Will Durant

Will Durant
Will Durant
Born November 5, 1885(1885-11-05)
North Adams, Massachusetts
Died November 7, 1981(1981-11-07) (aged 96)
Los Angeles, California
Occupation Historian, writer, philosopher, teacher
Nationality American
Subjects History, philosophy, religion
Spouse(s) Ariel Durant
Children Ethel Durant

William James Durant (November 5, 1885 – November 7, 1981) was a prolific American writer, historian, and philosopher. He is best known for The Story of Civilization, 11 volumes written in collaboration with his wife Ariel Durant and published between 1935 and 1975. He was earlier noted for The Story of Philosophy, written in 1926, which one observer described as "a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy."[1]

He conceived of philosophy as total perspective, or, seeing things "sub specie totius," a phrase derived from Spinoza's "sub specie aeternitatis."[2] He sought to unify and humanize the great body of historical knowledge, which had grown too voluminous and become fragmented into esoteric specialties, and to vitalize it for contemporary application.[3] Durant was a gifted prose stylist and storyteller who won a large readership in great part because of the nature and excellence of his writing, which, in contrast to formal academic language, is lively, witty, colourful, ornate, epigrammatic, in short, "humanized."

Will and Ariel Durant were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.


Early life

Durant was born in North Adams, Massachusetts of French-Canadian parents Joseph Durant and Mary Allard, who had been part of the Quebec emigration to the United States.

In 1900, Durant was educated by the Jesuits in St. Peter's Preparatory School and, later, Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, New Jersey. Historian Joan Rubin writes of this period, "Despite some adolescent flirtations, he began preparing for the vocation that promised to realize his mother's fondest hopes for him: the priesthood. In that way, one might argue, he embarked on a course that, while distant from Yale's or Columbia's apprenticeships in gentility, offered equivalent cultural authority within his own milieu."[4]

In 1905, he began experimenting with socialist philosophy but, after World War I, began recognizing that a "lust for power" underlay all forms of political behavior.[4] However, even before the war, "other aspects of his sensibility had competed with his radical leanings," notes Rubin. She adds that "the most concrete of those was a persistent penchant for philosophy. With his energy invested in Spinoza, he made little room for Bakunin. From then on, writes Rubin, "his retention of a model of selfhood predicated on discipline made him unsympathetic to anarchist injunctions to 'be yourself'. . . To be one's 'deliberate self,' he explained, meant to 'rise above' the impulse to 'become the slaves of our passions' and instead to act with 'courageous devotion' to a moral cause."[4]

He graduated in 1907. He worked as a reporter for Arthur Brisbane's New York Evening Journal for ten dollars a week. At the Evening Journal, he wrote several articles on sexual criminals. In 1907, he began teaching Latin, French, English and geometry at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. Durant was also made librarian at the college.

Teaching career

The Modern School in New York City, circa 1911-12. Will Durant stands with his pupils. This image was used on the cover of the first Modern School magazine.

In 1911 he left the seminary. He became the principal of Ferrer Modern School, an advanced school intended to educate the working-classes; he also taught there. Alden Freeman, a supporter of the Ferrer Modern School, sponsored him for a tour of Europe.  At the Modern School, he fell in love with and married a pupil, 13 years his junior, Chaya (Ida) Kaufman, whom he later nicknamed "Ariel". The Durants had one daughter, Ethel, and adopted a son, Louis.

By 1914 he began to reject "intimations of human evil," notes Rubin, and to "retreat from radical social change." She summarizes these changes in his overall philosophy:

"Instead of tying human progress to the rise of the proletariat, he made it the inevitable outcome of the laughter of young children or the endurance of his parents' marriage. As Ariel Durant later summarized it, he had concocted, by his mid-thirties, 'that sentimental, idealizing blend of love, philosophy, Christianity, and socialism which dominated his spiritual chemistry' the rest of his life.
"Those attributes ultimately propelled him away from radicalism as a substitute faith and from teaching young anarchists as an alternative vocation. Instead, late in 1913 he embarked on a different pursuit: the dissemination of culture."[4]

In 1913, he resigned his post as teacher. To support themselves, he began lecturing in a Presbyterian church for five- and ten-dollar fees; the material for these lectures became the starting point for The Story of Civilization.


In 1917, working on a doctorate in philosophy, Will Durant wrote his first book, Philosophy and the Social Problem. He discussed the idea that philosophy had not grown because it avoided the actual problems of society. He received his doctorate in 1917. He was also an instructor at Columbia University.

The Story of Philosophy

The Story of Philosophy originated as a series of Little Blue Books (educational pamphlets aimed at workers) and was so popular it was republished in 1926 by Simon & Schuster as a hardcover book[5] and became a bestseller, giving the Durants the financial independence that would allow them to travel the world several times and spend four decades writing The Story of Civilization. He left teaching and began work on the eleven volume Story of Civilization. Will drafted a civil rights "Declaration of Interdependence" in the early 1940s, nearly a full decade before the Brown decision (see Brown v. Board of Education) ignited the Civil Rights Movement. This Declaration was introduced into the Congressional Record on October 1, 1945.[citation needed]

The Story of Civilization

The Durants strove throughout The Story of Civilization to create what they called "integral history". They opposed this to the "specialization" of history, an anticipatory rejection of what some have called the "cult of the expert." Their goal was to write a "biography" of a civilization, in this case, the West, including not just the usual wars, politics and biography of greatness and villainy, but also the culture, art, philosophy, religion, and the rise of mass communication. Much of The Story considers the living conditions of everyday people throughout the twenty-five hundred years their "story" of the West covers. They also bring an unabashedly moral framework to their accounts, constantly stressing the repetition of the "dominance of strong over the weak, the clever over the simple." The Story of Civilization is the most successful historiographical series in history. It has been said that the series "put Simon and Schuster on the map" as a publishing house.

The Story of Civilization is also noteworthy because of the excellence of its writing style, and contains numerous apothegms worthy of the Roman and Renaissance authors Durant admired. Discussing certain inconsistencies in the character of Botticelli in The Renaissance (page 137), he writes: "Doubtless like all of us he was many men, turned on one or another of his selves as occasion required, and kept his real self a frightened secret from the world."

For Rousseau and Revolution, (1967), the 10th volume of The Story of Civilization, they were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature; later followed one of the two highest awards granted by the United States government to civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Ford in 1977.

Other works

Throughout his career, Durant had several brilliant speeches; among such was the "Persia in the History of Civilization" that was presented as an address before the Iran-America Society in Tehran on April 21, 1948, and its manuscript had been intended for inclusion in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute (formerly Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian, then Iranian, Art and Archaeology), Vol. VII, no. 2, which never saw publication.[6] They were followed by Rousseau and Revolution with a slender volume of observations called The Lessons of History, which was both synopsis of the series as well as analysis. Though they had intended to carry the work into the 20th century, they simply ran out of time and had expected the 10th volume to be their last. However, they went on to publish a final volume, their 11th, The Age of Napoleon in 1975. They also left behind notes for a twelfth volume, The Age of Darwin, and an outline for a thirteenth, The Age of Einstein, which would have taken The Story of Civilization through to 1945.

Two posthumous works by Durant have been published in recent years, The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time (2002) and Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age (2001).

Final years

The Durants also shared a love story as remarkable as their scholarship;[citation needed] they detail this in Dual Autobiography. After Will went into the hospital, Ariel stopped eating. Will died after he heard that Ariel had died. They died within two weeks of each other in 1981 (she on October 25 and he on November 7). Though their daughter, Ethel, and grandchildren strove to keep the death of his Ariel from the ailing Will, he learned of it on the evening news, and he himself died at the age of 96. He was buried beside his wife in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Writing about Russia

In 1933, he published Tragedy of Russia: Impressions from a Brief Visit and soon after, The Lesson of Russia. A few years after the books were published, social commentator Will Rogers had read them and described a symposium he had attended that included Will Durant as one of the contributors. He later wrote of Durant, "He is just about our best writer on Russia. He is the most fearless writer that has been there. He tells you just what it's like. He makes a mighty fine talk. One of the most interesting lecturers we have, and a fine fellow."[1]


Will Durant fought for equal wages, women's suffrage and fairer working conditions for the American labor force. Durant not only wrote on many topics but also put his ideas into effect. Durant, it has been said widely, attempted to bring philosophy to the common man. He authored The Story of Philosophy, The Mansions of Philosophy, and, with the help of his wife, Ariel, wrote The Story of Civilization. He also wrote magazine articles.

He was trying to improve understanding of viewpoints of human beings and to have others forgive foibles and human waywardness. He chided the comfortable insularity of what is now known as Eurocentrism, by pointing out in Our Oriental Heritage that Europe was only "a jagged promontory of Asia." He complained of "the provincialism of our traditional histories which began with Greece and summed up Asia in a line" and said they showed "a possibly fatal error of perspective and intelligence."

Philosophical writings

On the decline and rebuilding of civilizations

Much like Oswald Spengler, Will Durant saw the decline of a civilization as a culmination of strife between religion and secular intellectualism, thus toppling the precarious institutions of convention and morality:

"Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a "conflict between science and religion." Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. 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 to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization."[7]

More than twenty years after his death, Durant's quote of "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within"[8] appeared as the opening graphic of Mel Gibson's 2006 film Apocalypto.

On religion and evolution

In an article in 1927, he wrote his thoughts about reconciling religion and Darwinism. An excerpt from the article:

"As to harmonizing the theory of evolution with the Biblical account of creation, I do not believe it can be done, and I do not see why it should be. The story of Genesis is beautiful, and profoundly significant as symbolism: there is no good reason to torture it into conformity with modern theory."[9]

Selected books

See a full bibliography at Will Durant Online [1].

  • Durant, Will (1917) Philosophy and the Social Problem. New York: Macmillan.
  • Durant, Will (1926) The Story of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1927) Transition. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1929) The Mansions of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster. Later with slight revisions re-published as The Pleasures of Philosophy
  • Durant, Will (1930) The Case for India. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1931) Adventures in Genius. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1931) Great Men of Literature, taken from Adventures in Genius. New York: Garden City Publishing Co.
  • Durant, Will (1953) The Pleasures of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will & Durant, Ariel (1968) The Lessons of History. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will & Durant, Ariel (1970) Interpretations of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will & Durant, Ariel (1977) A Dual Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (2001) Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age. New York: Simon and Schuster. Actually copyrighted by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant.
  • Durant, Will (2002) The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (2003) An Invitation to Philosophy: Essays and Talks on the Love of Wisdom. Promethean Press.
  • Durant, Will (2008) Adventures in Philosophy. Promethean Press.

The Story of Civilization

  • Durant, Will (1935) Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1939) The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1944) Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1950) The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1953) The Renaissance. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will (1957) The Reformation. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will, & Durant, Ariel (1961) The Age of Reason Begins. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will, & Durant, Ariel (1963) The Age of Louis XIV. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will, & Durant, Ariel (1965) The Age of Voltaire. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will, & Durant, Ariel (1967) Rousseau and Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Durant, Will, & Durant, Ariel (1975) The Age of Napoleon. New York: Simon and Schuster.

See also


  1. ^ a b Rogers, Will (1966). Steven K. Gragert. ed. The Papers of Will Rogers. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 393. 
  2. ^ Durant, Will. "What is Philosophy?". http://www.willdurant.com/philosophy.htm. 
  3. ^ Durant, Will (1935). Our Oriental Heritage. Simon & Schuster. pp. vii. 
  4. ^ a b c d Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture, Univ. of North Carolina Press (1992)
  5. ^ http://ktwu.wuacc.edu/journeys/scripts/412b.html
  6. ^ Durant, Will. "Persia in the History of Civilization". Addressing 'Iran-America Society. Mazda Publishers, Inc.. http://www.mazdapublisher.com/Documents/Persian%20Civilization.pdf. 
  7. ^ The Story of Civilization, V.1., 71. See also this article's Discussion page.
  8. ^ The Story of Civilization (Vol 3 Caesar And Christ. Epilogue - Why Rome fell): A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.
  9. ^ Durant, Will. Popular Science, Oct. 1927


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