Commentary Magazine

Civilization Meets the Durants

For anyone who loves history, surely one definition of heaven would be to possess a massive, single-shelf summation of everything that has happened in the West since the Sumerians, complete with most of the stories “every schoolboy knows” but sufficiently up-to-date to be etched here and there with a reassuringly modern acidity. If education begins not in learning how to think but in knowing what to think with, volumes like these are the indispensable seedbed. Whatever views one eventually develops on papal privilege or modern revolution, Henry IV will always stand in 1077 in the snows at Canossa, and the Tennis Court Oath will always precede the Bastille.

I have a shelf of volumes like this, a gift of some fifteen years’ standing. Their collective title is The Story of Civilization, their author a man who gave half his life—he lived for a century, and died exactly 20 years ago—to their completion. One cannot but be awestruck at the mammoth bulk of the work, and at the prescience of the man who assigned himself this task of gigantic, solitary summation. Yet, with the years, I have also noticed that no one else seems to quote or consult him. His name was Will Durant.



It all began very pastorally, across the cusp of time and in another world. Anyone ambling along the Hudson River somewhere between New York and Albany on a fine summer day in 1913 might have glimpsed a tiny figure in a canoe, heroically paddling amid the sparkling waves and nearby boat traffic. He must have looked like a man with a purpose, not just floating but going somewhere; and purposeful he was, having bicycled from New York to Albany and now canoeing back, to think.

Not yet twenty-eight years old, he was already a man with a past, and plenty to think about. His education had been wonderful. Overleaping the fusty certitudes of a Catholic upbringing, he had discovered Darwin and Spinoza, graduated from college, taught school, entered and then fled the seminary. He had begun to lecture for pay in the homes of friends. At the invitation and expense of one such friend, Alden Freeman, an inverted scion of Standard Oil, he had toured Europe. All sorts of passions bubbled in the young and still unsullied century, and he delighted in them all: progressivism, atheism, anarchism, socialism.

He also delighted in his life in New York, though it had begun in difficulty. A teaching position had been offered him at the Ferrer Modern School—no work, no rules, no curriculum, salaries paid by Freeman—after he delivered a lecture under its auspices explaining that all religion was grounded, philosophically, in sex. The news of his subsequent excommunication from the Catholic Church had followed him home to Newark, and was splashed across the front page of the Newark Evening News only a year before his canoe trip. But teaching at the Ferrer School quickly brought a different problem, in the form of a fourteen-year-old Jewish pupil named Chaya, or Ada, or Ida, Kaufmann, who fell in love with him.

He ardently reciprocated. Within a few months of their meeting, in early 1913, he was having to answer questions from the school about the nature of their relationship. He responded in eloquent letters that mixed self-abnegation and joy, explaining himself to the school, to her father, and to the young woman, whom he incidentally renamed “Ariel.”

The young man paddling in the river was thus in love; ambitious; and had already suffered revolutions in his thinking and private life. Also, through one thing and another, he had just lost his job. So in that summer of 1913 he put off the girl to travel alone upstate. It did him good, for he returned with his mind made up. With Freeman’s help, he now entered Columbia to begin graduate studies, got a new position lecturing at a place in New York called the Labor Temple School, and married Ariel, by now all of fifteen. He turned twenty-eight a few days after the wedding.

Taking Ariel with him, young Will Durant went on to great accomplishment. Finishing his doctorate in philosophy, he taught briefly at Columbia’s extension division and wrote philosophy for Simon & Schuster, a new publishing firm whose method was to hit upon marketable ideas and then find authors to write them up. Philosophy counted as much as crossword puzzles in those days, and Will Durant obliged. In the meantime he also lectured all across the United States, not only in rustic places where “tired men and women had never heard of Socrates” but in Carnegie Hall, where he debated Clarence Darrow, and in Boston’s Symphony Hall, where he debated Bertrand Russell. Ariel, an adolescent bride often alone, left him—or their seaside cottage—twice, on her second flight finding herself unwittingly committed to Bellevue. Then she had a baby, and opened a restaurant, apparently as much for the company as for income.

For they seem, especially Will, to have made money. Within fifteen years of the canoe trip, publishing and lecturing had brought the Durants from minor scandal to fame and comfort. Although the stock market crashed, the family was sufficiently well-off to purchase a new home ($15,000) and steamship tickets aboard the Franconia in the otherwise darkening month of January 1930. Durant, just turned forty-four, was ready to begin research for a new book, the first volume of a series that was already a dearly-held life project and that he had actually described in a letter of 1913: The Story of Civilization, a synthesis of all history and culture, all “morals, literature, philosophy, and art” from remote Oriental antiquity to the present. He was a scholar, and he knew what he was about. He proposed doing it in five volumes. It would take eleven.



The original plan was as broad and as sensible as possible. The five volumes were to cover the Orient; classical antiquity; the Middle Ages (including medieval Islam, medieval Judaism, and the Renaissance); Europe from the Reformation; and “Our Modern Heritage,” from Napoleon to Durant’s own day. But as the years passed, his love of the labor, his excitement at the breadth of what he was uncovering, and popular success made every volume flower into something larger and more detailed than anticipated. Only the first, Our Oriental Heritage, published in 1935, stayed within its bounds, which were anyway quite enormous (ancient Sumer to modern Japan) and are the more startling today considering that he treated the Orient as a kind of prologue or helpmeet to the West. He thought he was only being fair.

After that, he broke up his initial program, giving two volumes to antiquity (The Life of Greece, 1939, and Caesar and Christ, 1944), and one to the Middle Ages: The Age of Faith, brought out in 1950 and the longest of the entire set. In the preface, Durant still foresaw a limited Story of just two more volumes, taking him up personally to 1960 and “imminent senility.” But limits proved no use, for the flowering went on under his very eyes, the way real flowers explode in color in time-lapse photography. The Renaissance followed in 1953, The Reformation four years later. Then came the four volumes that Durant, with his early sympathy for Spinoza, probably most enjoyed writing: The Age of Reason (1961), The Age of Louis XIV (1963), The Age of Voltaire (1965), and Rousseau and Revolution (1967). Now they—starting with volume seven, Ariel appeared as co-author—thought they had finished. But eight years later, four decades after Will had begun, they reemerged with The Age of Napoleon (1975). In its preface they said they had gotten bored with inactivity and were not dead yet, so here was another interesting and enjoyable historic figure.

At this point, Durant had devoted his waking hours to the Story for 40 years. He and Ariel followed a rigorous and pleasing pattern: world travel to see firsthand the sites he was aiming to write about, then study and reading, writing, publication, acclaim, a little more lecturing, and then more steamship tickets and more travel. In their Dual Autobiography (1977), from which I have taken much of the information here, he spoke easily of the physical work: “forty thousand notes under twelve thousand headings” for Volume VIII, and so forth. Every volume thanked “friend reader” and “patient reader” for attention and companionship.

By Napoleon’s turn, however, the young anarchist and lover was ninety, his bride in her late seventies. Dedicatory messages had long since included the names of grandchildren. And so, a little over 25 years ago, their summary of civilization, which they had chosen to halt at the 1830’s, itself came to a halt.



Even 25 years ago, let alone 65 years ago, Durant was not alone in this line of work. From the early years of the 20th century, educated Americans and Europeans had exhibited an appetite for loose but noble summations of Western learning, or at any rate had responded to the publishers and writers who sensed this appetite and strove to satisfy it. As the historian Norman Cantor notes in Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), Henri Pirenne in France, Arnold Toynbee in England, and Oswald Spengler in Germany realized “there was an audience for large-scale generalization” and wrote history with a new broadness and grandeur, “poetic and unscholarly,” to engage readers beyond university specialists. And let us not forget the heyday of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books, and Harvard’s Five-Foot Shelf of Classics, and Clifton Fadiman.

When he undertook his project, Durant was therefore in good company. He was different only in doing eleven volumes of work all by himself, and in developing a splendid philosophical rationale for it. When he began—he the intoxicating, experienced public speaker, he the Columbia Ph.D.—he had in mind, as his models, no lesser figures than Hume and Voltaire. More particularly, and unlike the professionals who “wrote for one another in a kind of sacred and secret society, in an aloof and awesome dialect,” he would be “a new type of historian.” Life, after all, was lived all at once by everyone. Why should history be relegated to specialists writing for each other, as if ordinary people, whose ancestors lived history, did not matter or care?

And those ordinary people did seem to care, at least enough to buy and, presumably, read his books. They knew him, they attended his lectures, they evinced an appetite that Durant and his publisher were pleased to feed. And the appetite cannot have been too freakish. People like stories, especially stories about people, and the Durants, no fools, wrote for an audience bettering itself through pleasant if not quite exhaustive narratives about important people and subjects.

Although their books do not seem to have been huge bestsellers against the tough competition of the time—from Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: The War Years (1939) to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963)—Simon & Schuster seemed willing enough to continue putting its money behind these two increasingly elderly people increasingly famous for being themselves. They were chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and one volume, Rousseau and Revolution, even won a Pulitzer. In their Dual Autobiography, the Durants keep careful track not only of private congratulations but of all the favorable reviews. H.L. Mencken approved, as did Thomas Mann, Maurice Maeterlinck, André Maurois, and William Shirer (“better than Toynbee or Spengler”). “The splendor of the Durant style,” “brightly readable,” “beautifully written,” “brilliant and engrossing,” “a fine work of popularization,” enthused the Saturday Review, and Time, and the New Yorker.

Moreover, mysterious though it may appear now, the impulse that made him and Ariel try, “before we die, to gather up our heritage and offer it to our children,” as Durant would put it in his oracular fashion, seems to have gone unquestioned when he began. Was everyone still reeling from World War I, trying to remember whatever it was that had mattered? Or was it just the burgeoning literacy rates that made the average person want to know more than his ancestors could have picked up from reading cathedral windows, to know the kinds of things once reserved, say, for Tudor princes sitting in a courtyard with Roger Ascham? A couple once wrote to Durant that they first read and admired his books while snowbound in an isolated hotel, with no ready entertainment. There it was, perhaps—the world before television.



Anyway, we are not Tudors, and Durant was no Ascham, who taught out of a real Greek manuscript retrieved from Constantinople. Oracular though he may have seemed, he neither unrolled forgotten medieval charters nor brushed off newly discovered bones, but only studied other people’s books. His idea of further research was to visit art museums with his wife.

And here is where he got into trouble. It is curious that almost no one quarreled with his most perturbing flaw, which was an often unpleasant style. Although he could state things intelligibly as far as they went, and use complex sentence structures, his prose, which has an ornate, late 19th-century feel to it, falls into rhythmic cycles that eventually become as majestic and predictable, and as cold, as the waves of the sea. “The difference between man and the gorilla is largely a matter of trouser and words.” “We do not enjoy the windy speeches with which [Virgil’s Aeneas] kills good men, adding a rhetorical boredom to that competitive perforation which is humanity’s final test of truth.” And so forth, for eleven volumes. But it was deemed brightly beautiful, so it must stand as such.

No, where he got into trouble, where he got hurt, was with the professional historians, men who did not embalm what was already dead but grubbed about in the innards of the living, consulting calendars of state papers as well as each other’s monographs. They did not find him remarkable. In every generation—and Durant outlived a couple—the big guns came on, dreadnoughts cresting the horizon and bearing down on the lovers in their little boat, catching them out in errors and warning the public that what was going on in the Story was neither scholarship nor history.

But history is very strange. A human being ought to know some of it, any of it, if for no better reason than that we are not cows or horses, who have none. Can great summations from a literate, self-conscious age, though technically flawed, still be useful to most of us? Or is the subject so important that mistakes cannot be countenanced, any more than in a manual about math or trees or gemcutting? What if nobody knows anything? Durant retold stories from Miss Julia Cartwright’s biographies of Beatrice and Isabella d’Este (1913 and 1928), and reminded us that the aged Fontenelle once opened a New Year’s ball dancing with the one-year-old daughter of Helvetius. Would that not suffice, at least for a start?



I wanted to make up my mind about The Story of Civilization because I had owned it and used it for years before its billowing prose made me suspect something deeper might be wrong with it. When the gift was new it seemed so vast and perfect I thought it was a fountainhead. Reading outside its bounds, finding it cited nowhere, surprised me. I read obviously great and clearly written books like The Armada (1959), in which the author, the Columbia historian Garrett Mattingly, appears to have documented every wind shear between Corunna and the North Sea in the summer of 1588, and then I discovered that Mattingly also wrote negative (but kindly) reviews of Durant. I suppose I was in the perpetual student’s position: what do we do when, because they do not get along, teachers we admire throw each other’s abilities into uncomfortable relief?

Mattingly, James Henry Breasted (Ph.D., LL.D., D.Litt., Oxon), John Day of Barnard College—they all tried to be kind but they all said the same thing. The Durants relied on sometimes unreliable secondary sources; they ignored up-to-date professional work; they tried to include too much of everything and so created huge gaps in the very perspective that synthesis should provide. J.H. Plumb of Cambridge, not kind at all, was so enraged by The Age of Louis XIV that he used words like “shoddy,” “boring,” “dangerous,” “facile,” “soft-minded pulp.”

The couple were badly stung by Plumb—a good indication of how professional they considered themselves. Generously, they give him, “our dedicated enemy,” a full chapter in the Dual Autobiography, noting that he caught them committing, in one sentence of a 700-page book, “five major errors” about William and Mary. They try to refute him, but cannot. Manifestly not in command of the material, they simply restate their original propositions in a somewhat injured tone.

But William and Mary did exist, and at least Durant got the years right plus the basic story, intertwining religion, monarchy, flight, and revolution. Plumb, who called him shoddy, must have been very confident of future standards. Today we have college graduates who seem less and less able to place George Washington in the correct century, let alone the correct years, and primary schools where the subject has not been called “history” in decades. From this perspective, the idea that the Story will not do seems laughable.

Still, I am glad that Western scholarship at its best is too healthy to regard an embalming job like the Story as a masterpiece. And I have to trust that the opinions of historians will prevail who have done not more than Durant but less, with a telltale simplicity and calm. If Mattingly with his handful of books on early modern diplomacy judges Durant’s gigantism as, of all things, unhistorical, I accept that. The professionals who are privy to the old standards that have kept Western scholarship truthful get to win. But even as I accept it, I am left dangerously unanchored. We will always be ignorant of something, af-ter all, and today’s wildly luxuriant scholarship tends to take in all kinds of choking growths, none of which is tendered to us as our own, or as a precious gift.

The West is always fancying itself at death’s door, and somebody is forever composing its memoirs. So I also have to hope that Durant did not just come along at the genuine end, just as a saving burst of literacy and a desperate mood of summing-up affected people in the last instant before electronic entertainment stomped everything. With his gifts, Durant could have chosen to be a real charter-and-bones historian, but did not, and ended up thinking more highly of himself than he had a right to. But if the judgment that he is not good enough seems inarguable, inarguable in a different way is, or should be, the trust he placed in our thirst for historical knowledge-in-the-large, and his generous belief that it is our possession. My oracle’s tumble thus clarifies a little something after all.



In the end it is possible at least to be glad, for their sakes, that the Durants had a magnificent life. Already fifteen when the 20th century opened, Will remained all his life a 19th-century private gentleman, with a gentleman’s background and a gentleman’s choices. As a young philosopher he had had great, do-good plans for everyone’s future. As a grandfather he remained a smiling, agnostic vegetarian referring to anyone not supporting Hubert Humphrey as “antediluvian.” He closed the Story with typical progressive, submit-our-disputes-to-an-international-court advice.

The excellent couple, always gloriously in love, had long since moved to Los Angeles, where they circulated with movie stars and sponsored half-political galas on themes like “A Declaration of Interdependence.” In time President Ford gave them the Medal of Freedom. They died in great old age in the fall of 1981, within two weeks of each other. A big, perfect life; and at the end Durant said, with brave and rueful Western confidence, “our laborious masterpieces will be superseded.” One hopes.


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