceding epoch.
But, again, he was only one of many kinds of Renaissance man. How different was the idealistic Pico, with his belief in the moral perfectibility of mankind—or the grim Savonarola, blind to beauty and absorbed in righteousness—or the gentle gracious Raphael, scattering beauty about him with an open hand—or the demonic Michelangelo, haunted with the Last Judgment long before he painted it—or the melodious Politian, who thought there would be pity even in hell—or the honest Vittorino da Feltre, so successfully binding Zeno to Christ—or the second Giuliano de’ Medici, so kindly ust that his brother the Pope considered unfit for government! We perceive, after every effort to abbreviate and formulate, that there was no “man of the Renaissance.” There were men, agreeing only in one thing: that life had never been lived so intensely before. The Middle Ages had said—or had pretended to say—No to life; the Renaissance, with all its heart and soul and might, said Yes.
Vol 6: The Reformation
He was now thirty-eight, thin and ungainly, homely and melancholy, with distrustful eyes and far-reaching nose. He looked like a peasant, dressed like an impoverished pilgrim in a rough gray gown and shabby felt hat, prayed like a saint, and ruled as if he had read The Prince before Machiavelli was born. He scorned the pomp of feudalism, laughed at traditions and formalities, questioned his own legitimacy, and shocked all thrones with his simplicity. He lived in the gloomy palace Des Tornelles in Paris, or in the chateau of Plessis-les-Tours near Tours, usually like a bachelor, though a second time married; penurius though possessing France; keeping only the few attendants he had in his exile, and eating such food as any peasant might afford. He looked not an iota, but would be every inch, a king.
Chances are pretty good you have never read about Louis XI of France, unless you studied the history of France, because he’s not someone who pops up in history books a lot. I never heard of him before I read this volume. Immediately I was delighted with the description and it stuck in my mind. And, when I saw a picture of him later on, I knew him immediately (only he wasn’t wearing a gray cloak). This Louis made a country out of the France you know today way before Louis XIV was even thought about.
Vol 7: The Age of Reason Begins
The best work of this age in physics, chemistry, and biology was done on the Continent; in England, however, Sir Kenelm Digby discovered the necessity of oxygen to plant life, and Robert Fludd, mystic and medico, advocated vaccination 150 years before Jenner. Medical prescriptions continued to rely on their repulsiveness for their effect; the official London pharmacopoeia of 1618 recommended bile, blood, claws, cockscomb, fur, sweat, saliva, scorpions, snakeskin, wood lice, and spider web as medicaments; and bloodletting was a first resort. Nevertheless this period boasts of Thomas Parr (“old Parr”), who was presented to Charles I in 1635 as still in good health at the alleged age of 152. Parr did not profess to know his exact age, but his parish authorities dated his birth in 1483; he claimed to have joined the army in 1500, and he recalled in detail the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII (1536). “You have lived longer than other men,” said Charles I. “What have you done more than they?” Parr replied that he had fertilized a wench when he was over a hundred years old and had done public penance for it. He had subsisted almost entirely on potatoes, greens, coarse bread, and buttermilk, with rarely a taste of meat. For a while he became a lion in London parlors and pubs, and he was handsomely feasted that he died with a year of meeting the King. Sir William Harvey performed a post-mortem on him, found him free of arteriosclerosis, and diagnosed his death as due to change of air and food.
It doesn't matter the subject - science, politics, philosophy, math, art, and ad infinitum, Durant understands it and can explain it much better than you can learn it yourself. Parr may not have been a big player in history, but the countless little tidbits from Durant are almost as inexhaustible as Old Parr was.
Vol VIII: The Age of Louis XIV
Charles XII was now fifteen. As the map of Europe was being remade by blood and iron, he had been trained above all for war. All his sports prepared him for martial deeds; he learned mathematics as a branch of military science; and he read enough Latin to derive from Qintus Curtius’ biography of Alexander the ambition to excel in arms., if not to conquer the world. Tall, handsome, strong, with no surplus ounce of flesh to burden him, he enjoyed a soldier’s life, bore its privations stoically, laughed, laughed at danger and death, and demanded the same hardihood of his troops. He cared little for women, and though often courted, he never married. He hunted bears with no other weapon than a heavy wooden fork; rode his horses at reckless speed, swam in waters that were half covered with ice, and relished sham battles in which, time and again, he and his friends were nearly killed. Along with fanatical bravery and physical stamina went certain qualities of character and intellect: a candor scorning the tricks of diplomacy; a sense of honor blemished by exceptional moments of wild cruelty a mind clear to see the point of a matter at once, but impatient of indirect approaches in thought or strategy; a taciturn pride that never forgot his royal birth and never acknowledged defeat. At his coronation he crowned himself, Napoleonwise he took no oath limiting his power; and when a clergyman questioned the wisdom of conferring absolute authority upon a youth of fifteen, Charles at first condemned him to death, then commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
He hunted bear with a heavy wooden fork? Don't try this at home, folks. I’ve written before on this remarkable man of the 17th century on 6/27/08 simply entitled XII, a post worth reading if you love cavalier swashbucklers without fear.
Vol IX: The Age of Voltaire
Morals in this age were generally more wholesome in Germany than in France, except where imitation of France passed from language to lechery. In the middle classes family life was subject to an almost fanatical discipline; fathers habitually whipped their daughters, sometimes their wives. Frederick William I kept the court of Berlin in fearsome order, but his daughter described the Saxon court at Dresden as quite up to that of Louis XV in adultery. Augustus the Strong, we are assured on dubious authority, had 354 “natural” children, some of whom forgot their common parentage in incestuous beds. Augustus himself was alleged to have taken, as one of his mistresses, his bastard daughter Countess Orczelska, who later taught the ars amoris to Frederick the Great. In the early eighteenth century the faculty of law at the University of Halle issued a pronouncement defending princely concubinage.
Does this man know everything – from the ancients to the family morals of 18th century French and Germans, and confidently enough to compare the two? The truly amazing thing about Durant is that these are just a handful of paragraphs I present here. Each of the thousands of pages he wrote sparkles with great writing and more information than it seems possible for one man to know.
Vol X: Rousseau and Revolution
Geography, race, religion, and politics were the natural enemies of Poland. The country was as large as France, extending in 1715 from the Oder in the west almost to Smolensk and Kiev in the east; but it had no natural boundary—no mountains or broad river—on either front to protect it from invasion; it was named from pole, a plain. It had only one outlet to the sea—at Danzig; and the Vistula that found its exit there was no defence against adjacent Prussia. That nation had no ethnic unity: the Polish majority of its 6,500,000 souls (1715) was an intermittent strife with German, Jewish, Lithuanian, and Russian minorities; here the Teutons and the Slavs came face to face in spontaneous hostility. There was no religious unity: the Roman Catholic janority ruled and oppressed the “Dissidents”—themselves contentiously divided between Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Jews. There was no political unity, for the jealously sovereign power lay in a Sejm, or Diet, composed exclusively of nobles each of whom had, through the liberum veto, the authority to nullify any proposal of all the rest, and at will bring any session, andy elected Diet, to an end. The king was chosen by the Diet, and was subject to “convention” signed by him as a condition of his election; he could pursue no long-term policy with any assurance of transmitting his crown or receiving steady support. The nobles demanded such limitless power over legislation because each wished to be completely free in ruling his land and his serfs. But limitation is the essence of liberty, for as soon as liberty is complete it dies in anarchy. The history of Poland after Jan Sobieski was a chronicle of anarchy.
Sure, maybe you aren’t particularly interested in Poland, but maybe a little more after he wraps it up for us. But, that paragraph was magnificent. Consider the alternative – here's how Wikipedia's Poland article starts: "Poland /ˈpəʊlənd/ (help·info) (Polish: Polska), officially the Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polska), is a country in Central Europe  bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north. The total area of Poland is 312,679 square kilometres (120,726 sq mi), making it the 69th largest country in the world and the 9th largest in Europe. Poland has a population of over 38 million people, which makes it the 34th most populous country in the world and the sixth most populous member of the European Union, being its most populous Slavic member.
You can barely get through that. Look what Durant does instead – he starts by summarizing the national problem – the facts about the boundaries are fit within that context; he describes the make up of the country in terms of its tensions. He doesn’t just tell us what type of government they had, as an almanac might do, he weaves it into the tale, and finishes with a pithy little mini-monograph on freedom, and ties it to Poland again at the end. The second to last sentence on freedom could be a lens on all countries and civilizations.
Of course, the one caveat about reading Durant is that you have to love history. According to Wikipedia, The Story of Civilization it is about 4,000,000 words and nearly 10,000 pages, of which I can subtract most of the last volume. He actually wrote much more but had to leave some things out. I'm not sure I could edit 9-10,000 pages in a lifetime, never mind research and write it with stunning accuracy and insight. But, you can’t even sit down and read that much unless you love it. But, if you didn’t like history, you probably would not have gotten to this place in the post. If you do love history, and have not read him, pick which ever time period you want and go for it.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .