Eleven years ago, toward the end of my undergraduate years as a philosophy major at the University of Virginia, I was feeling dissatisfied with my knowledge of history. I had taken several history courses but wanted more. Because my immediate interest was ancient Greece, I decided to try a friend’s recommendation, The Life of Greece by Will Durant. Finding the book at the library, I was surprised to see that it was but one volume in a massive series called The Story of Civilization—eleven substantial volumes spanning two feet of shelving.1 Although I wanted to learn more about history, I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn that much. It turned out that I did. Reading those volumes—sometimes poring over large portions of them multiple times—would be one of the most enlightening and enjoyable experiences of my life.
First published between 1935 and 1975, The Story of Civilization is a work of great and enduring value. Exceptional for its masterful prose as well as its size and scope, the Story is a powerful combination of style and substance. An author of rare literary talents, Durant (1885–1981) won a wide readership through his ability to make history intriguing, lively, and dramatic. His volumes, intended for the general reader and each designed to be readable apart from the others, have sold millions of copies. Some even became best sellers, and the tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution, won a Pulitzer Prize. Individual volumes have been translated into more than twenty languages.2
Having earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1917 from Columbia University, Durant first won fame and phenomenal success with The Story of Philosophy (1926). This book sold two million copies in a few years and has sold three million copies to date; eighty-five years later, the book is still in print and has been translated into nineteen languages.3 Durant followed this book with another best seller, The Mansions of Philosophy (1929).4 His earnings from these and other books, as well as from articles and public lectures, helped free his time for writing The Story of Civilization, which would be his magnum opus. His wife, Ariel Durant (1898–1981), assisted him throughout his writing of the Story, her assistance increasing to the point that, beginning with the seventh volume, she received credit as coauthor.5
The Story of Civilization begins with Our Oriental Heritage, a volume on Egypt and Asiatic civilizations. The remaining ten volumes tell the story of Western civilization (with a substantial treatment of Islamic civilization in one of the volumes6). Durant’s original intention was to tell the story of the West up to the present, but, despite working on the Story for more than four decades, he was unable to do so: “[A]s the story came closer to our own times and interests it presented an ever greater number of personalities and events still vitally influential today; and these demanded no mere lifeless chronicle, but a humanizing visualization which in turn demanded space” (vol. 7, p. vii). The increasing space he gave to each period of European history resulted in his having to end the Story with the downfall of Napoleon in 1815; moreover, he had to omit the history of the Americas entirely. He was ninety when the Story’s last volume was published and had carried it as far as he could.
In each volume Durant takes a comprehensive approach, covering, for each nation and in each period of its history, all the major aspects of civilization: politics, economics, philosophy, religion, literature, art, and science.7 He called his approach the “integral” or “synthetic” method, and regarded it as an original contribution to historiography.8 Elaborating on the origin of his method, he writes:
I had expounded the idea in 1917 in a paper . . . “On the Writing of History.” . . . Its thesis: whereas economic life, politics, religion, morals and manners, science, philosophy, literature, and art had all moved contemporaneously, and in mutual influence, in each epoch of each civilization, historians had recorded each aspect in almost complete separation from the rest. . . . So I cried, “Hold, enough!” to what I later termed “shredded history,” and called for an “integral history” in which all the phases of human activity would be presented in one complex narrative, in one developing, moving, picture. I did not, of course, propose a cloture on lineal and vertical history (tracing the course of one element in civilization), nor on brochure history (reporting original research on some limited subject or event), but I thought that these had been overdone, and that the education of mankind required a new type of historian—not quite like Gibbon, or Macaulay, or Ranke, who had given nearly all their attention to politics, religion, and war, but rather like Voltaire, who, in his Siècle de Louis XIV and his Essai sur les moeurs, had occasionally left the court, the church, and the camp to consider and record morals, literature, philosophy, and art.9
Durant’s integral history does not only occasionally consider these latter areas (which he calls “cultural history” or “the history of the mind,”)10 it emphasizes them. “While recognizing the importance of government and statesmanship, we have given the political history of each period and state as the oft-told background, rather than the substance or essence of the tale; our chief interest was in the history of the mind” (vol. 10, p. vii). (Nevertheless, the Story contains ample and excellent material on politics.)
The Story is by far the most massive and thorough treatment of Western civilization by a single author (or team of two) that I have been able to find. Large teams of historians have collaborated to produce similarly large, or even larger, works. But such works, writes a respected historian, “while they gain substantially in authoritative character, are seriously lacking in correlation and are not written from a . . . harmonious point of view.”11 Harmony is indeed one of the cardinal virtues of Durant’s work; readers find therein a beautifully integrated tale of man’s past, a veritable symphony of history. For this reason and others—notably, Durant’s grand, philosophical overviews and scintillating style—I believe that many, and perhaps most, readers will find no better place to turn for a large treatment of Western civilization than The Story of Civilization.
Grand Overviews and a Philosophic Theme
As one would expect from so large a work, the Story contains a wealth of concrete and detailed information. But to understand history well, one must learn more than details. One must also be able to see the big picture, the forest and not just the trees. Durant is a master at helping his readers to see the forest. His skill in this regard is showcased most dramatically in what I call his “grand overviews.” In such passages, which appear perhaps several times in each volume and which range from a paragraph to a few pages in length, Durant covers, in an elevated style, centuries or millennia of history and often identifies the deep, philosophic trends that run through them. Consider, for instance, the following passage from the epilogue of volume 6, The Reformation:
“[D]espite its original intolerance, the Reformation rendered two services to the Enlightenment: it broke the authority of dogma, generated a hundred sects that would formerly have died at the stake, and allowed among them such virile debate that reason was finally recognized as the bar before which all sects had to plead their case unless they were armed with irresistible physical force. In that pleading, that attack and defense, all sects were weakened, all dogmas; and a century after Luther’s exaltation of faith Francis Bacon proclaimed that knowledge is power. In that same seventeenth century thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke offered philosophy as a substitute or basis for religion. In the eighteenth century Helvetius, Holbach, and La Mettrie proclaimed open atheism, and Voltaire was called a bigot because he believed in God. This was the challenge that Christianity faced, in a crisis far more profound than the debate between the Catholic and the Protestant version of the medieval creed. The effort of Christianity to survive Copernicus and Darwin is the basic drama of the last three hundred years. What are the struggles of states and classes beside that Armageddon of the soul?”12 (vol. 6, pp. 939–40)
The fundamental clash between reason and faith, alternately described by Durant as a conflict between rationalism and mysticism, philosophy and religion, and science and religion, is one of the Story’s dominant themes. In the following overview from volume 2, The Life of Greece, Durant sees this theme spanning the entire history of the West:
Hardly any of these [nations] surrounding [ancient Greece] cared for what to the Greeks was the very essence of life—liberty to be, to think, to speak, and to do. Every one of these peoples except the Phoenicians lived under despots, surrendered their souls to superstition, and had small experience of the stimulus of freedom or the life of reason. . . . In the end the two conceptions of life—the mysticism of the East and the rationalism of the West—would fight for the body and soul of Greece. . . . The alternate victories of these . . . philosophies in the vast pendulum of history constitute the essential biography of Western civilization. (vol. 2, p. 70)
This is history in the grand manner. It is the story of man’s past told in essentials, through bold and deep philosophic generalizations.
The importance Durant places on philosophic trends is apparent in the titles and prefaces of his volumes as well as in his grand overviews. Rather than titling volume 4 The Middle Ages, for instance, he used the more philosophically telling title The Age of Faith. Volume 7 is titled The Age of Reason Begins and the explicit theme of volumes 7 through 9 is “the growth of reason” or “the Great Debate between faith and reason.” In the preface of volume 8, The Age of Louis XIV, he writes:
The pervading theme is the Great Debate between faith and reason. Faith was on the throne in this period, but reason was finding new voices in . . . Locke, Newton, . . . and Spinoza; this “Classical Age was throughout what it called itself at its close, the Age of Reason.”13 Almost a third of the book is devoted to the “Intellectual Adventure”14 out of superstition, obscurantism, and intolerance to scholarship, science, philosophy. (vol. 8, p. vii)
Volume 9, The Age of Voltaire, is subtitled A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756, with Special Emphasis on the Conflict between Religion and Philosophy. In the preface of this volume, Durant writes:
Blame for the length of this volume [898 pages] must rest with authors fascinated to exuberant prolixity by the central theme—that pervasive and continuing conflict between religion and science-plus-philosophy which became a living drama in the eighteenth century, and which has resulted in the . . . secularism of our times. How did it come about that a major part of the educated classes in Europe and America has lost faith in the theology that for fifteen centuries gave supernatural sanctions and supports to the precarious and uncongenial moral code upon which Western civilization has been based? What will be the effects—in morals, literature, and politics—of this silent but fundamental transformation? (vol. 9, p. vii)
The reason-versus-faith theme is continued in volume 10, Rousseau and Revolution, in which Durant covers “the revolt of Rousseau against rationalism, and the . . . effort of Immanuel Kant to save the Christian theology through the Christian ethic” (vol. 9, p. vii).
Although the importance of philosophic trends in history is a major theme in Durant’s work, his discussion of it is sometimes absent for long stretches (perhaps even several chapters). Moreover, he sometimes contradicts it, for instance, with Marxist statements that stress the role of economic factors in history. Nevertheless, Durant’s treatment of philosophic trends in history is an outstanding feature of his work. Dr. Steve Jolivette, a historian who has given particular attention to broad surveys of history, and with whom I have had extensive discussions about Durant, attests to this:
I have looked for years for books that cover Western history broadly—the survey book(s) that we all need so badly. I have read whole works or substantial sections of William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, H. G. Wells, Max Weber, Jacob Burckhardt, Paul Johnson, and Thomas Sowell. I have assessed more briefly the historical methods of Edward Gibbon, Lord Acton, and Fernand Braudel. (Leonard Peikoff’s brilliant The Ominous Parallels is in a class by itself which does not quite fit here.) Of survey textbooks (typically about one-tenth the size of Durant’s work), the best that I have found are by Edward McNall Burns, Stewart Easton, and R. R. Palmer; W. T. Jones’s short historical surveys in his history of Western philosophy are very good.
I have found that, by a considerable margin, Durant is the best of all of the historians in identifying the central role of philosophy in history, and in articulating this view of history through bold generalizations. He does not do this consistently or perfectly, but he does it extensively enough and well enough to profit the reader handsomely and make it worth overlooking his flaws. This virtue and others make The Story of Civilization the best survey of Western history that I have found.15
Not surprisingly, the unusually philosophic character of Durant’s work, for which Dr. Jolivette praises the Story, is a characteristic that Durant himself speaks admiringly of in his discussions of other historians. Durant is particularly glowing in his appraisal of the so-called “philosophical” historians of the Enlightenment: “It is one of the glories of the eighteenth century that it produced within a generation three of the world’s greatest historians: Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon, all grounded in philosophy, seeking to reinterpret history in non-theological terms, and in the broadest perspective of the knowledge accumulated by their time” (vol. 9, p. 156). Gibbon, whom Durant calls “the greatest of historians,” “longed to be a philosopher or at least to write history en philosophe [as a philosopher]” (vol.10, pp. 964, 807–8). Durant was a philosopher, and he became a philosopher-historian. As such, he excelled in his ability to illuminate the deepest currents underlying the surface flow of events. The philosophic depth of perspective he brings to the Story makes reading it a profound experience.16
A Literary History
One of the other eminent virtues of the Story is Durant’s remarkable style. His extraordinary command of English makes reading the Story not just a vastly informative and enlightening experience, but a literary one as well. “The real secret of its charm,” wrote one reviewer, “is the effervescent prose. . . . This is vintage wine.”17 Durant’s prose is eloquent, vivid, economical, and often witty (though readers may at times find his wit more irksome than amusing). We have already sampled Durant’s style in the grand overview passages above; let us now sample his style in relating the details of his story. In one particularly engaging passage, he discusses Diderot’s anonymously published book, Pensées philosophiques:
Diderot rejected with scorn the God revealed in the Bible; that deity seemed to him a monster of cruelty, and the Church that spread this conception was denounced by him as a fountainhead of ignorance, intolerance, and persecution. Could anything be more absurd than a God who makes God die on the Cross in order to appease the anger of God against a woman and a man four thousand years dead? And “if,” as some theologians reckoned, “there are a thousand damned for every soul saved, then the Devil wins the argument, and without abandoning his son to death.”18
The Parlement of Paris ordered the book to be burned by the public executioner. . . . Advertised by the burning (July 7, 1746), the little volume found an unexpected number of readers. It was translated into German and Italian; and when it was whispered about that Diderot was the author, he rose at once to a place near Voltaire. He received fifty louis from the publisher; these he turned over to his mistress, who needed new clothes. (vol. 9, p. 626)
While a one-volume history of civilization or of the West can offer only a relatively bare-bones picture of man’s past (in which someone like Diderot, the primary force behind the great Encyclopédie, may get only a line, if anything), Durant’s eleven volumes give him the space to add much flesh and blood, and thereby bring the story of man’s past much more fully to life. He includes many (sometimes chapter-long or even longer) biographical accounts of historical figures and ample excerpts from primary sources. Captivating facts and anecdotes are peppered throughout the narrative: “Thousands of Hindus have made their last oblation by starving themselves to death, or burying themselves in snow, or covering themselves with cow-dung and setting it on fire, or allowing crocodiles to devour them at the mouths of the Ganges” (vol. 1, p. 502).
Further enlivening the Story is the dramatic structure and flow of the narrative. Durant often ends a section in a way that leaves the reader eager to find out what happens next. At the end of a chapter on the Greco-Persian Wars, for instance, he writes:
The Greco-Persian War was the most momentous conflict in European history, for it made Europe possible. It won for Western civilization the opportunity to develop its own economic life—unburdened with alien tribute or taxation—and its own political institutions, free from the dictation of Oriental kings. It won for Greece a clear road for the first great experiment in liberty; it preserved the Greek mind for three centuries from the enervating mysticism of the East, and secured for Greek enterprise full freedom of the sea. . . . The victory of little Hellas against such odds stimulated the pride and lifted up the spirit of its people; out of very gratitude they felt called upon to do unprecedented things. After centuries of preparation . . . Greece entered upon its Golden Age. (vol. 2, p. 242)
This ending flows enticingly into the next section of the volume, “The Golden Age: 480–399 B.C.” The skill with which Durant weaves together the various threads of his narrative is outstanding. Here is no lifeless chronicle, but a living, growing tale, a logically integrated and brilliantly evolving whole.
Criticism and Response
The Story of Civilization received many favorable reviews in prominent publications and some that were glowing. As for the smaller number of mixed or unfavorable ones, perhaps the most common criticisms were that the volumes contained many errors and did not reflect recent scholarship. Durant knew from the outset that by taking on so wide a field, he would be making himself a target for criticism by specialist historians.
I have long felt that . . . the ideal historiography would seek to portray in each period the total complex of a nation’s culture, institutions, adventures and ways. But the accumulation of knowledge has divided history . . . into a thousand isolated specialties; and prudent scholars have refrained from attempting any view of the whole. . . . For the probability of error increases with the scope of the undertaking and any man who sells his soul to synthesis will be a tragic target for a myriad merry darts of specialist critique. (vol. 1, p. vii)
Those darts began to fly with the publication of Durant’s first volume, Our Oriental Heritage. James Henry Breasted, who was America’s preeminent Egyptologist and the founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, wrote a lengthy review for the Saturday Review of Literature, claiming that Durant’s “effort to include so much detail has involved the author in disastrous difficulties.” As partial proof, Breasted alleged various errors of fact. For instance:
We have long known that the width of ancient Egyptian ships was regularly one-third of their length; but the author tells us that “ships a hundred feet long by half a hundred feet wide plied the Nile and the Red Sea.” . . . We are told by Mr. Durant in the matter of buildings that “by the Twelfth Dynasty the pyramid had ceased to be the fashionable form of sepulture,” although all the kings of this dynasty without exception were buried in pyramids.19
Durant defended himself against a number of Breasted’s charges (sometimes convincingly, sometimes not), but conceded others: “[I]n the course of a thousand pages on thirty centuries of cultural history in Egypt and Asia I have made some serious errors of detail which would have been avoided by a specialist with a lifetime to devote to a segment of this subject.”20 It is not clear to me that Breasted (or Durant’s other critics) uncovered anything “disastrous,” or even “serious,” but what his review does make clear is that Durant should not be taken as the last word on any particular topic (although he may be used profitably as the first word). Durant was not an authority in any particular area and did not pretend to be such. Rather, he was a great historical generalist and outstanding integrator; he found the “view of the whole” too compelling to be abandoned for the sake of avoiding “errors of detail.”
Despite this, some specialist scholars have said favorable things about Durant’s accuracy. For instance, in the Acknowledgments section of his ninth volume, The Age of Voltaire, Durant writes, “The manuscript has had the advantage of being read by Dr. Theodore Besterman, Director of the Institut et Musee Voltaire in Geneva. . . . He found one serious error in our text, but otherwise voted us ‘a very high degree of accuracy’” (vol. 9, p. ix). Amherst historian Sidney Packard, in a favorable review of Durant’s fourth volume, The Age of Faith, wrote that “the misleading statements which have inevitably crept into the text are neither numerous nor vital.”21
In addition to pointing out (or at least alleging) factual errors, Breasted criticized Durant’s secondary source material on the grounds that it omitted some important sources and included some sources that were outdated or non-authoritative. In response, Durant pointed out that, in the area of history that was his primary concern—cultural history—he relied heavily on the best sources of all: primary sources.
[Breasted] must remember that I am trying to write not a series of specialist monographs, but a philosophical survey and unification of the cultural history of mankind. . . . [I]n the realm of culture I have, in nearly all major instances, gone to the masterpieces of literature, philosophy, and art themselves, even to the extent of traveling thousands of bug-infested miles to see a building (as in the case of Angkor), or re-reading the entire Old Testament as partial preparation for one chapter. To prove this point in detail would be a weary conceit; let the honest reader judge for himself.22
I can attest that, in the area of “culture,” Durant’s volumes do indeed manifest an amazing breadth of exposure to and reading in primary sources.
Although the nonspecialist reader will not find errors of fact or problems in source material leaping off the page to cause consternation, he might take issue with some of Durant’s philosophical opinions. These opinions, scattered throughout the narrative, are presented in both subtle and obvious ways. Sometimes they take the form of epigrams: “Civilization is a parasite on the man with the hoe” (vol. 6, p. 752). Sometimes they tarnish his grand overviews, as when they include concessions to religion: “Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and weary wealth” (vol. 1, p. 71). Or when they imply that individualism and liberty are good only in moderation: “The French Revolution, and the American Revolution as interpreted by Jefferson, carried liberty to excess, freeing individualism to the point of a destructive disorder, and freeing superior ability to repeated crises of concentrated wealth” (vol. 11, p. 777).23 Some of his opinions betray a deterministic or cynical view of human nature, or an agreement with (or at least partiality to) Marxism-socialism, skepticism, or altruism. On the good side, however, his opinions sometimes manifest a secular or pro-reason attitude, a love of freedom, and (as we saw in his grand overviews and philosophic theme) an understanding of the fundamental importance of philosophic trends in history. Thus, in my view, Durant’s philosophy is a mixed bag. I sometimes felt as though I were in a love-hate relationship with him. But putting up with some bad philosophy now and then is, I think, a modest price to pay for the abundance of knowledge, the depth of understanding, and the sheer pleasure that one can obtain from reading his volumes.
Praise for The Story of Civilization
In the Acknowledgments section of his eighth volume, Durant took the opportunity to express his “gratitude to the many critics who have won us an audience for these volumes” (vol. 8, p. viii). Let us look briefly at some of the praise that helped Durant win his audience.
Orville Prescott, a leading critic for the New York Times, reviewed several of Durant’s volumes and referred to the Story as “one of the most ambitious and majestic projects in the history of history.”24 In his review of Durant’s fifth volume, The Renaissance, after explaining that for thirty years he had been an aficionado of that period, he wrote:
From Machiavelli and Guicciardini through Burkhardt, Gregorovius and Symonds and scores of histories and biographies I have explored the most stimulating and exciting epoch in the history of Western civilization. And never have I read a book about the Renaissance which is so concise and so comprehensive, so informative and so lively as Dr. Durant’s. Other books are more learned and more specialized; a few are better written. But none provides so fine an over-all introduction to the subject.25
Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said of the same volume, “this book will give the student and casual reader the most vivid and exciting account of [the Italian Renaissance] that can be found in a single volume in the English language.”26
Some academic historians also showered Durant’s Story with praise. Geoffrey Bruun, a historian and biographer who taught at New York University and as a visiting professor at Cornell,27 described Durant’s Story as a “bright pageant” and had this to say in his review of Durant’s sixth volume, The Reformation:
Few historians have scanned broader vistas with a keener eye for captivating details and colorful personalities. Few have poured three million words into print with more eloquent and inextinguishable zest. Watching the performance grow in scope and versatility, some enthusiastic commentators have invoked the shades of Macaulay and Montesquieu in their search for comparisons.28
D. W. Brogan, a Cambridge historian, reviewed volume 7, The Age of Reason Begins, and credited Durant with “scholarship in the grand manner. . . . The result is a vivacious, fascinating, often convincing, always entertaining, often enlightening cavalcade. . . .”29 Allan Nevins, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of history at Columbia University, who also held posts at Oxford University, said this of volume 4, The Age of Faith:
I regard it as the best general account of medieval civilization in print. Mr. Durant’s great series of books should in time become recognized—if it is not already—as one of the outstanding works in American historiography.30
Finally, let us hear two more tributes, one from a writer of national, the other of international, repute. H. L. Mencken wrote of Durant’s third volume, Caesar and Christ: “What a book! . . . [I]t is the best piece of historical synthesis ever done by an American. . . . [I]t is clearly and beautifully written. . . . I have never read any book which left me better contented.”31 Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian Nobel Prize-winning playwright, said of the same volume: “This book is a magnificent success, worthy of the greatest histories of mankind. . . . At times one would believe he is listening to Montesquieu.”32 And in a letter to Durant about volume 2, The Life of Greece, Maeterlinck wrote: “Like so many others, I thought that I knew Greece. But for the first time, in your book, I have found a united view, which embraced in one perspective all Hellas. . . . I have read this book with ever rising passionate interest, as if it were a novel. It is a masterpiece. . . .”33
I am delighted to have found myself in such distinguished company in my enthusiasm for the Story. I hope that by joining my voice to theirs, I will help more readers to discover the tremendous value of this work.
A Final Note
Although the reader of this essay may by now be intrigued by the Story, he may also be wary, understandably, of taking on so large a work. Let me note in closing, therefore, that when I first encountered the Story, I was a bit wary as well. But I did not give myself the assignment of reading the whole series (whose volumes total about ten thousand pages); rather, I decided simply to give the one volume on ancient Greece a try (the second volume in the series) because that was my immediate interest. It turned out, however, that that volume was superb, so I wanted to read another. And so I was lured on, volume by volume, to read them all. I encourage the tentative reader to consider taking this targeted and piecemeal approach rather than a beginning-to-end, all-or-nothing approach. You may find that one volume (or a few) is enough to satisfy your needs and interests—or you may be lured on to conquer the whole. Reading The Story of Civilization was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Perhaps a similar experience awaits you.