Little Bits of History

Big History

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 5, 2013
Will and Ariel Durant

Will and Ariel Durant

November 5, 1885: Will Durant is born in North Adams, Massachusetts. His early education was overseen by Jesuits at St. Peter’s Preparatory School. He continued to study at St. Peter’s College and graduated in 1907. He first worked as a reporter and then began teaching at Seton Hall College. His subjects were Latin, French, English, and geometry and he was the librarian, as well. He switched jobs and went to Ferrier Modern School, an experimental libertarian venue. He met a young immigrant and quit his job in order to marry his student. Ariel was 15 and he was 28 when they wed.

He began a lecture series and gave talks for $5-10 fees. He gathered his lecture materials together and they became the beginning of his life’s work, The Story of Civilization. While working on a doctorate degree in philosophy in 1917, Durant wrote his first book, Philosophy and the Social Problem. His premise was that philosophy foundered because it did not address issues in the real world. It was his belief that the common man should have access to philosophical thought and wrote his treatise as a series of Little Blue Books, pamphlets aimed at workers. It became a bestseller and assured the Durant family’s financial independence.

Durant was a proponent of a wider view of civilization and deplored the Eurocentric notion of history beginning with the Greeks. As he wrote The Story of Civilization, he focused on the entire globe. While including wars, politics, and biographies of the famous, he also included the culture, art, and philosophy of the masses. His “biography of history” included the living conditions of regular people and bludgeoned the readers with his moral imperative. He focused on the “dominance of the strong over the weak, the clever over the simple.”

The Story of Civilization began with Our Oriental Heritage and continued through twelve volumes. There are over 4 million words printed on nearly 10,000 pages. Will wrote the first six volumes and acknowledged his wife’s help and the last six were co-authored by the couple. The Story is incomplete. The Durants wished to tell the world’s story up to the 20th century. While they were both granted long lives, Will died in 1981 at age 96 just weeks after Ariel, they never got to finish their work. It ended with The Age of Napoleon. Their life/love story was published in 1977 – A Dual Autobiography.

“Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.” – Oscar Wilde

“Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.” – Will Durant

“Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” – Will Durant

“Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” – Will Durant

“One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.” – Will Durant

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The Story of Civilization had volumes published in 1935 (Our Oriental Heritage) through 1975 (The Age of Napoleon). The closest publication dates were 1961 and 1963 with the longest between volume X (1967) and XI (1975). All eleven volumes contain nearly 10,000 pages and even so, it is incomplete. The four million words cover from the establishment of civilization and what that means up to the fall of Napoleon in 1815 with an afterward covering from 1815 to 1840. In the first book, Our Oriental Heritage, Durant stated that his intention was to cover the West’s history through the early 1900s. However, already 90 when the last book came out, he did not have time to complete his project. Left behind at their deaths were notes for twelfth volume, The Age of Darwin, and an outline for a thirteenth, The Age of Einstein. With this last volume, the history would have concluded around the year 1945.

Also on this day: Buying and Selling – In 1935, the board game Monopoly first went on sale.
Flight First – In 1911, the first US transcontinental flight ended.
Ace of Spies – In 1925, Sydney Reilly died.

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