The Story Of Philosophy By Will Durant

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Will Durant became widely known for his early books, especially The Story of Philosophy.Though first published in 1926, by 1933 it was already in its 15th edition; it provided the income stream that allowed the Durant’s to write for the rest of their lives, and is still widely read. What made the subject, philosophy, so popular, for so long? It is clearly written, and contains opinion, commentary, and humor. It was written to be read, understood, and enjoyed. As I open up my old copy again, it seems relevant to us in the 21st century; “Science teaches us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate retail, then kills us wholesale in war”; The Durant’s argue that only wisdom, as revealed through philosophy– “desire coordinated in the light of experience– can tell us when to heal and when to kill.”

I first read it in 1963, thanks to a newspaper article about the by Jim Bishop that included a brief account the Duran’t  1913 marriage: she was 15 years old; he, her tutor, was 25; yet they obtained approval to marry. She rollerskated to the courthouse; a ring she wore ever after was donated by an attendant; the marriage lasted 68 years until their deaths two weeks apart. She was a collaborator in all of the Durant’s subsequent books, and co-authored the later ones; their commitment and devotion is palpable in the dedication to the 1933 edition of Story of Philosophy which reads:

To My Wife

Grow strong, my comrade… that you may stand

Unshaken when I fall; that I may know

the shattered fragments of my song will come

at last to finer melody in you;

that I may tell my heart that you begin

where passing I leave off, and fathom more.

The Durant’s introductory assertion was that we, society, lack wisdom, which they see as the realm of philosophy. They decry epistemology, as an analytic approach or scientification of philosophy. An opening paragraph titled To the Reader suggests that:

‘epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy’.

‘the knowledge-process … (is) the business of science,

‘philosophy (is) interpretation of … experience rather than (its) analytic description’ ‘Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge, while

‘philosophy must provide a synthesis… wisdom.’

A subsequent and more extensive introduction expands on these assertions. “… to seize the value and perspective of passing things, and …pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance we need to know that “Science is analytical description, (while) philosophy is synthetic interpretation. The philosopher ‘tries to put together that great universe-watch that science has taken apart”.

Why did Durant write a philosophy book directed to the unschooled citizen? Why call it a Story? He began, early in the last century, to contribute to the Little Blue Book series 2, pamphlets for the common worker; in time he collected many of his writings on philosophy as the basis for his book. Like the Blue Books The Story of Philosophy is not dumbed down. It reflects the conviction that the common working person is both capable and interested in knowledge of all sorts. The material was chosen and written, not to amuse, but to inform and uplift; not to disdain but to honor the desire and ability of the common worker to grasp any idea or subject. More accurately, to satisfy the hunger of the ordinary worker for knowledge. Durant, like most of the writers, and many of that time, was a socialist in what was, perhaps, the Golden Age of American Socialism, which flourished until the depression was ended by WWII; then Soviet Style Communism whose world conquering goal, prevailed, betrayed American Socialism. One could  hope that the past is, indeed, only history.

little blue book series

little blue books, worlds-famous-books


The Durant’s argue that if we break philosophy down like scientists, into– logic: ideal method in thought; esthetics: ideal form; ethics: ideal conduct; Politics: ideal organization; and Metaphysics: ultimate reality… “ it becomes dismembered, loses it’s beauty and joy. That is found by studying philosophers. We have had the same experiences they had but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings. So let us listen, ready to forgive errors, and eager to learn.”The subject material for the little blue books suggests that the common citizen is interested and capable of reading and understanding the world of thought and literature:

Ready or not, Social Media is here now, vital and alive, making Old Media of books, magazines, and TV of interest in retrospect. Talk Radio was probably a herald of our time, but less interactive than social media. Social Media, in most countries, is egalitarian, and available to a limitless number of individuals whose collective voice can become very loud even though each one by itself is– pipsqueak– unless it goes ‘viral”. Thanks to the cyber age, information — or misinformation– once again is available almost everywhere.  Once again, it cannot be controlled wherever a degree of liberty prevails. The information offered is not always rational, reasonable, or accurate; it is often fake or false. It is disruptive except where it can it be controlled by severe privation, poverty, and ruthless suppression. Talk with anyone who has spent some  unregulated time speaking with ordinary Cubans and that becomes apparent. People are allowed one kg of rice, one kg of beans, and one serving of chicken monthly. While the island is surrounded by the Caribbean full of fish, only shoreline fishing is permitted because boats are a means of escape. Private businesses, like taxis, are allowed, but strictly GPS tracked, and half the income must be given to the government. The net result, in the words of a taxi driver: ‘We are on an island prison.’ On the other hand, the divisiveness and chaos we see in much of our relatively free world is also apparent.  Yet if history is any guide, this new chaotic period will be– gradually– followed by significant progress in the affairs of humankind.

This is not the first time humanity has gone through this kind of radical change. When paper and printing became widely available, no longer was information controlled mainly by church, monarchy or wealth; one result was pamphleteering. Much that was written by pamphleteers was deceptive, abusive, or simply false. There was no way to put the genie back in the bottle. All this was beyond the control of any government where liberty persisted; the British, for example, tried to suppress pamphleteers it by requiring prior approval before publication… John Milton wrote his essay Aereopagtica to argue for freedom of the press. In time the explosion of information – and misinformation–led to a relative impotence, and downfall, of Monarchy and Church, and arguably, to the American Revolution, which was born in the maelstrom of pamphleteering.

Is it reasonable to question whether humanity will survive our own technology? Arguably, the history of the world-wide chaos at the birth of the 21st century is already being written in an imaginary book where the first section is titled The Story of Creation: Book One is The Age of Agriculture. It begins with the creation of farming and husbandry, at the expense of hunter-gathering, promoting stable communities, and ultimately cities, property, geometry, mathematics, commerce, architecture, rule of law, science, art, and technology. Book Two is The age of Information. Humankind creates technology which creates change, which makes access to information instant and ubiquitous, which then changes human life! The sudden access to information leads to chaos, which in turn, and over time, creates change in human behavior. The imagined book’s introduction includes a reference to Genesis to state the general theme: knowledge– information– is power; and power is something humans do not manage well. God forbids it, but of course, humanity chooses the devil of knowledge or technology and liberty over a heavenly dictatorship. When the forbidden fruit of the Tree of knowledge is eaten, God becomes enraged and expels Adam and Eve from Eden. Now, millenia later, billions of tiny fleshy knowing gods suffer from an overload of knowledge: A sort of Infomania/dynia.

So the i.genie is out of the bottle; it consists of the internet, browsers, email, skype, twitter, Facebook, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.Any image, any idea, any lie,  can spread in minutes around the globe. Meanwhile Old Media flails, fumes, and fails: newspapers shrink to the size of circulars, living on snippets of local news, stale national news, and remunerative specious ads.  ‘Breaking News’ becomes stale, dull, repetitive, and uniform while talking heads become simply entertainers on the order of professional wrestlers or football players– but far less fun to watch. There is no place, no way, to hide information any more. The gadfly of social media suggests that some of our revered leaders, and TV and media moguls, are serial sexual predators, liars, violent scofflaws and drug users, who professionally foist biased political views on us.  Social media make live raw unfiltered information instantly available to almost anyone, anywhere. The current tsunami of information and misinformation predictably brings chaos, both internal and societal. We are unable to evaluate, filter and sort it all. And until we adapt, or create new ways of dealing with it we are likely to remain factionalized, frustrated, fragile, and furious.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to take a long view; perhaps, to read some dead philosophers The Durant book is a good start. It’s in paperback at Amazon for $9.66.. It offers a chance to catch up with the U S unschooled working people of 100 years ago. Each of Durant’s nine chapters is devoted to a ‘Western’ philosopher, and the last to three North Americans. Of course there have been more since the ’30s, but any philosophy that has survived a few centuries may have something worth hearing. Each chapter opens with a brief historical context and a summary life story of the philosopher. For the curious there are many references. Durant does not shy away from difficult material; he expands and makes personal comments often. He wants the reader to meet the philosopher, hoping for an exchange that is both memorable and enjoyable.

1The Story of Philosophy, 412 pp, focuses on the West, and excludes Asia. But the first volume of their 12 volume History of Civilization is devoted to Eastern Philosophy and History. Caution: 1150 pp. Both are free PDFs on-line. But to read these huge books on-line would leave no time for Critter, Glitter, Fritter, and to some extent, email, Siri and Browser!

2 These staple-bound books, were a project of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889-1951), a socialist reformer and newspaper publisher. The Amherst College Archives , and Cal State Northridge hold large collections. However I don’t know of any place to buy them now. The over- riding principle was that the common worker was capable and interested in every aspect of knowledge. The books were pocket sized; the topics were very diverse: # 1 was the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, with a critical essay by Clarence Darrow. Other Titles included Oscar Wilde, Poems; Voltaire, Essays; Thomas Paine, Age of Reason; Guy de Maupassant, Short Stories ; Edgar Allen Poe Tales of Mystery; Margaret Sanger, What Every Girl Should Know; Honore de Balzac, Short Stories; Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts; Henry Thoreau, On Walking, Mark (sic) and Engels, Communist Manifesto; Ralph Emerson, Essays; Leo Tolstoy, Essays; Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations; Walt Whitman, Poems; The Care of the Baby: A mother’s book by a mother ( # 81), Smith, Common Faults in Writing English (#82) ; Georg Brandes, On Reading (#86); Jesus Christ, Sermon on the Mount; Wood, Julius Caesar; John Mill, Subjection of Women (#177); Henry James, Daisy Miller; Anatole France, The Majesty of Justice #198; By 1944 more than 1800 little blue books were published. Scattered throughout are the philosophers, many written by Durant, like # 19, The Story of Frederik Nietzsche’s Philosophy; #39 The Story of Aristotle’s Philosophy; The Trial and Death of Socrates (# 94) , and The Republic of Plato # 157; .

3 You may also want to consider the Durant’s 12 volume History. They are written in the same easy style but on a grand scale richly researched and documented. I read them when I was drafted into the US Navy, placed on a Seaplane tender –(AVP 49 for antisubmarine warfare, now obsolete). We plowed the Pacific back and forth at 13 knots when weather allowed, leaving plenty of time to digest these big tomes. But that was so long ago I don’t remember much. The 12 volumes still accuse me silently and sullenly from my bookshelf.




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