The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding. –Will Durant
Will Durant (1885–1981) was an American philosopher and historian who is best remembered for his still-classic introduction to philosophy, The Story of Philosophy (1926), and an 11-volume history of Eurasia, The Story of Civilization (1935–1975), which he wrote with his wife, Ariel (1898–1981). He was born to middle-class French-Canadian parents, educated by Jesuits, and originally intended to become a priest. But he also developed an interest in philosophy, which he studied at Columbia, and his original plan fell by the wayside. The Story of Philosophy proved immensely successful, and provided him with the financial independence to pursue his own interests. He devoted the rest of his long life to writing The Story of Civilization, which remains to this day one of a monument to history.
Both The Story of Philosophy and The Story of Civilization were conceived in opposition to what Will Durant regarded as the overspecialization and irrelevance of contemporary scholarship—a charge that we're certainly familiar with in our own time, and who knows, might have been current in the days of Pharaoh or Caesar as well. At any rate, he saw himself as a communicator rather than an innovator, not as someone concerned with breaking new ground in philosophy or history. He therefore favored a holistic approach rather than the reductive methods favored by the academicians, and wrote in a clear and friendly style that made the treasures of the past accessible, as opposed to the highly technical language found in the journals, which often seems purpose-built to impede rather than facilitate communication. He was, indeed, a master prose stylist—no small part of his appeal. He was also highly critical of the traditional emphasis on politics and war, which seem to make history into a record of crime, folly, and destruction, when in fact it is just as much, if not more, a record of accomplishment. (On this note, it has to be said that historians have more than compensated since Will Durant wrote. Today the history of ordinary people and everyday life is more prominent, by far, in professional history than that of diplomacy and war, or, indeed, of elites in general.)
His purpose was always to elucidate the past for the instruction of the present, for he never doubted, as it is often doubted today, that we can learn from history. After all, as individuals learn primarily through their own experience, how much wiser would we be if we could learn from the experience of others as well! But the lessons of history were not only practical—history was also an introduction to the world of ideas, of art, science, music, literature, philosophy, and, in short, to the life of the mind. Here, Durant felt, was the real substance, and the real benefit, of studying history. When we're exposed to this or that thinker or artist in isolation, we get only a fragmented sense of who they were, because we see them, as it were, out of joint, and artificially separated from their own time and place. But when we study them in context, and in their connections to each other, a larger, happier picture of human accomplishment emerges. Not only do we gain a fuller appreciation of their ideas, we also get to know them as people, and perhaps even feel ourselves in their company when we reflect on their ideas. We can see how their ideas reflected their temperament, the challenges of their times, and how they can continue to inspire new and fruitful approaches to present challenges.
History, on this conception, is indeed an exercise in philosophy, for not only are philosophers a frequent topic of study, but the actual point of the history is to provide a practical foundation for philosophy. So as our history informs our philosophy, our philosophy informs our history, as we gain, perhaps, some insight into the bewildering variety of the human past. Each is richer for the dialogue. Thus the purpose of history is not to understand the past for its own sake, as Butterfield supposed, for that would be mere antiquarianism, the kind of “dead history” that Nietzsche despised. On the contrary, the purpose of history was to provide practical guidance for both everyday life and philosophic reflection—thus it was the parts of the past that remained relevant, or “living history,” that received the bulk of his attention.
Although he took the now-discarded dichotomies of Occident-Orient, civilization-savagery, progress-decadence more or less for granted, he was often successful in looking past them and their associated prejudices. Thus his history of the Enlightenment, though frankly celebratory, took traditionalist criticisms seriously, and occasionally decided in their favor. He treated the Orient sympathetically, acknowledged it as the wellspring of Occidental civilization, and co-authored a “Declaration of Interdependence” (1945), which resolutely rejected the racism that had recently done so much harm in the world. The central theme of his history was the triumph of reason, modernity, and civilization over violence, tradition, and ignorance, and the central events of history those connected with the Enlightenment.
Although Will Durant’s works often show their age, his Story of Philosophy is still an excellent guide to its subject, while The Story of Civilization remains a comprehensive, insightful, and trustworthy guide to the best our past has to offer us.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.