Taking a fresh look at Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization

by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com

As the title says, Will and Ariel Durant tell a story -- one whopping big story, from the beginnings of civilization up to the 19th century. This is not academic history, it is entertainment and information for the millions. There's no need to read it from the beginning: if you try to you'll almost certainly get bogged down and never finish. But you can read a chapter here and a chapter there, following the storyline threads (that weave in and out from volume to volume) or following your current interests. (I got back into him trying to read up on the background for Dumas' Three Musketeers).

The writing is delightful. Sometimes the authors sum up a long complex career with a few incisive sentences. For instance, "Charles V was the most impressive failure of his age, and even his virtues were sometimes unfortunate for mankind." (Reformation, p. 642). Also, about Christian II of Denmark, "Christian fled to Flanders with his queen, the Protestant sister of Charles V; he made his peace with the Church, hoping to get a kingdom for a Mass; he was captured in a futile attempt to regain his throne, and for twenty-seven years he lived in the dungeons of Sonderborg with no companion but a half-wit Norwegian dwarf. The paths of glory led him with leisurely ignominy to the grave (1559)." (Reformation, p. 628). There's much here to ignite the imagination of a novelist.

Sometimes the Durants succeed in capturing in just a few words the crux of a situation, for instance about Loyola, in his days as a soldier in Pamplona, "Four years he spent there, dreaming of glory and waking to routine." (Reformation, p. 906).

Elsewhere, they render cursory and eloquent judgement, for instance, about John Calvin (Reformation p. 490), "... we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense."

The books in this series were published over the course of 40 years (1935-1975), and some of the 11 volumes are over 1000 pages long. But this massive work has found its way into the hands of many people over the years, mainly as a perenniel new-member enticement for the Book-of-the-Month Club. (That's how I got the first volumes, back in 1959). For many middle-class, baby-boomer Americans, these books were and remain the standard historical reference work.

But reading Durant today, I can't help but recognize how much has changed, with the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the collapse of Communism. It is only natural to tell a "story" from the perspective of "today." Now "today" has changed, so the "story" feels dated. It is still great entertainment, and a handy reference work for checking dates and names, but the overall thrust of the narrative no longer resounds with authority.

For the Durants, the events of previous centuries were important in part as causes or harbingers of what in their day looked like the ultimate conflict facing mankind. They highlight every minor event and character with any possible connection to the historical development toward Communism and Capitalism. While the narrative ended with Napoleon, the implication was that the story led inevitably to the Cold War issues and conflicts that were the background, the context in which the Durants wrote. But today, the Cold War is a distant era, which we can only understand, with research and effort -- trying to reconstruct a perspective and a set of assumptions that permeated much of Western thinking for a generation, but that is now gone.

Today, there is no ultimate conflict. Hence we no longer see history in hegelian terms, with events unfolding in a single direction. We can now appreciate history as story, as the story of mankind, and it can come alive again -- in many different tellings of many different episodes. And what interesting and obscure events and people will now be resurrected from the junkheap of history?

Today, we can look back on the 20th century as a single play in three acts (WW I, WW II, and Cold War) with a beginning, a middle and an end -- rather than as the culmination of all history. (Only when the Ice Age ended could anyone conceive that ice was not the ultimate state of nature, that there would be other trends and cycles -- some short and some enormously long.)

Before, reading history was like reading a story when you already know the outcome. Yes, you could appreciate the details and the performance, but it all just led to what you already knew. History seen through the colored lenses of today's major issues.

What a relief it is to live (for a brief while) in a time when the major issues are unknown and unresolved -- when one orthodoxy has collapsed and before the formation of a new one. We have the opportunity to look at the past with fresh eyes, with new undefined and shifting filters. The past is alive -- not yet killed by a new orthodoxy.

My nine-year-old son Timmy summed up the importance of history the other day. "We can only know about the future from looking at the past." Sound familiar? More same-old same-old, and we're condemned to just repeat the past? But he meant it in a new sense, "Whatever can happen that hasn't happened yet, will happen." 

Response to an irate reader of the above review:


I'm surprised that you construed my review the way you did. I am a great fan of Durant's Story of Civilization, and say "the writing is delightful."

I never say that his account is fictitious of inaccurate. "One whopping story" is meant as a compliment -- he takes all these disparate sources and puts the material together into a very readable, informative, and entertaining story (as the title implies).

I also indicate that he tells this story from a point of view. That is natural with history, though academic-style histories often mask that, and Durant is quite forthright. He calls it as he sees it -- with strong and very well-expressed opinions. For me, much of the charm and delight of the work comes from those opinions and that excellent writing style.

(Gibbon, too, was very subjective, with a delightful style, and judgements that sum up individuals, countries and periods quite well. But Gibbon only dealt with a small subset of the vast topic that Durant took up.)

What I do point out is that Durant wrote this history at a time when it looked like the conflict between Communism and Capitalism was somehow the culmination of history in the western world. This perspective was part of the filter involved his selection of what to tell about and how to tell it.

We all see the world from the perspective of the times we have lived through. That isn't a criticism of Durant. I'm simply pointing out that today's notions of the significance of events may well differ from what was common in Durant's day -- because the world has changed since then.

It has always struck me as bizarre and interesting how history changes over time. We always view the past teleogically, as if what came before is of signifiance mainly in so far as it led to the world becoming the way we see it today. As the present changes, the teleology changes. Hence the need for each generation to rewrite history in terms that make sense for it.

NB -- it is not the facts that change in this rewriting, but rather the selections of "important" facts and the judgements rendered.

-- Richard Seltzer

Reader reaction --

Your review does justice to Will and Ariel Durant's magnificent writings of the "Story".

I feel as you do, the academics have frightened many would be readers away from an enlightening experience.

I have a complete set and, as you suggested, I will pick through the "Contents" to find a relevancy to something that may be in today's news headlines.  You may be sure that I have delved in: Our Oriental Heritage, chapter VII: Sumeria,
chapter IX: Babylonia---you'll remember the vandalization of the museum in Baghdad.

I especially enjoy reading my remarks scribbled throughout all my books ( I do not hesitate to make comments in the margins).  They go back, in many instances, to the early 60's.  I never sell or dispose of any of my books of substance. Marked up they may be, but I enjoy going back over the years only to find interesting changes in my views.

Was pleased to know that there are others out there who feel the same as I do about Will and Ariel Durant and who know also that to attempt to read a book from page one through to the end just might discourage its completion.

R.D. Cooley (12/2/2003)

Discuss books at  Blogging about Books http://www.samizdat.com/blog/
Other book reviews by Richard Seltzer
Opus authors -- contemporary writers whose entire work is great
The Readers' Corner and Writers Showcase

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