The Complete Story of Civilization by Will Durant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have finally done it. Eight years, eleven volumes, nearly 15,000 pages and millions of words. It is certainly the longest thing I have ever read as well as the most educational. I have already left a review of every individual volume. Some are stronger than others—I would rank Volume 1, on Asia, as the worst, and possibly Volume 4, on the Middle Ages, as the best—but in general the quality is consistent and the books have the same strengths and weaknesses.

(Though half of the books are credited to both Will and Ariel Durant, I think it is clear that Will did most of the actual writing, so I will be referring to him. However, I do not mean to diminish the great contributions of Ariel to this project.)

First, I want to emphasize that these books are not a history in the conventional sense, as an attempt to understand the past on its own terms and explain why it developed in the way it did. Judged as such, the books are certainly a failure. And, in any case, Durant did not do any primary research for this work and makes no pretentions to original findings. Yet whatever might be his professions to the contrary, Durant is really writing as a popularizer—specifically, as a popularizer of European capital-C Culture. Enough political, economic, and military history is given to serve the reader as a basic background. But the central figures of the book are artists, writers, poets, musicians, scientists, historians, philosophers, as well as the rulers who directly or indirectly promoted these creators of Culture.

Judged as a popularizer of these figures—from Plato to Voltaire, from Homer to Lord Byron, from Palestrina to Beethoven, from Giotto to Goya, from Pythagoras to Newton—Durant is remarkably successful. And this is due as much to his strong mind as to his fluent prose. His books, though long, are well-organized and well-written. His prose is urbane without ever being taxing to read, and each page has at least one unexpected detail, one memorable anecdote, or one amusing aside. He is, in a word, companionable. While he often veers into abstruse territory his writing is never dense, yet neither does he give the impression—as so many current popularizers do—of writing in a dumbed-down style.

And, somehow, Durant’s writing is also extremely easy to remember. I have gone over sections long after reading them to find that I had retained a great deal of the information. Thus, reading this books gives one the pleasant sensation of downloading information directly into one’s brain.

Durant is also versatile. The number of topics covered in these books is innumerable—architecture, fashion, music, war, the list goes on—but Durant always succeeds in making the subject interesting and transparent. And he is reliably amusing when writing of the eccentricities and personalities of the legions who march through these pages. This, indeed, is what makes the books so readable: it is not a series of processes, epochs, or events, but of individuals actively shaping their own lives. (This is also, of course, what makes the books questionable history, as the wider social, cultural, and economic forces at play are given little consideration.)

Durant begins the series by examining what he regards as the elements of “Civilization.” His list is not surprising (or entirely convincing): writing, morals, government, religion, laws, etc. Yet for most of the series, his main theme—if he can be said to have one—is the conflict of religion and reason. As the thinkers of the series gradually lose their respect for organized religion, Durant continually wonders whether society can function if the populace loses their belief in hell, since the basis of morals will be removed. To me this seems somewhat insulting and, in any case, rather uninteresting. As a general rule, the most secular countries enjoy relatively low levels of crime, so the idea seems to be obviously untrue.

There are some other peculiarities of Durant’s writing. He often discusses “sexual morality,” and takes care to note how frequently this or that person committed adultery. True, the many tales of unfaithfulness to add the only dash of scandal in these otherwise staid pages. Even so, I found Durant’s tendency to judge his subjects based on their love lives to be rather distasteful—and ironic, considering that Durant’s own marriage would certainly not be considered “moral” nowadays. (He married Ariel when she was 15 and he was 28. She had been his student.)

The series has other shortcomings, of course. The most glaring is that it is Eurocentric; and, besides, it is a classic example of a “great man” history (the vast majority of the protagonists are men).

Even so, I do think that, read in the right spirit, The Story of Civilization is a tremendous resource for those, like me, who were not taught any of these things—the history of art, literature, philosophy, among much else—in school. It is a kind of remedial education, and a very good one.

Durant is not the same sort of writer as Gibbon, Burkhardt, or Thucydides—a scholar who shines new, unexpected light on the past. He is, strangely, far more akin to Rick Steves. This may sound slightly insulting, and the writer certainly provides more breadth and depth that the tour guide. But the two of them have the same mission: to allow people (mainly Americans) to appreciate the wealth of Western culture. Indeed, The Story of Civilization was extremely useful to me as I traveled around Europe, just as it helped in my journeys through literature and philosophy. Durant will not make you an expert but he will at least point you in the right direction.

In this way, these books were created in the same spirit as art museums or public classical music radio: to bring Culture to the people. The idea does seem somewhat antiquated now. Collectively, we have lost faith in Culture. And I can see why. Highly cultivated men have committed atrocities, while the most ignorant have led saintly lives. And, in any case, our definition of what counts as Culture has widened so much—has been so thoroughly democratized—that it hardly specifies anything now.

Even so, it is worth remembering that everything we enjoy today is the product of a long and rich tradition. And even if it seems stuffy or snobby to say so, I think it is still very much worth it to acquaint oneself with this heritage. Not to become “better” people, but to fill our lives with beauty.

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