Will Durant

American historian, philosopher and writer (1885–1981)
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William James Durant (5 November 18857 November 1981) was an American historian, philosopher and writer, best remembered for his works The Story of Philosophy, and The Story of Civilization.

Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.
See also The Story of Civilization

Quotes edit

In all things I saw the passion of life for growth and greatness, the drama of everlasting creation. I came to think of myself, not as a dance and chaos of molecules, but as a brief and minute portion of that majestic process...
In a measure the Great Sadness was lifted from me, and, where I had seen omnipresent death, I saw now everywhere the pageant and triumph of life.
Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionaries are philosophers and saints.
Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus.
You may think that's a lot of lollipop but just try it. Love is the most practical thing in the world. If you take an attitude of love toward everybody you meet, you'll eventually get along.
It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment.
  • I felt more keenly than before the need of a philosophy that would do justice to the infinite vitality of nature. In the inexhaustible activity of the atom, in the endless resourcefulness of plants, in the teeming fertility of animals, in the hunger and movement of infants, in the laughter and play of children, in the love and devotion of youth, in the restless ambition of fathers and the lifelong sacrifice of mothers, in the undiscourageable researches of scientists and the sufferings of genius, in the crucifixion of prophets and the martyrdom of saints — in all things I saw the passion of life for growth and greatness, the drama of everlasting creation. I came to think of myself, not as a dance and chaos of molecules, but as a brief and minute portion of that majestic process... I became almost reconciled to mortality, knowing that my spirit would survive me enshrined in a fairer mold... and that my little worth would somehow be preserved in the heritage of men. In a measure the Great Sadness was lifted from me, and, where I had seen omnipresent death, I saw now everywhere the pageant and triumph of life.
    • Transition (1927)
  • Surely, the time has come for the intellectuals, the liberals, and the radicals of the world to speak out about this new slavery, to call it clearly and bluntly what it is. For it can no longer be doubted that in this dictatorship of the politicians is to be found every abuse which liberals and radicals have denounced in their own society for generations. . . . the Soviet has allowed it people to starve by the thousands. . . . It has choked all competition, and made itself a monopoly of monopolies; it has restored serfdom, conscription of labor, and indentured servitude among a people that has recently liberated itself by revolution and civil war, from these feudal chains; . . . it has kept wages low and labor intense, it has made democracy in the factory only a sham; it has herded and regimented its people like cattle. It has pitilessly industrialized its women under the pretense of emancipating them; it has crowded the population into dingy quarters, and offered every discouragement to the creation of homes. . . . . It is stifled the growth of democracy, and has centralized power into dictatorship of fanatics and machines; it has waged a class war against the peasants, tradesmen, and mental workers; . . . there is no opportunity for the expression of the public will; . . . it has oppressed with unsurpassed barbarity men and women guilty of no other crime than the prosperity attendant upon enterprise, industry, intelligence, and thrift; it has refused to the rights of habeas corpus, of trial by jury, of equality before the law; it has sent it secret police into millions of homes; . . . it has terrorized the public with marching armies, secret police, merciless penalties, and a million spies. It has deported or shot hundreds of thousands of men and women solely for political heresy and non-conformance. It has subjected to censorship every drama and every book, even every opera; it has prostituted the press, the radio and the stage . . . It has suppressed all freedom of speech or assembly, and in effect has raised a thousand obstacles against the freedom of worship and belief. . . Slavery, barbarism and desolation—these fundamentally, despite a thousand minor virtues, is what Russia is today.
    • The Tragedy of Russia: Impressions from a brief visit , New York, NY, Simon and Schuster (1933) pp. 150-54
  • Most of our literature and social philosophy after 1850 was the voice of freedom against authority, of the child against the parent, of the pupil against the teacher. Through many years I shared in that individualistic revolt. I do not regret it; it is the function of youth to defend liberty and innovation, of the old to defend order and tradition, and of middle age to find a middle way. But now that I too am old, I wonder whether the battle I fought was not too completely won. Let us say humbly but publicly that we resent corruption in politics, dishonesty in business, faithlessness in marriage, pornography in literature, coarseness in language, chaos in music, meaninglessness in art.
  • Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus.
    You may think that's a lot of lollipop but just try it. Love is the most practical thing in the world. If you take an attitude of love toward everybody you meet, you'll eventually get along.
    • When asked, at the age of 92, if he could summarize the lessons of history into a single sentence. As quoted in "Durants on History from the Ages, with Love," by Pam Proctor, Parade (6 August 1978) p. 12. Durant is quoting Jesus (from John 13:34) here, and might also be quoting Jiddu Krishnamurti: "Love is the most practical thing in the world. To love, to be kind, not to be greedy, not to be ambitious, not to be influenced by people but to think for yourself — these are all very practical things, and they will bring about a practical, happy society."
  • Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. This is the more dramatic side of history; it captures the eye of the historian and the interest of the reader. But if we turn from that Mississippi of strife, hot with hate and dark with blood, to look upon the banks of the stream, we find quieter but more inspiring scenes: women rearing children, men building homes, peasants drawing food from the soil, artisans making the conveniences of life, statesmen sometimes organizing peace instead of war, teachers forming savages into citizens, musicians taming our hearts with harmony and rhythm, scientists patiently accumulating knowledge, philosophers groping for truth, saints suggesting the wisdom of love. History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.
    • As quoted in "The Gentle Philosopher" (2006) by John Little at Will Durant Foundation
  • To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves; let us be above such transparent egotism. If you can't say good and encouraging things, say nothing. Nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.
  • Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.
    • "What is Civilization?" Ladies' Home Journal, LXIII (January, 1946)
  • The invention and spread of contraceptives is the proximate cause of our changing morals. The old moral code restricted sexual experience to marriage, because copulation could not be effectively separated from parentage, and parentage could be made responsible only through marriage. But to-day the dissociation of sex from reproduction has created a situation unforeseen by our fathers. All the relations of men and women are being changed by this one factor; and the moral code of the future will have to take account of these new facilities which invention has placed at the service of ancient desires.
    • Our Changing Morals, in The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny (1929), Ch. 5. p. 119
  • I know how unfashionable it is now to acknowledge in life or history any genius loftier than ourselves. Our democratic dogma has leveled not only all voters but all leaders; we delight to show that living geniuses are only mediocrities, and that dead ones are myths. … Since it is contrary to good manners to exalt ourselves, we achieve the same result by slyly indicating how inferior are the great men of the earth. In some of us, perhaps, it is a noble and merciless asceticism, which would root out of our hearts the last vestige of worship and adoration, lest the old gods should return and terrify us again. For my part, I cling to this final religion, and discover in it a content and stimulus more lasting than came from the devotional ecstasies of youth.
    • The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time (2002) edited by John Little, Ch. 1 : The Shameless Worship of Heroes

The Story of Philosophy (1926) edit

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement.
  • Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdomdesire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science; to criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy: and because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.
    • Introduction : On the Uses of Philosophy
  • Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; 'these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions'; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: 'the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life... for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy'.
    • p. 87; the quoted phrases within the quotation are from the Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 4; Book I, 7
  • Philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science — problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death; so soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation it is called science. Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement.
  • Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy); it is the front trench in the siege of truth.
  • Great organizers, as much as inevitable slaves, tend to stoic moods: it is difficult to be either master or servant if one is sensitive.
  • The death of Alexander (323 BC) quickened this process of decay. The boy-emperor, barbarian though he remained after all of Aristotle’s tutoring, had yet learned to revere the rich culture of Greece, and had dreamed of spreading that culture through the Orient in the wake of his victorious armies.... But he had underrated the inertia and resistance of the Oriental mind, and the mass and depth of Oriental culture. It was only a youthful fancy, after all, to suppose that so immature and unstable a civilizaton as that of Greece could be imposed upon a civilization immesaurably more widespread, and rooted in the most venerable traditions. The quantity of Asia proved too much for the quality of Greece.
  • [on Epicurus] His starting point is a conviction that apathy is impossible, and that pleasure — though not necessarily sensual pleasure — is the only conceivable, and quite legitimate, end of life and action. “Nature leads every organism to prefer its own good to every other good” — even the stoic finds a subtle pleasure in renunciation. “We must not avoid pleasures, but we must select them”. Epicurus, then, is no epicurean, he exalts the joys of intellect rather than those of sense; he warns against pleasures that excite and disturb the soul which they should rather quite and appease. In the end he proposes to seek not pleasure in its usual sense, but ataraxia — tranquility, equaninimity, repose of mind; all of which trembles on the verge of Zeno’s “Apathy”
  • ...Lucretius talked epicureanism stoically (like Heine’s Englishman taking his pleasures sadly), and concluded on his stren gospel of pleasure by committing suicide. His noble epic “on the Nature of Things", follows Epicurus in damning pleasure with faint praise. Almost contemporary with Caesar and Pompey, he lived in the midst of turmoil and alarms; his nervous pen is forever inditing prayers to tranquility and peace. One pictures him as a timid soul whose youth had been darkened with religious fears; for he never tires of telling his readers that there's no hell, except here, and there are no gods except gentlemanly ones who live in a garden of Epicurus in the clouds, and never intrude in the affairs of men.
  • [after quoting from Lucretius] In the face of warfare and inevitable death, there is no wisdom but in ataraxia, “to look on all things with a mind at peace"." Here, clearly, the old pagan joy of life is gone, and an almost exotic spirit touches a broken lyre. History, which is nothing if not humorous, was never so facetious as when she gave to this abstemious and epic pessimist the name of Epicurean.
  • Nothing in all literature is so depressing as the “Dissertations” of the slave [Epictetus], unless it be the “Meditations” of the Emperor [Marcus Aurelius] ...[after some excerpts from the two books]..... In such passages we feel the proximity of Christianity and its dauntless martyrs; indeed were not the Christian ethic of self-denial, the Christian political ideal of an almost communistic brotherhood of man, and the Christian eschatology of the final conflagration of all the world, fragments of Stoic doctrine floating on the stream of thought? In Epictetus the Greco-Roman soul has lost its paganism, and is ready for a new faith".
  • Both Stoicism and Epicureanism — the apathetic acceptance of defeat, and the effort to forget defeat in the arms of pleasure — were theories as to how one might yet be happy though subjugated or enslaved; precisely as the stoicism of Schopenhauer and the despondent epicureanism of Renan were in the nineteenth century the symbols of a shattered revolution and a broken France.

The Case for India (1931) edit

India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of mature mind, understanding spirit and a unifying, pacifying love for all human beings.
  • India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe's languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.
  • It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to the west, such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.
  • It might have been supposed that the building of 30,000 miles of railways would have brought a measure of prosperity to India. But these railways were built not for India but for England; not for the benefit of the Hindu, but for the purposes of the British army and British trade.

Declaration of INTERdependence (1945) edit

Rooted in freedom, bonded in the fellowship of danger, sharing everywhere a common human blood, we declare again that all men are brothers, and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.
Introduced into the US Congressional Record on October 1, 1945 (PDF Document)
  • Human progress having reached a high level through respect for the liberty and dignity of men, it has become desirable to re-affirm these evident truths:
    • That differences of race, color, and creed are natural, and that diverse groups, institutions, and ideas are stimulating factors in the development of man;
    • That to promote harmony in diversity is a responsible task of religion and statesmanship;
    • That since no individual can express the whole truth, it is essential to treat with understanding and good will those whose views differ from our own;
    • That by the testimony of history intolerance is the door to violence, brutality and dictatorship; and
    • That the realization of human interdependence and solidarity is the best guard of civilization.
  • Rooted in freedom, bonded in the fellowship of danger, sharing everywhere a common human blood, we declare again that all men are brothers, and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.

The Story of Civilization (1935–1975) edit

I - Our Oriental Heritage (1935) edit

Our Oriental Heritage online at the Internet Archive
  • Nothing should more deeply shame the modern student than the recency and inadequacy of his acquaintance with India. Here is a vast peninsula of nearly two million square miles; two-thirds as large as the United States, and twenty times the size of its master, Great Britain; 320,000,000 souls, more than in all North and South America combined, or one-fifth of the population of the earth; an impressive continuity of development and civilization from Mohenjo-daro, 2900 B.C. or earlier, to Gandhi, Raman and Tagore; faiths compassing every stage from barbarous idolatry to the most subtle and spiritual pantheism; philosophers playing a thousand variations on one monistic theme from the Upanishads eight centuries before Christ to Shankara eight centuries after him; scientists developing astronomy three thousand years ago, and winning Nobel prizes in our own time; a democratic constitution of untraceable antiquity in the villages, and wise and beneficent rulers like Ashoka and Akbar in the capitals; minstrels singing great epics almost as old as Homer, and poets holding world audiences today; artists raising gigantic temples for Hindu gods from Tibet to Ceylon and from Cambodia to Java, or carving perfect palaces by the score for Mogul kings and queens — this is the India that patient scholarship is now opening up, like a new intellectual continent, to that Western mind which only yesterday thought civilization an exclusively European thing.
    • Ch. XIV : The Foundations of India § I : Scene of the Drama

II - Life of Greece (1939) edit

Full text online at the Internet Archive
  • All the problems that disturb us today—the cutting down of forests and the erosion of the soil; the emancipation of woman and the limitation of the family; the conservatism of the established, and the experimentalism of the unplaced, in morals, music, and government; the corruptions of politics and the perversions of conduct; the conflict of religion and science, and the weakening of the supernatural supports of morality; the war of the classes, the nations, and the continents; the revolutions of the poor against the economically powerful rich, and of the rich against the politically powerful poor; the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, between individualism and communism, between the East and the West—all these agitated, as if for our instruction, the brilliant and turbulent life of ancient Hellas. There is nothing in Greek civilization that does not illuminate our own.
    • Preface, P.18

III - Caesar and Christ (1944) edit

Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.
  • There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.
    • Chapter 30, part 1, p. 652

VI - The Reformation (1957) edit

  • To all Christian governments Christianity was not a rule of means but a means of rule; Christ was for the people, Machiavelli was preferred by the kings. The state in some measure had civilized man, but who would civilize the state?
    • Chapter 6, p. 229

XI - The Age of Napoleon (1975) edit

Co-written with Ariel Durant
  • Power dements even more than it corrupts, lowering the guard of foresight and raising the haste of action.
    • Ch. IV : The Convention: September 21, 1792 - October 26, 1795, Part V : The Reign of Terror: September 17, 1793 - July 28, 1794, § 4 : The Revolution Eats Its Children

Fallen Leaves (2014) edit

Fallen Leaves : Last Words on Life, Love, War and God (2014)
  • Children and fools speak the truth; and somehow they find happiness in their sincerity.
    • Ch. 1 : Our life begins
  • See him, the newborn, dirty but marvelous, ridiculous in actuality, infinite in possibility, capable of that ultimate miracle, growth.
    • Ch. 1 : Our life begins
  • Life is that which is discontent, which struggles and seeks, which suffers and creates.
    • Ch. 1 : Our life begins
  • Childhood may be defined as the age of play; therefore some children are never young, and some adults are never old.
    • Ch. 1 : Our life begins
  • Man is as young as the risks he takes.
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • Happiness is the free play of the instincts, and so is youth.
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • Let us ask the Gods not for possessions, but for things to do; happiness is in making things rather than consuming them.
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • Youth is learning to read (which is all that one learns in school), and is learning where and how to find what he may later need to know (which is the best of the arts that he acquires in college). Nothing learned from a book is worth anything until it is used and verified in life; only then does it begin to affect behavior and desire. It is Life that educates, and perhaps love more than anything else in life.
  • It is life that educates, and perhaps love more than anything else in life.
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • The principle of the family was mutual aid; but the principle of society is competition, the struggle for existence, the elimination of the weak and the survival of the strong.
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • Here is a fulfillment of long centuries of civilization and culture; here, in romantic love, more than the triumph of thought or the victories of power is the topmost reach of human beings.
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • Wisdom, if it were young, would cherish love, nursing it with devotion, deepening it with sacrifice, vitalizing with parentage, making all things subordinate to it till the end. Even though it consumes us in its service and overwhelms us with tragedy, even though it breaks us down with separations, let it be first. How can it matter what price we pay for love?
    • Ch. 2 : On Youth
  • Middle age begins with marriage; for then work and responsibility replace carefree play, passion surrenders to the limitations of social order, and poetry yields to prose.
    • Ch. 3 : On Middle Age
  • As we find a place in the economic world the rebellion of youth subsides; we disapprove of earthquakes when our feet are on the earth. We forget then the radicalism then in a gentle liberalism — which is radicalism softened with the consciousness of a bank account.
    • Ch. 3 : On Middle Age
  • She is a woman now, and not an idle girl, not a domestic ornament or a sexual convenience anymore.
    • On the maturation of women, Ch. 4 : On Old Age
  • A man is as old as his arteries, and as young as his ideas.
    • Ch. 4 : On Old Age
  • Here and everywhere is the struggle for existence, life inextricably enmeshed with war. All life living at the expense of life, every organism eating other organisms forever.
    • Ch. 4 : On Old Age
  • Life is that which can hold a purpose for three thousand years and never yield. The individual fails, but life succeeds. The individual is foolish, but life holds in its blood and seed the wisdom of generations. The individual dies, but life, tireless and undiscourageble, goes on, wondering, longing, planning, trying, mounting, longing.
    • Ch. 5 : On Death
  • Space, subjectively, is the coexistence of perceptions — perceiving two objects at once.
    • Ch. 6 : Our Souls
  • Time, subjectively, is the conscious sequence of perceptions.
    • Ch. 6 : Our Souls
  • By mind I mean the totality of perceptions, memories and ideas in an organism.
    • Ch. 6 : Our Souls
  • A sensation is the feeling of an external stimulus or an internal condition.
    • Ch. 6 : Our Souls

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