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Will Durant on History

William James Durant (1885-1991) was a writer, historian, and philosopher best known for the eleven-volume set of books he and his wife, Ariel, wrote in the early 1930s titled The Story of Civilization. He also wrote Lessons of History in 1968, reviewed on Amazon.com by well over 300, with 74 percent giving the book five stars and 6 percent giving the book either two or one stars. Had I written a review for Amazon I would have put it with the bottom six percent.

Those reviewing the book belong to a group that wanted to read it, which may account for the high percentage of five stars, so I'll hold back from a conclusion about people general who are interested in the subject. Durant's overview of History has an out-of-date ring to it that the 74 percent who gave his Lessons of History five stars seems to have missed. His eleven-volume The Story of Civilization are stories with much detail, and there is value in the details. It's his big ideas, his grandiose statements, his philosophy that bothers me. Bare with me while I fuss over my differences with him.

Durant wrote that "Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul." Please tell me what he was talking about.

He wrote that civilization "begins where chaos and insecurity end." Actually something else happened. As we know, civilization began with agriculture, and in places insecurity increased when hunter-gatherers developed agriculture and became more dependent on agriculture for their nutritional sustenance. Agriculture brought increased populations, and they were more dependent on the weather and climate. And with civilization there was the insecurity that came with invading armies.

Concerning morality, Durant wrote: "Let us, before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children." I think that parents should empower their children with the ability to think for themselves — beyond myths, distortions, or dogma.

Durant wrote of the Mayans as having been plagued by lethargy. They had problems, but lethargy was not an overriding problem. Wars were.

Turning to Durant's Lessons of History, in Chapter Three he wrote wrote:

In the United States the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxons has lessened their economic and political power; and the higher birth rate of Roman Catholic families suggests that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as well as in municipal or state governments.

In Chapter Five he wrote that "known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind," and incongruously he wrote about "the initiative individual," the great man, the hero, and the genius in history. If we are biologically driven and behave the same across history, where is the individual creativity? And in Chapter Six he wrote of moral codes as different in hunting, agriculture and industrial societies, and he added that "The Industrial Revolution changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life." What happened to his unchanging societies?

Also in Chapter Six he wrote:

Perhaps discipline will be restored in our civilization through the military training required by the challenges of war... Sexual license may cure itself through its own excess.

About religion he wrote:

Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.

It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young.

Durant quoted Napoleon on religion: "It has kept the poor from murdering the rich." And he complained that "when religion declines Communism grows." But in various societies with declining religion (Scandinavia and the US) Communist Parties have also declined).

Durant believed in tradition as an abstraction more than he did in the particulars of progress. In Chapter Thirteen of Lessons of History he wrote:

Since we have admitted no substantial change in man's nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends – the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.

In dismissing progress he appears to have ignored the end of slavery and the creation of labor laws. He seems to ignore life made easier by machines that have reduced drudgery, machines that have made more leisure possible. He seems to have ignored progress in medical knowledge, and he failed to anticipate computers benefitting scientific work.

Among those who gave Lessons of History one star was the comment was someone who quoted Durant as follows: "The rise, success, decline, and fall of a civilization depend upon the inherent quality of the race." This was from Chapter Four of Lessons of History where it Durant seems to be agreeing with rather than just describing the opinions of Gobineau.

Another one-star comment: "To get specific, Durant claims that history is the story of competition. And yet it is just as much the story of cooperation."

One more:

Terribly disappointing take on race as a factor in success of a civilization. Down right unenlightened and offensive. I had to have my husband read parts to make sure I was not reading it wrong. I’m afraid it makes me question all Durant’s previous work.

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