The Lessons of History by Will Durant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’m having trouble articulating the complex mix of opinions and emotions that I’ve formed around Durant. Several times I have come away from his books disappointed; and yet I continue to read them. One reason he fascinates me is that he is a species of American which is now almost entirely extinct: a product of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm in American higher education.
As far as I can tell, this paradigm in education was first popularized in 1909, when Charles W. Eliot released his Harvard Classics—the so-called Five-Foot Shelf—which consisted of 51 volumes of classic works from western history. The spirit of this idea was later epitomized in the Book-of-the-Month club, about which Bertrand Russell, writing in 1930, penned his famous line: “There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”
It was certainly a different time. The philosopher George Santayana and the historian Arnold Toynbee were bestselling authors, both featured on the cover of Time magazine. Will Durant, whose prose style strikes the modern ear as purple and grandiloquent, created a publishing sensation with his Story of Civilization, a series which totals four million words and ten thousand pages. And the monstrously big, 54-volume Great Books of the Western World sold thousands of copies—thousands!—even though it included works of Alexandrian astronomy, Greek mathematics, and German metaphysics, among other difficult material. One suspects that the bragging motive was the operative one in the majority of these purchases.
The spirit of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm is that of idolatry towards European intellectual history. The tone of its advocates often sound ludicrously reverential, such as this excerpt from a speech delivered on the occasion of the release of the Great Books series: “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” (I got that from Wikipedia, by the way.) As two World Wars wracked the European continent, and as the fear of communism and nuclear war covered the Western world with gloom, perhaps it is unsurprising to see American intellectuals and laypeople positioning themselves as the heirs of European civilization.
This idea held sway for a long time in American Universities, and perhaps isn’t altogether dead. The swan songs of this pedagogical philosophy can be heard in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994), wherein both authors lament and eulogize the disappearance of the ‘Great Books’ from American universities.
Educated at Columbia during the heyday of this phenomenon, Durant was formed by the ‘Great Books’ ethos, and perhaps was one of its most eloquent proponents. And it strikes me now that, in Durant’s writings, one finds both the virtues and the vices of the ‘Great Books’ idea illustrated with extreme precision.
Durant was broadminded and well-rounded; he could write ably about a multitude of subjects. He was tolerant, kindly, sometimes witty, with a firm belief in human progress and achievement. His prose style was superb—a model of clarity and grace—which he used in his quest to disseminate as widely as possible the fruits of “Civilization” (his all-inclusive term for everything good in the West). Neither a genius nor a scholar, Durant was an enthusiast: he was able to write so wonderfully about historical figures because he genuinely loved and revered them; in fact, he almost literally worshiped them, as he himself admitted.
But he also had many weaknesses. First, the ‘Great Books’ mindset caused Durant to concentrate his attention overmuch on the high-points in cultural achievement. One gets an extremely skewed picture of European history if one focuses solely on the greatest thinkers and artists. Of course, it’s pleasant to contemplate these individuals, which is partly why Durant’s books are so fun to read; but such exclusive concentration also produces a kind of Pollyannish attitude, where history is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and persecutions, wars, and bigotry are not given their due—and the banality of daily life is wholly sidestepped.
A related consequence of the ‘Great Books’ attitude is a somewhat reactionary mindset. Since Durant so often equates the old with the good, tradition with right, age with quality, he can be remarkably, and sometimes stupidly, conservative. For example, whenever Durant writes of sexual mores, he comes across as a moralizing Sunday-school teacher. For Durant, promiscuity is immoral, and homosexuality a sin. Long-term, faithful heterosexual marriages are the mark of ‘civilization’. Because Durant never justifies this opinion—a habit of his—I can only conclude that this was mere prejudice on his part.
Another obvious result of the ‘Great Books’ philosophy is elitism. Durant frequently mentions in this book that talent is unequally distributed; and because of this “natural inequality of man,” the stupid majority are destined forever to toil under the dominance of the intelligent minority. Now, of course I wouldn’t disagree that people are differently endowed from birth with various aptitudes. But I’m very far from believing that the inequality which we see throughout history and which persists today is simply the result of the “skill” of the wealthy and powerful. Rather, I agree with Gibbon, that “The generality of princes, if they were stripped of their purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society without a hope of emerging from their obscurity.”
The ‘Great Books’ program also has the shortcoming of emphasizing breadth over depth. Durant certainly embodies this. Although he can write about many subjects, he is an expert on none of them; and this lack of serious expertise prevented him from advancing the state of knowledge in any field. Durant’s ideology also privileges the transmission of old ideas rather than the creation of new ones. After all, if one worships the past, there is little motivation to re-imagine the future. Moreover, the ‘Great Books’ doctrine stressed reputation at the expense of rigor. Ideas are praised for their lasting influence, their grandness of scope, their contribution to a long-standing debate—but not for their accuracy. In Durant, this produced a man who often cared more about whether an idea was beautiful or interesting rather than whether it was true.
Fueling this tendency is another shibboleth of the ‘Great Books’ school: that simply by reading the greatest books of the ages, one could purge oneself of all provincial prejudices and look upon history as from a timeless perspective. Durant seems to think this way, as the very title of this book shows: The Lessons of History. These conclusions are not his own theses, not his own ideas—but lessons, which Durant can gather from the fabric of history as easily as a child can infer the lesson from a fairytale. It goes without saying that this is nonsense. Durant looked at history and found his own prejudices; and this book is merely a collection of them.
I’m sure you’re wearied by this litany of accusations and complaints, so I will only mention in passing the other distinctive sins of this ‘Great Books’ mindset—namely, its glorification of Europe, and only Western Europe, at the expense of the rest of the world, as well as its underrepresentation of women and minorities. This is wonderfully illustrated in Durant’s plan of the Story of Civilization, wherein he dedicates one volume to all of Asia, and the rest of the eleven volumes to Europe (and none to South America or to Africa).
At this point you may be wondering, “If Durant has so many faults, which you are apparently so acutely aware of, why are you reading so much of him?” Well, this has to do with my own history. At the end of my time in college, vaguely feeling that the education I received wasn’t worth half of what I paid for it, I picked up Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. This book had a profound effect on me. Bloom seemed to articulate my dissatisfaction with my education, as well point me in the direction where it could be rectified. As soon as I finished, I looked up the list of the Great Books of the Western World, and dove in.
Now, despite all of the faults I listed above, I must still admit that one receives a stupendous education by reading the books recommended in the program. I read rabidly, desperately, doing my best to make up for lost time; and whatever may be my intellectual shortcomings now—and they are many—I am at least far better off than I was before I began. But of course I still haven’t read all of these hoary books—there are a lot!—and this is partly why I’m interested in Will Durant: for in him, I can see the end result of my own educational project.
Unfortunately, while Durant was truly an excellent writer, for the reasons I discussed above, he was a poor thinker. This slim volume, the fruits of a massive research project, is a collection of vague homilies, baseless theorizing, and unsupported claims. It’s incredible and a bit depressing that so much learning could produce so little insight. I still think I have much to learn from Durant and the other proponents of the ‘Great Books’ school—as well as from the books themselves, of course. But now, hopefully, after sorting through Durant’s writings, I will be better able to separate the good from the bad, the worthless from the valuable; for I do think, after all, that there is something essentially precious in the idea.