Will Durant’s The Story Of Philosophy

One of the crown jewels of my father’s library is the 11-volume Story of Civilization, written by Will Durant and his wife Ariel over a period of forty years. The title proclaims the extent of their ambition, and its success – as a bestseller, and as an eventual Pulitzer Prize winner – must have felt like a vindication for the years of effort that went into researching and writing these volumes. But none of this would have been possible were it not for the runaway success of The Story Of Philosophy, an introduction to the most important currents of thought in Western philosophy, from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle down to William James, Bertrand Russell and George Santayana. The surprising success of this survey work elevated Simon & Schuster to the status of a major publishing house, and granted Will Durant the financial freedom needed to quit his teaching job and devote the remainder of his life to his writing. I say “surprising” because it is difficult to imagine a survey of philosophy topping today’s best-seller lists, either because we now reflexively turn to Wikipedia when we wish to encounter ideas in summary, or because philosophy itself seems to have no purchase on our everyday lives, and certainly no entertainment value.

Will Durant would not be entirely unsympathetic. Even in the early 20th century, he was complaining about the growing “specification” of knowledge, that tendency of complicated disciplines to attract a lifetime of labour and study, with the lamentable result that people “grow to know more and more about less and less.” In philosophy, in particular, this trend has had a baleful result, leading would-be philosophers down ever more esoteric chambers of thought, and divorcing philosophy from life.

The author [Durant, speaking in the third-person] believes that epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well nigh ruined it; he hopes for the time when the study of the knowledge-process will be recognized as the business of the science of psychology, and when philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself. Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

In such times, Durant argues, a survey work might have something special to offer, might rekindle the thirst for wisdom – or revive the idea that such a thing as wisdom is possible. Part of this project obviously involves assembling knowledge in such a way that an overview of complex topics is possible, but the larger difficulty lies in communicating these findings in a manner that is intelligible to the layman.

For if knowledge became too great for communication, it would degenerate into scholasticism, and the weak acceptance of authority; mankind would slip into a new age of faith, worshipping at a respectful distance its new priests; and civilization, which had hoped to raise itself upon education disseminated far and wide, would be left precariously based upon a technical erudition that had become the monopoly of an esoteric class monastically isolated from the world by the high birth rate of terminology.

Reading this last paragraph chilled me, for isn’t this exactly our present situation? An academic class produces an unending stream of jargon-laced papers and dubious studies, disseminated and evaluated only by their peers, and the newspapers that publish this drivel and the readers who lap it up take it upon faith that due diligence was done. Durant aims to unshackle knowledge by making the great philosophical debates of centuries past intelligible to everyone.

He accomplishes this with a mix of history, biography and philosophy. Beginning chronologically, with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, he goes on to cover the life and times of Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche, with smaller chapters dedicated to more modern philosophers, including Santayana, William James, John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. Each chapter is written with the verve of a lifelong enthusiast, and heavily footnoted with suggestions for further reading, from biographies to critical commentaries. There is a fair amount of editorializing – how could he resist? – but for the most part he is remarkably fair-minded in his summaries and appraisals. It is not an easy thing, for example, to communicate Nietzsche’s ideas without assenting to them or expressing contempt for them, and Durant walks this fine line with confidence. The final result transcends summary; it is nothing less than invitation to join the greatest and most important conversation in human history, extended in the warmest of terms by the brightest of minds.