Will Durant, an American historian, writer, philosopher, teacher, was one of those scholarly people who have given the best narratives of history and civilization. His 11-volume book ‘Story of Civilization’ contains an integrated and extended discussion of history depending on economy, morality, political and mental basis. It is the most successful historiographical series in history.
By Noor Ahmed Janjhi
Story of human civilization is too complicated to tell it completely. It has evolved in the time capsule with a succession of events of human interaction and natural happenings. However, there have been some genius persons who have tried to narrate the history and civilization of mankind. Will Durant, an American historian, writer, philosopher, teacher, was one of those scholarly people who have given the best narratives of history and civilization. His full name was William James Durant. He was born on 5th November 1885 in North Adams, Massachusetts, United States of America. His father’s name was Joseph Durant and Mary Allard was his mother. They were French-Canadian Catholic and had been part of the Quebec emigration to the United States.
Will Durant has done a wonderful work on history and philosophy. He became a renowned figure in the discipline of history and culture by his wonderful work The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes written in collaboration with his wife, Ariel Durant, and published between 1935 and 1975. Earlier, he became prominent because of his book “The Story of Philosophy (1926)”. It was described “a ground breaking” work that helped to popularize philosophy”.
He was educated at St. Peter’s Preparatory School and, then at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was a generous person with philosophical mind and a thorough researcher. He studied the philosophical theories of his time and past and tried to develop his own thesis. He graduated in 1907 and worked as a reporter for Arthur Brisbane’s New York Evening Journal for 10 dollars a week. At the Evening Journal, he wrote several articles on sexual criminals. Same year, he began teaching Latin, French, English and geometry at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He was also made librarian there. After four years, he left Seton Hall and became the principal of Ferrer Modern School, intended to educate the working classes. He made a sponsored tour of Europe during this service. He fell in love and married a 15 year old student Chaya (Ida) Kaufman, and was nicknamed “Ariel”. They have one daughter, Ethel, and they fostered a son, Louis, son of Flora….Ariel’s sister.
Will Durant wrote his first book Philosophy and the Social problem in 1917, while he was doing his doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University. He dealt with the idea that the philosophy has ignored and avoided the real problems of society so it was not grown popularly. He served as an instructor at the University too. His book “The Story of Philosophy” was an outcome of a series of educational pamphlets aimed at workers because of the popularity of those Little Blue Books. It was published in 1926 by Simon & Schuster and became a best seller too. It facilitated Durant family financially and they travelled different regions of world to work on other books. He became a talk of the world of history and culture when he wrote The Story of Civilization. He left teaching and started to work on his magnum opus —an 11-volume Story of Civilization. He has depicted “integral history” throughout this work. The Book consists of the following volumes:
- Our Oriental Heritage -1935
- The Life of Greece -1939
- Caesar and Christ -1944.
- The Age of Faith -1950
- The Renaissance -1953
- The Reformation -1957
- The Age of Reason Begins -1961 (With Ariel Durant)
- The Age of Louis XIV -1963 (With Ariel Durant)
- The Age of Voltaire -1965 (With Ariel Durant)
- Rousseau and Revolution -1967 (With Ariel Durant)
- The Age of Napoleon -1975 (With Ariel Durant)
The book has got world fame and has been translated and transformed into audio version too. Prof Durant was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature on the Rousseau and Revolution (10th volume of the book). He also got one of the two highest civilian awards of US government, “the Presidential Medal of Freedom” from President Gerald Ford.
The Story of Civilization gives an integrated and extended discussion of history depending on economy, morality, political and mental basis. It is the most successful historiographical series in history. Its first volume Oriental Heritage (1935) is a wonderful read, offering a detailed analysis about the history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, and in India, China and Japan from the beginning to the time of the book writing. It contains three books. Book one is about Near East and the Book two is about India and her Neighbors and the Book three is about Far East. This volume has a wonderful introduction on the nature of the foundations of civilization. The introduction contains six chapters, elaborating the fundamentals of the civilization. First chapter presents definition of civilization and its conditions as geological, geographical, economic, racial, and psychological and then the causes of the decay of civilizations. Second chapter deals with the economic elements of civilization as from hunting to cultivation, the foundations of industry, and economic organization. The political elements of civilizations are discussed in chapter three. They are: the origin of the government, the state, law, the family. Fourth chapter discusses moral elements of civilization. These are: marriage, sexual morality, social morality, religion. Mental elements of civilization are discussed in chapter five and the chapter six offers analysis on the prehistoric beginnings of civilizations by dealing with Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures and the transition to history. The chronological chart is an excellent value addition in the introduction. In the start of chapter one, Prof Durant writes, “Civilization is a social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.”
An illustration section, containing 85 pictures reflecting different dimensions of civilization, makes this volume a worth to be read again and again to get first-hand knowledge on the subject.
Will Durant has written several other books too. Some of his publications are: Philosophy and the Social Problem (1917), A Guide to Spinoza (1924), The Story of Philosophy (1926), Transition (1927), The Mansions of Philosophy (1929), republished as The Pleasures of Philosophy, The Case for India (1930), A Program for America (1931), Adventures in Genius (1931), Great Men of Literature (1931), taken from Adventures in Genius. The Tragedy of Russia: Impressions from a Brief Visit (1933), The Foundations of Civilization (1936), The Pleasures of Philosophy (1953). The Lessons of History (1968) (with Ariel Durant), Interpretations of Life (1970)– (with Ariel Durant), A Dual Autobiography (1977) – (with Ariel Durant), Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age (2001), The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time (2002), An Invitation to Philosophy: Essays and Talks on the Love of Wisdom (2003), Adventures in Philosophy (2008) ,Fallen Leaves (2014).
The Durants – Will and Ariel had an intense love for one another as explained in their Dual Autobiography. After hospitalization of Prof Will, Ariel stopped eating, and died on October 25, 1981. Despite the secrecy of the news about her demise, Will Durant learned it on the evening news, and he passed away two weeks later, at the age of 96, on November 7, 1981. He was laid to rest beside Ariel in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, in Los Angeles.
Noor Ahmed Janjhi is a senior educationist based in Tharparkar. He is author of several books on folk literature including two poetry books.