Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.

- Oscar Wilde

Fifty years of writing a book may seem like a long period of authorship, but there is a lengthy work that took a full five decades to write. The book is The Story of Civilization, and the man was Will Durant.

He was once called William James Durant. His pious French-Canadian mother had chosen the name in deference to one of Christ’s apostles, however, rather than out of respect (or even knowledge) of the famed American psychologist-philosopher. In time, the youth became a compromise of sorts; becoming an apostle for philosophy.

First, however, Durant was destined for holy orders. Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1885, he studied in Catholic parochial schools there and in Kearny, New Jersey. His teachers were nuns, and he practiced his religion so fervently that no one doubted that he would become a priest. In 1900 he entered St. Peter's Academy and College in Jersey City, where his teachers were Jesuits, and, one of these, Father McLaughlin, urged him to enter the Jesuit Order following his graduation in 1907.

But in 1903 he discovered the works of some alluring infidels in the Jersey City Public Library -- Darwin, Huxley, Spencer and Haeckel. Biology, with its Nature "red in tooth and claw," did some harm to his faith, and suddenly, in his 18th year, it dawned upon him that he could not honestly dedicate himself to the priesthood – but how could he break the news to his mother, who had pinned her hopes, both for this world and the next, on offering her son in service to God?

The outcome was extraordinary, for, while Durant was losing one faith, he was taking on another in compensation. In 1905 he exchanged his devotion for Socialism. An earthly paradise, he felt, would compensate for the heaven lost in the glare of biology. Another youth attending the same college was suffering a similar and simultaneous infection, for he, too, had been headed for the clergy. To both boys occurred the fascinating idea of pleasing proud parents by entering the priesthood – but, once in, they would work to convert the American Catholic Church to socialism. For a time, some inkling of the size of the enterprise deterred the conspirators, but they failed to heed the warning.

Graduating in 1907, Durant persuaded Arthur Brisbane to offer him employment as a cub reporter -- at the princely sum of ten dollars a week -- on the New York Evening Journal. This was a heady change from the young man's youthful piety, for the evening papers of New York in that summer were featuring rape cases. The young man, dizzy with Socialism but still mindful of his morals, found himself pursuing sex criminals, day after day. The occupation turned his stomach, and a kindly editor advised him to keep an eye out for some less strenuous occupation. In the fall of 1907, he subsided into teaching Latin, French, English and geometry in Seton Hall College, South Orange, New Jersey. And at last, in 1909, he and his secret associate entered the seminary that was attached to the college and set about their earlier devised task of impregnating Thomas Aquinas with Karl Marx.

The College had an excellent library, and Durant was made librarian. It was there, as he moved affectionately among the books, that he learned of the man who, beyond any other thinker, would shape his life. Spinoza's Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated was a revelation to him in its heretical content and its mathematical method -- but, above all, in the personality it revealed of a philosopher actually living his philosophy, merging practice and precept, and dedicating himself, in poverty, simplicity and sincerity, to an attempt to understand the world. Almost memorizing that book, Durant then came to see very clearly the absurdity of his conspiracy, and he shuddered at the lifelong insincerity it would have imposed upon him. In 1911 he left the Seminary, his only possessions four books and $40, and migrated to New York. A separation between Durant and his parents ensued, and it was years before his mother and father would forgive him.

From a peaceful and orderly seminary existence, Durant passed on to the most radical circles in the "bedlam" of Manhattan. He tried -- and failed -- to convert Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman from anarchism to socialism. In 1911, he became the teacher and (as he put it) chief pupil of the Ferrer Modern School, an experiment in libertarian education. A sponsor of the school, Alden Freeman, took a fancy to the shy instructor and treated him to a summer tour of Europe to "broaden his borders." Returning to the States, Durant fell in love with one of his pupils, whose sprightly vivacity led him to call her "Puck" and, in his writings, "Ariel" -- the names by which she became known to the rest of the world.

In order to marry her, in 1913 he resigned his post as teacher and supported himself and her by lecturing for five and ten-dollar fees, while Alden Freeman paid his tuition in the graduate schools of Columbia University. There, Durant took biology under Morgan and McGregor, psychology under Woodworth and Poffenberger and philosophy under Woodbridge and the legendary John Dewey.

Shortly thereafter, the arrival of his daughter, Ethel, slowly changed Durant's philosophy. Faced with the daily miracle of living growth, he shed his youthful atheism and returned to a more vital conception of the world. In his "mental" -- but not literal --autobiography, Transition (1927), he expressed the change with youthful sentiment:

Even before Ethel's coming I had begun to rebel against that mechanical conception of mind and history which is the illegitimate offspring of our industrial age: I had suspected that the old agricultural view of the world in terms of seed and growth did far more justice to the complexity and irrepressible expansiveness of things. But when Ethel came, I saw how some mysterious impulse, far outreaching the categories of physics, lifted her up, inch-by-inch and effort by effort, on the ladder of life. 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.

The birth of his daughter had the further effect of ending the long separation between Durant and his mother. Mother Durant came to see the infant -- what grandparent can resist a grandchild? – and, in a glow of contentment, she exclaimed, "It's a Durant!"

In those years of plain living and eager study, he paid little attention to history, which seemed so discouraging a record of slaughter and politics. But Brisbane had led him to read Buckle's Introduction to the History of Civilization, as a guide to a more philosophical understanding of man's past. Durant was deeply moved when he learned that Buckle had died in Damascus, after writing merely the introduction to what had been planned as a history of civilization, from its origins to the 19th century. Durant resolved to undertake the same task -- but he was 41 before he was free to begin. Meanwhile, almost every day, he began to gather material.

In 1917, as a requirement for the doctorate in philosophy, Will Durant wrote his first book, Philosophy and the Social Problem, which argued that philosophy was languishing because it avoided the actual problems of society. The exuberant young author proposed to view these problems from the perspective of philosophy and suggested that specific training in administration should be made a qualification for public office. He received his degree in 1917 and began to teach the "dear delight" as an instructor in Columbia University. But World War I disrupted his classes, and he was politely dismissed from his post.

Meanwhile, in a former Presbyterian Church now called Labor Temple, at 14th Street and 2nd Avenue, New York, he had begun those lectures on the history of philosophy, literature, science, music, and art which prepared him to write The Story of Philosophy and The Story of Civilization. For his audiences there were mostly men and women who demanded both clarity of exposition and some contemporary significance in all historical studies. In 1921 he organized Labor Temple School, which devoted itself to adult education.

One Sunday afternoon of that year, E. Haldeman-Julius, publisher of the famous Little Blue Books, happened to pass Labor Temple and noted from the announcement board that at 5 p.m. Durant would talk on Plato. The publisher entered, liked the lecture and later, from Girard, Kansas, wrote and asked Durant to turn that lecture into one of his little five-cent Blue Book publications. Durant initially refused, on the ground that his other work was taking up all his time. Here, at the outset, his literary career might have come to an end. But Julius wrote again and enclosed advance payment. Durant yielded and then again absorbed himself in teaching, but Julius asked for a booklet on Aristotle -- again sending payment in advance. This, too, was written, and again Durant thought the relationship was ended. But the enterprising publisher persisted until 11 booklets were delivered to him. History would prove that these enterprises, undertaken very much against his will, would create what would ultimately become a best seller, for the 11 booklets became The Story of Philosophy.

The amazing success of this book is an old story in publishing circles. Dick Simon and Max Schuster, of the new publishing firm Simon and Schuster, took over the booklets and made them into a handsome volume. Durant expected a sale of some 1,100 copies, and the optimistic publishers predicted 1,500. It was assumed that the subject and price – five dollars in 1926 -- would frighten readers away. But a favorable review by Henry Forman in the New York Times sent the book off to a good start. In a few years it sold 2,000,000 copies. To this day it is still capturing new readers in America and has found many abroad, in its translations into Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish and Swedish.

It was this windfall that enabled Durant to realize at last the ambition that had stirred within him when he read of Buckle's abortive dream. He retired from teaching and began work on his own history of civilization, though, for a time, he allowed himself to be distracted by writing magazine articles for tempting fees. Many of these essays were collected into The Mansions of Philosophy (1929), later to be reprinted as The Pleasures of Philosophy. But in 1929 he turned his back on Mammon and resolved that he would devote the remainder of his life to The Story of Civilization. He used the word "story" to suggest his belief that the narrative would be intelligible to any high school graduate, but the word has misled many into thinking of this monumental production as popularization. Those who wade into the volumes are surprised to find them marked by painstaking scholarship, by profuse detail, and by the philosophical perspective that recalls Spengler's wish that only philosophers would write history.

Originally, Durant planned to divide the work into five volumes, to appear at five-year intervals. For the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage (1935), he circled the globe twice and wrote and rewrote its 1,049 pages in longhand, through six years, giving the history of Asiatic civilization from the beginnings to Gandhi and Chiang Kai-shek. In the preface he explained his purpose and method:

I have tried in this book to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which I rashly laid upon myself some 20 years ago, to write a history of civilization. I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind - to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy and the achievements of art. I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is, or how immodest is its very conception, for many years of effort have brought it to but a fifth of its completion and have made it clear that no one mind, and no single lifetime, can adequately compass this task. Nevertheless I have dreamed that, despite the many errors inevitable in this undertaking, it may be of some use to those upon whom the passion for philosophy has laid the compulsion to try and see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and understanding through history in time, as well as to seek them through science in space.
I have long felt that our usual method of writing history in separate longitudinal sections -- economic history, political history, religious history, the history of philosophy, the history of literature, the history of science, the history of music, the history of art -- does injustice to the unity of human life; that history should be written collaterally as well as lineally, synthetically as well as analytically; and that the ideal historiography would seek to portray in each period the total complex of a nation's culture, institutions, adventures and ways. But the accumulation of knowledge has divided history, like science, into a thousand isolated specialties, and prudent scholars have refrained from attempting any view of the whole -- whether of the material or of the living past of our race. For the probability of error increases with the scope of the undertaking, and any man who sells his soul to synthesis will be a tragic target for a myriad merry darts of specialist critique. "Consider," said Ptah-hotep 5,000 years ago, "how thou mayest be opposed by an expert in council. It is foolish to speak on every kind of work." A history of civilization shares the presumptuousness of every philosophical enterprise: It offers the ridiculous spectacle of a fragment expounding the whole. Like philosophy, such a venture has no rational excuse and is at best but a brave stupidity, but let us hope that, like philosophy, it will always lure some rash spirits into its fatal depths.

That same preface contained some prophetic lines, written in 1934:

At this historic moment -- when the ascendancy of Europe is so rapidly coming to an end, when Asia is swelling with resurrected life, and the theme of the 20th century seems destined to be an all-embracing conflict between the East and the West -- the provincialism of our traditional histories, which began with Greece and summed up Asia in a line, has become no merely academic error, but a possibly fatal failure of perspective and intelligence. The future faces into the Pacific, and understanding must follow it there.

Volume II, The Life of Greece (1939), applied the "integral method" to Hellenic culture from its oldest antecedents in Crete and Asia to its envelopment by Rome. In the preface he proposed an all-embracing plan:

I wish to see and feel this complex culture not only in the subtle and impersonal rhythm of its rise and fall, but in the rich variety of its vital elements: its ways of drawing a living from the land and of organizing industry and trade; its experiments with monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, dictatorship and revolution; its manners and morals; its religious practices and beliefs; its education of children and its regulation of the sexes and the family; its poems and temples, markets and theaters and athletic fields; its poetry and drama; its painting, sculpture, architecture and music; its sciences and inventions; its superstitions and philosophy. I wish to see and feel these elements, not in their theoretical and scholastic isolation, but in their living interplay as the simultaneous movement of one great cultural organism, with a hundred organs and a hundred million cells, but with one body and one soul.

Volume III, Caesar and Christ (1944), told the story of Rome from Romulus to Constantine. In construction, this volume is the best of Durant's books, moving as it does with dramatic interest from Etruscan caves to Christian catacombs. Maurice Maeterlinck sent from France an enthusiastic tribute:

This book is a magnificent success, worthy of the greatest histories of mankind. It is as complete as an encyclopedia, but instead of being the moth-eaten labor of an obscure compiler, it is the product of a great writer and a great artist, and each of the pages is a page from an anthology. The work has a continuous flow. It is luminous and without blemish. It has none of the defects of the "best sellers" composed of endless twaddle, paddings and platitudes. Dr. Durant's pen seems to clarify, to light up, to simplify everything it touches. At times one would believe he was listening to Montesquieu.

Volume IV, The Age of Faith (1950), was another Leviathan, running to 1,196 pages, but it covered three civilizations -- Christian, Moslem and Judaic -- through a thousand years, from Constantine to Dante, A. D. 325 to 1321. It included some 200 pages on Mohammedan culture in its great days at Baghdad, Cairo and Cordova. Never before has a Christian scholar, in one volume on the Middle Ages, given such ample recognition to the achievements of Islam in government, literature, medicine, science and philosophy. And the three chapters on medieval Jewish life show a surprisingly sympathetic understanding of what might have seemed an alien culture. Professor Allan Nevins, of Columbia University, wrote of this book:

I was specially pleased to have Will Durant's The Age of Faith, which seems to me a very remarkable feat of synthesis and interpretation. I regard it as the best general account of medieval civilization in print. Mr. Durant's great series of books should in time become recognized -- if it is not already -- as one of the outstanding works in American historiography.

Volume V, The Renaissance (1953), exemplifies Durant's integral method by covering every phase of that exuberant epoch in Italy. It began with Petrarch and Boccaccio in the 14th century, went on to Florence with the Medici and the artists and humanists and poets who made Florence a very Athens; told the tragic tale of Savonarola; passed on to Milan with Leonardo da Vinci; to Umbria with Piero delta Francesca and Perugino; to Mantua with Mantegna and Isabella d'Este; to Ferrara with Ariosto; to Venice with Giorgione, the Bellini and Aldus Manutius; to Parina with Correggio; to Urbino with Castiglione; to Naples with Alfonso the Magnanimous; to Rome with the great Renaissance popes and their patronage of Raphael and Michelangelo; to Venice again with Titian, Aretino, Tintoretto and Veronese; and back to Florence with Cellini.

The preface to Volume VI, The Reformation, describes the book and reveals the man:

We begin by considering religion in general, its functions in the soul and the group and the conditions and problems of the Roman Catholic Church in the two centuries before Luther. We shall watch England and Wyclif in 1376-82, Germany and Louis of Bavaria in 1320-47, Bohemia and Huss in 1402-85, rehearsing the ideas and conflicts of the Lutheran Reformation. And, as we proceed, we shall note how social revolution, with communistic aspirations, marched hand-in-hand with religious revolt. We shall weakly echo Gibbon's chapter on the fall of Constantinople and, shall perceive how the advance of the Turks to the gates of Vienna made it possible for one man to defy at once an emperor and a pope. We shall consider sympathetically the efforts of Erasmus for the peaceful self-return of the Church. We shall study Germany on the eve of Luther and may thereby come to understand how inevitable he was when he came.
In Book II, the Reformation proper will hold the stage, with Luther and Melanchthon in Germany, Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland, Henry VIII in England, Knox in Scotland and Gustavus Vasa in Sweden, with a side glance at the long duel between Francis I and Charles V. And other aspects of European life in that turbulent half-century (1517-64) will be postponed in order to let the religious drama unfold itself without confusing delays.
Book III, will look at "the strangers in the gate": Russia and the Ivans and the Orthodox Church; Islam and its changing creed, culture and power; and the struggle of the Jews to find Christians in Christendom. Book IV will go "behind the scenes" to study the law and economy, morals and manners, art and music, literature and science and philosophy of Europe in the age of Luther. In Book V we shall be forced to admire the calm audacity with which she weathered the encompassing storm. In a brief Epilogue we shall try to see the Renaissance and the Reformation, Catholicism and the Enlightenment, in the large perspective of modern history and thought.

Can so controversial a subject be treated impartially? Durant professes to have tried but, as yet, his success is difficult to assess. His preface concludes disarmingly:

It is a fascinating but difficult subject, for almost every word that one may write about it can be disputed or give offense. I have tried to be impartial, though I know that a man's past always colors his views, and that nothing else is so irritating as impartiality. The reader should be warned that I was brought up a fervent Catholic, and that I retain grateful memories of the devoted secular priests, and learned Jesuits, and kindly nuns, who bore so patiently with my brash youth. But he should note, too, that I derived much of my education from lecturing for 13 years in a Presbyterian Church under the tolerant auspices of sterling Protestants like Jonathan C. Day, William Adams Brown, Henry Sloane Coffin and Edmund Chaffee, and that many of my most faithful auditors in that Presbyterian Church were Jews, whose search for education and understanding gave me a new insight into their people. Less than any other man have I excuse for prejudice, and I feel for all faiths the warm sympathy of one who has come to learn that even the trust in reason is a precarious faith, and that we are all fragments of darkness groping for the sun. I know no more about the ultimates than the simplest urchin in the streets.

What was he like, this patient Sisyphus of history, who every five years rolled a heavy volume up the high hills of scholarship and to the pinnacle of print, only to begin at the bottom again? A labor he would indulge in until no less than eleven volumes of The Story of Civilization were completed. We know that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the tenth volume in the series (along with his wife, Ariel, who became his collaborator on the series after Volume VII: The Age of Reason).

Photographs reveal Durant to be a man of sparkling eyes and abundant hair, dressed immaculately. Even those who were not friends spoke well of him. Durant embodied the two qualities that he once declared no philosophy or philosopher was complete without: understanding and forgiveness.

He never once attempted to build his reputation at the expense of others; instead he sought to better understand the viewpoints of human beings, and to forgive them their foibles and human waywardness. When two burglars were apprehended by police after having broke into his Los Angeles home and stealing valuable jewelry and savings bonds – Durant refused to press charges and insisted that they be set free. "Forgiveness," again, is the other half of philosophy.

Durant’s love for his wife Ariel only deepened with the passing of time. When he was admitted to hospital with heart problems in 1981 at the age of 96, his wife stopped eating; perhaps fearing that he would not be returning. When Durant learned of the death of his beloved wife, his own heart stopped beating. They are buried beside each other in a small Los Angeles cemetery, together for all eternity.

Unlike the cloistered academics who turned up their noses at Durant’s attempt to bring philosophy back to the common man, Durant was not content merely to write about such subjects, he actually did his best to put his ideas into effect. He had fought for equal wages, women’s suffrage and fairer working conditions for the American labor force. Durant had even drafted a "Declaration of Interdependence" in the early 1940s – preceding the "Civil Rights Movement" by some two decades – calling for, among many things:

Human dignity and decency, and to safeguard these without distinction of race or color or creed; to strive in concert with others to discourage animosities arising from these differences, and to unite all groups in the fair play of civilized life…Rooted in freedom, children of the same Divine Father, sharing everywhere a common human blood, we declare again that all men are brothers, and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.

He pursued this issue of racial equality so vigorously that this Declaration was introduced into the Congressional Record on October 1, 1945.

Over the years, Durant’s reputation as a philosopher and historian has grown; his writings, which have sold over 17 million copies, have been enjoyed by individuals from all walks of life. Among his most impassioned readers (and friends) were Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Clarence Darrow and Bertrand Russell – although it was always for the common man, rather than the scholastic or academic audience, that Durant wrote.

"We could do almost anything if time would slow up," he once said, adding "but it runs on, and we melt away trying to keep up with it." And yet even time never covered 110 centuries in fifty years.

By the editors of Wisdom magazine and John Little