Is it possible to write an unbiased history of human civilization?


Together, Will and Ariel Durant have written more than 53 investigations into human existence. Many of them, including The history of philosophy and the eleven-volume series History of civilization, have become national bestsellers. The latter earned the couple a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which they received from Gerald Ford.

As academics, the Durant were renowned for both the breadth of their knowledge and the digestibility of their writing style. Tracing the evolution of concepts such as morality, religion, and warfare across centuries and across different societies, the Husband and Wife team wrote in a captivating way that is easy to understand, even for those who do not. ‘have never studied at the college level.

This interest in writing for “the common man” as opposed to other scholars stems from their upbringing: Will grew up in a large family of French-Canadian Catholics whose patriarch was an illiterate factory worker; Ariel was born in a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine and arrived in the United States with nothing but the clothes she wore.

The Durant were, for the most part, fiercely independent thinkers. In an era when people’s perception of reality was heavily influenced by social, political, and economic movements like capitalism, fascism, and communism, Will and Ariel attempted to examine history in its entirety. Along the way, they came closer to writing an unbiased history of civilization than any scholar before or after.

The big picture

Although the Durants are generally referred to as historians, they were in fact much more than that. Their writings not only describe the history of past events, but also attempt to understand their multiple causes and consequences. In any given essay or text, readers are entitled to lectures on philosophy, religion, economics, science, and the arts.

The greatest of the great thinkers, the Durant saw so many connections between academic disciplines that they saw little or no use in separating them. The couple viewed philosophy not as the pursuit of knowledge or the means by which that knowledge is attained, but as the study of reality – a subject which they believed should be studied in its entirety.

“On the whole, human nature does not change over the historical period. The meaning of the story is that man is laid bare. The present is the past rolled up for action. The past is the present unrolled in order to understand.

Will and Ariel Durant, Lessons from history

In one of his essays, Will Durant defined wisdom as “a total perspective – seeing an object, event, or idea in all of its relevant relationships.” The term he used for this, subspecies totius or “overview”, itself was adopted from Baruch Spinoza’s maxim, eternitatis subspecies, which put more emphasis on eternity or timelessness.

In the opening of their 1968 book, Lessons from history – itself a summary and a commentary on History of civilization – the Durants reiterated once again that their goal had never been originality but inclusion: to identify the significance of past events and to understand how they are woven into the large and infinitely complex tapestry of human history.

The historian as a lover

Where lesser academics often fall prey to selfishness, the Durant have remained humble despite their success. For them, the true philosopher was not so much a “possessed” of wisdom as a “lover” of it. “We can only seek wisdom with dedication,” Will Durant wrote in the aforementioned essay, “as a lover destined, as on the Greek urn of Keats, never to possess but only to be desired.”

Their curious attitude was similar to that of Socrates, a thinker who, at least in the very first dialogues Plato devoted to him, was more interested in questioning the premises of his contemporaries than in proposing his own ideas. Socrates also compared philosophy to a handsome man or a beautiful woman, and he believed himself to be their greatest and most subordinate admirer.

Will and Ariel Durant spent their marriage mapping the history of mankind. (Credit: Will Durant Foundation / Wikipedia)

To make their analyzes as objective as possible, the Durant took great care to step out of the equation. Will, for his part, is often commemorated as the “gentle philosopher”. He wrote and studied not to find justification for his personal beliefs but out of a genuine interest in the world around him. As a result, his work combines a mature sense of reserve with childish wonder.

In a sympathetic retrospective on the Durant’s and their careers, conservative columnist Daniel J. Flynn identified this lack of personal aspiration as what separated Will and Ariel from their co-workers. “The style of the Durants to get straight to the point,” he wrote in the National exam, “Made it anathema to academics who saw clarity as a flaw. Their critics wrote to be cited; the Durants wrote to be read.

The perils of macrohistory

Despite their “inclusiveness,” the Durant remain sympathetic to the Great Man Theory, a compelling but outdated method of historical analysis that interprets past events as having been disproportionately dependent on the actions and ideas of remarkable individuals. “The true story of man,” wrote the couple in History of civilization, “is in the lasting contributions made by geniuses.”

The Durant grew up at the turn of the 20th century, a period of unprecedented positivism when faith in the great man theory was still growing. This faith was eventually shattered by the disasters of World War I and World War II, after which it was questioned by scholars, who noted that the achievements of these “great men” could not be considered the best. product of their own genius.

“History repeats itself, but only broadly and broadly. One can reasonably expect that in the future, as in the past, new states will arise, some old ones will collapse; that new civilizations will begin with pastures and agriculture, expand to commerce and industry, and spoil themselves with finance; this thought will pass from supernatural explanations to legendary ones to naturalistic explanations; that new theories, inventions, discoveries and errors will stir up intellectual currents; that the new generations will rebel against the old ones and move from rebellion to conformism and reaction; that moral experiments will untie tradition and frighten its beneficiaries; and that the excitement of innovation will be forgotten in the indifference of time.

Will and Ariel Durant, Lessons from history

Race, class, and gender also played an important role in deciding who became a historical player. And while the Durant looked constantly beyond the individual, taking into account both social and economic factors, the exploits of great men – from their military victories to literary achievements – seemed to have been of greater interest. for the couple that the systemic injustices on which the latter articulated.

Where the Durants were once praised for their ability to condense, they are now accused of oversimplification. In an article published in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, Crofton Kelly argues that “in order to make their books accessible and interesting to ordinary people, the Durant put less emphasis on important historical debates and overemphasized both the influence of famous individuals and the the extent to which “history repeats itself.”

The legacy of Will and Ariel Durant

Although they strive for impartiality, the Durant were by no means passive observers. Outside of their writing, the couple got involved in the news frequently. They implored Woodrow Wilson not to get involved in WWI and asked Franklin Roosevelt to stay out of WWII. During the rebellious phases of their youth, they went so far as to identify themselves as anarchists.

Ultimately, the Durant were and always will be a product of their time. While their texts seldom fall prey to a single ideological worldview, the stories they contain are most certainly presented through the prism of 20th century positivism and the unwavering belief that history, despite its horrors, was an extremely beautiful thing.

The eleven volumes of History of civilization. (Credit: Maksim Sokolov / Wikipedia)

Despite these criticisms, the Durant legacy has largely remained intact. The fact that the couple’s books continue to be read by intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum is a testament to their integrity as historians, writers and human beings. To say that they have achieved their goal of bringing historical understanding to the common man would be an understatement.

Where other historians rush to defend themselves against outside attacks, the Durant have welcomed criticism because they have made them aware of their own prejudices and shortcomings. “Obviously, we can only approach such a total perspective,” Will wrote in What is Wisdom? Omniscience will always be unachievable, but the Durants have shown that it can still serve as a guiding principle for academics.

About Leslie Schwartz

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