Review: The Age of Napoleon

Review: The Age of Napoleon
The Age of Napoleon (The Story of Civilization, #11)

The Age of Napoleon by Will Durant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally I have come to the last book in this series. It was four long years ago when I first read The Life of Greece; and these have been the four most educational years of my life, in part thanks to The Story of Civilization. Though I have had some occasions to criticize Durant over the years, the fact that I have dragged myself through ten lengthy volumes of his writing is compliment enough. Now all I need to do is to read the first volume of the series, Our Oriental Heritage, in order to bring my voyage to its end. (I originally skipped it because it struck me as absurd to squeeze all of Asia into one volume and then cover Europe in ten; but for the sake of completion I suppose I will have to read it.)

Durant did not plan to write this volume. His previous book, Rousseau and Revolution, ends with a final bow. But Durant lived longer than he anticipated (he died at 96), so he decided to devote his final years to a bonus book on Napoleon. It is extraordinarily impressive that he and his wife, Ariel, could have maintained the same high standard of writing for so many decades; there is no notable decline in quality in this volume, which makes me think that Durant should have written a book on healthy living, too.

The Age of Napoleon displays all of Durant’s typical merits and faults. The book begins with a bust: Durant rushes through the French Revolution, seeming bored by the whole affair, seeing the grand drama only as a disruptive prelude to Napoleon. This showcases Durant’s inability to write engagingly about processes and events; when there is no central actor on which to focus his attention, the writing becomes colorless and vague. Further, it also shows that Durant, while a strong writer, was a weak historian: he provides very little analysis or commentary on what is one of the most important and influential events in European history.

When Napoleon enters the scene, the book becomes appreciably more lively. For reasons that largely escape me, Durant was an unabashed admirer of the diminutive general, and sees in Napoleon an example of the farthest limits of human ability. Though normally uninterested in the details of battles and campaigns, Durant reveals a heretofore hidden talent for military narration as he covers Napoleon’s military triumphs and defeats. Some parts of the book, particularly near the end, are genuinely thrilling—an adjective that rarely comes to mind with Durant’s staid and steady style. Granted, he had an extraordinary story to tell; Napoleon’s rise, fall, rise again, and fall again are as epic as anything in Plutarch.

But as usual Durant shines most brightly in his sections on artists, poets, and philosophers. The greatest section of this book is that on the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. (For some reason, Durant sees fit to exclude Keats, even though the scope of Keats’ life falls entirely within that of Napoleon.) Less engaging, though still worthwhile, was Durant’s section on the German idealist philosophers; and his miniature biography of Beethoven was a stirring tribute. Many writers who properly belong in this volume were, however, paid their respects in the previous, most notably Goya and Goethe, since Durant thought that this volume would never appear.

Though I am happy to reach the end, I am saddened that I cannot continue the story of Europe’s history any further forward with Durant. He is an inspiring guide to the continent’s cultural treasures.



View all my reviews

The Writing of Will Durant

In my several reviews of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, I have consistently praised his writing. The more I read, the more I want to read; and the more I digest, the more impressed I become. For this reason, I wanted to collect some samples of Durant’s prose, both for my own benefit, to serve as models for my prose, and to show others why I recommend Durant so highly.

For me, Durant is a writer of rare caliber, capable of being clear, charming, and graceful through thousands of pages. In many ways, Durant epitomized the pedagogical approach William Zinsser suggests in his book, Writing to Learn. Through his writing, Durant explored nearly every subject and epoch. He wrote his way through metaphysics and mercantilism, through paintings and plagues, through English law and ancient engineering. So, without further preface, here is a sampling of Durant’s prose. And mind you that these excerpts are not atypical, but representative of his whole work.

Durant on Religion. He is giving an overview of the Catholic Church; from The Reformation (Volume VI):

Through a formative millennium, from Constantine to Dante, the Christian Church offered the gifts of religion to men and states. It molded the figure of Jesus into a divine embodiment of virtues by which rough barbarians might be shamed into civilization. It formulated a creed that made every man’s life a part, however modest, of a sublime cosmic drama; it bound each individual to in a momentous relation with a God Who had created him, Who had spoken to him in sacred Scripture, Who had descended from heaven to suffer ignominy and death in atonement for the sins of humanity, and Who had founded the church as the repository of His teaching and the earthly agents of His power. Year by year the magnificent drama grew; saints and martyrs died for the creed, and bequeathed their example and their merits to the faithful. A hundred forms—a hundred thousand works—of art interpreted the drama and made it vivid even for letterless minds.

Durant on Home Life. He is painting a portrait of the home in medieval Europe; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):

There was not much comfort in the medieval home. Windows were few, and seldom glassed; wooden shutters closed them against glare or cold. Heating was by one or more fireplaces; drafts came in from a hundred cracks in the walls, and made high-backed chairs a boon. In winter it was common to wear warm hats and fur indoors. Furniture was scanty but well made. Chairs were few, and usually had no backs; but sometimes they were elegantly carved, engraved with armorial bearings, and inlaid with precious stones. Most seats were cut into the masonry walls, or built upon chests in alcoves. Carpets were unusual before the thirteenth century. Italy and Spain had them; and when Eleanor of Castile went to England in 1254 as the bride of the future Edward I, her servants covered the floor of her apartment at Westminster with carpets after the Spanish custom—which then spread through England. Ordinary floors were strewn with rushes or straw, making some houses so malodorous that the parish priest refused to visit them.

Durant on Visual Art. He is describing the Sistine Chapel; from The Renaissance (Volume V):

[Michelangelo] divided the convex vault into over a hundred panels by picturing columns and moldings between them; and he enhanced the tridimensional illusion with lusty, youthful figures upholding the cornices or seated on capitals. In the major panels, running along the crest of the ceiling, Angelo painted scenes from Genesis: the initial act of creation separates light from darkness; the sun, moon, and planets come into being at the command of the Creator—a majestic figure stern of face, powerful of body, with beard and robes flying in the air; the Almighty, even finer in form than in the previous panel, extends His right arm to create Adam, while with his left arm He holds a very pretty Angel—this panel is Michelangelo’s pictorial masterpiece; God, now a much older and patriarchal deity, evokes Eve from Adam’s rib; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree, and are expelled from Eden; Noah and his sons prepare a sacrificial offering to God; the flood rises; Noah celebrates with too much wine. All in these panels is Old Testament, all is Hebraic; Michelangelo belongs to the prophets pronouncing doom, not to the evangelists expounding the gospel of love.

Durant on Architecture. He is evaluating the palace of Versailles; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

Architecturally, Versailles is too complex and haphazard to approach perfection. The chapel is brilliant, but such flaunting of decoration hardly accords with the humility of prayer. Parts of the palace are beautiful, and the stairways to the garden are majestic; but the compulsion laid upon the designers to leave the hunting lodge intact, merely adding wings and ornament, injured the appearance of the whole. Sometimes the proliferating pile leaves an impression of cold monotony and labyrinthine repetition—one room after another to the spread of 1,320 frontal feet. The internal arrangement seems to have ignored physiological convenience, and to have presumed upon remarkable retentive power in noble vesicles. Half a dozen rooms had to be traversed to reach the goal of desire; no wonder we hear of stairways and hallways serving in such emergencies.

Durant on Literature. He is discussing Shakespeare’s language; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):

The language is the richest in all of literature: fifteen thousand words, including the technical terms of heraldry, music, sports, and the professions, the dialect of the shires, the argot of the pavement, and a thousand hurried or lazy inventions—occulted, unkenneled, fumitory, burnet, spurring… He relished words and explored the nooks and crannies of the language; he loved words in general and poured them forth in frolicsome abandon; if he names a flower he must go on to name a dozen—the words themselves are fragrant. He makes simple characters mouth polysyllabic circumlocutions. He plays jolly havoc with the grammar: turns nouns, adjectives, even adverbs into verbs, and verbs, adjectives, even pronouns into nouns; gives a plural verb to a singular subject or a singular verb to a plural subject; but there were as yet no grammars of English usage. Shakespeare wrote in haste, and had no leisure to repent.

Durant on Engineering. He is summarizing the Roman techniques for constructing roads; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):

The consular roads were among their simpler achievements. They were from sixteen to twenty-four feet wide, but near Rome part of this width was taken up by sidewalks (margines) paved with rectangular stone slabs. They went straight to their goal in brave sacrifice of initial economy to permanent savings; they overleaped countless streams with costly bridges, crossed marshes with long, arched viaducts of brick and stone, climbed up and down steep hills with no use of cut and fill, and crept along mountaintops or high embankments secured by powerful retaining walls. Their pavement varied with locally available material. Usually the bottom layer (pavimentum) was a four- to six-inch bed of sand, or one inch of mortar. Upon this were imposed four strata of masonry: the statumen, a foot deep, consisting of stones bound with cement or clay; the rudens, ten inches of rammed concrete; the nucleus, twelve to eighteen inches of successively laid and rolled layers of concrete; and the summa crusta of silex or lava polygonal slabs, one to three feet in diameter, eight to twelve inches thick. The upper surface of slabs was smoothed, and the joints so well fitted as to be hardly discernible.

Durant on Music. He is explaining the development of musical notation; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):

We owe to our medieval forebears still another invention that made modern music possible. Tones could now be determined by dots placed on or in between the lines of the staff, but these signs gave no hint as to how long the note was to be held. Some system for measuring and denoting the duration of each note was indispensable to development of contrapuntal music—the simultaneous and harmonious procedure of two or more independent melodies. Perhaps some knowledge had seeped from Spain of Arab treatises by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and other Moslems who had dealt with measured music or mensural notation. At some time in the eleventh century Franco of Cologne, a priest mathematician, wrote a treatise Ars cantus mesurabilis, in which he gathered up the suggestion of earlier theory and practice, and laid down essentially our present system for indicating the duration of musical notes. A square-headed virga or rod, formerly used as a neume, was chosen to represent a long note; another neume, the punctum or point, was enlarged into a lozenge to represent a short note; these signs were in time altered; tails were added; by trial and error, through a hundred absurdities, our simple mensural notation was evolved.

Durant on War. He is describing the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):

The towns suffered only less than the villages. Many of them were reduced to half their former population. Great cities were in ruins—Magdeburg, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Neustadt, Bayreuth. Industry declined for lack of producers, purchasers, and trade; commerce hid its head; once-wealthy merchants begged and robbed for bread. Communes, declaring themselves bankrupt, repudiated their debts. Financiers were loath to lend, fearing that loans would be gifts. Taxation impoverished everyone but generals, tax collectors, prelates, and kings. The air was poisonous with refuse and offal and carcasses rotting in the streets. Epidemics of typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and scurvy ran through the terrified population and from town to town…

Morals and morale alike collapsed. The fatalism of despair invited the cynicism of brutality. All the ideals of religion and patriotism disappeared after a generation of violence; simple men now fought for food or drink or hate, while their masters mobilized their passions in a competition for taxable lands and political power. Here and there some humane features showed: Jesuits gathering and feeding deserted children; preachers demanding of governments an end to bloodshed and destruction. “God send that there may be an end at last,” wrote a peasant in his daybook. “God send that there be peace again. God in heaven, send us peace.”

Durant on Science. Here he explains the consequences of Newton’s work on light; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

When [Newton] passed a small ray of sunlight through a transparent prism he found that the apparently monochrome light divided into all these colors of the rainbow; that each component color emerged from the prism at its own specific angle or degree or refraction; and that the colors arranged themselves in a row of bands, forming a continuous spectrum, with red at the one end and violet at the other. Later investigators showed that various substances, when made luminous by burning, give different spectra; by comparing these spectra with the one made by a given star, it became possible to analyze in some degree the star’s chemical constituents. Still more delicate observations of a star’s spectrum indicated its approximate motion toward or from earth; and from these calculations the distance of the star was theoretically deduced. Newton’s revelation of the composition of light, and its refraction in the spectrum, has therefore had almost cosmic consequences in astronomy.

Durant on Trade. Here he gives us a picture of Roman trade in the first century; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):

The improvement of government and transport expanded Mediterranean trade to unprecedented amplitude. At one end of the busy process of exchange were peddlers hawking through the countryside everything from sulphur matches to costly imported silks; wandering auctioneers who served also as town criers and advertised lost goods and runaway slaves; daily markets and periodical fairs; shopkeepers haggling with customers, cheating with false or tipped scales, and keeping a tangential eye for the aedile’s inspectors of weights and measures.

Durant on Philosophy. Here he is summarizing Spinoza’s metaphysics; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):

We may conclude that in Spinoza substance means the essential reality underlying all things. This reality is perceived by us in two forms: as extension or matter, and as thought or mind. These two are “attributes” of substance; not as qualities residing in it, but as the same reality perceived externally by our senses as matter, and internally by our consciousness as thought. Spinoza is a complete monist: these two aspects of reality—matter and thought—are not distinct and separate entities, they are two sides, the outside and the inside, of one reality; so are body and mind, so is physiological action and the corresponding mental state.

Review: The Lessons of History

Review: The Lessons of History

The Lessons of HistoryThe 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.

View all my reviews