AGE OF THE DURANTS
Robert W. Merry
THE NATIONAL OBSERVER
August 2, 1975
WHEN A MAN reaches 90 and he is
author or coauthor of 17 books on the history and
philosophy of the world, then perhaps he is entitled
to sit back, clasp his hands behind his head, and
bask in his well-earned eminence without having a lot
of young upstarts contradicting his historical
But no such privileged
existence is likely for Will Durant in his 10th
decade. His partner in toil (as well as in marriage)
for the past 62 years just won't hear of it. Ariel
Durant believes the way to maintain a measure of
youthfulness in an old man's thinking is to keep his
views under challenge. And she's qualified for the
task: Besides being a historian in her own right (and
coauthor of seven of the Durant books), she's also a
Her self-assigned mission seems
perfectly acceptable to her husband, whose blue eyes
twinkle when he and his wife are engaged in friendly
debate over the significance of Western music, the
consequences of the Peloponnesian War - or how age
influences a man's view of the world.
Durant's eyes are twinkling
aplenty as he sits with his wife in a 17th-floor
suite in the St. Regis Hotel here and chats about the
essence of Western civilization, its future (or lack
of it), the role of historians, and the Durants' own
work. That work will culminate in November with
publication of The Age at Napoleon (Simon and
Schuster), the 11th and final volume in the Durants'
famous The Story at Civilization series.
Durant, a small man with
chalk-white hair and matching mustache, is taking
strong exception to that irreverent wit, Voltaire,
who said history was nothing more than a record of
man's crimes and follies. "I think that's
nonsense," says Durant. "History is the
work of inventors, poets, artists, and statesmen. It
is the product of human beings who are also capable
of crimes and follies, yes, but it is not merely the
record of crimes and follies. That's why in our books
we've been concerned with events that proved vital to
civilization. Take the Peloponnesian War, for
example; Athens took second place after that, and
Thats as far as he gets
before his wife cuts in with a little devils
Was that tragic or
beneficial? she asks.
He: "Well, Sparta wasn't
dedicated to culture."
She: "Yes, but it had
greater strength. It was more brutal, maybe, but it
reinvigorated a soft people."
Athenian culture declined after that."
She (flashing a smile of
anticipated victory): "Ah yes, but tell me this:
wouldn't Athens have fallen down with or without that
He (sinking back against the
sofa and speaking almost in a sigh): "Probably.
As usual, the death of the old religion took the
moral basis out of civilization."
Durant's resigned answer has
significance beyond the Fifth Century B.C. because
many believe the death of the old religion has, as
usual, taken the moral basis out of our own
civilization as well. "The Twentieth Century
approaches its end without having yet found a natural
substitute for religion in persuading the human
animal to morality," the Durants write in their
And many wonder whether the
West can survive the secular fervor that burst into
political significance in the French Revolution, then
spread through Western culture during the next two
centuries. "I would have to agree with Spengler
that the West is in decline," says Durant.
"The future belongs to the East."
Mrs. Durant is a little more
sanguine about Western prospects. She doesn't believe
that the West's religious decline necessarily means
its civilization is dying. Material progress has its
own sustaining abilities, she says.
But her husband, surveying
world history, can think of no moral code that
survived the death of its gods and no society that
survived the death of its moral code. The great
experiment were engaged in is whether a moral
code can survive without the support of supernatural
beliefs, says Durant. Thats the
crux of the matter.
Those hardly are the words you
would have heard from an earlier Will Durant, the
young man who bolted from a Roman Catholic seminary
in New Jersey back in 1911, gravitated to New York,
and fell in with some of the country's most radical
young thinkers. In those days of romantic faith in
man's inherent goodness, Durant wasn't nearly so
enamored of order or fearful of chaos. But the world
changes with the decades, and so do a man's
"What we're up
against," says Durant, "is the simple fact
that man is still an animal. That's the deepest thing
in his nature - the survival instinct and the hunting
instinct. Those were necessary once upon a time, when
self-preservation was the rule rather than the
pressures of society. So morality has an uphill
battle against these two inheritances. You have to
recognize the enormous difficulty in making an animal
and hunter into a citizen, a civilized man.
Baby, says Mrs.
Durant, looking admiringly at her husband, thats
Durant smiles, then continues:
The important thing is to
achieve liberty with order. England came close to
achieving this in its finest age, but today we live
in an age of chaos. In morality, art, music, we're
floundering around. I used to say art was the
transformation of chaos into order. Now it seems to
be the transformation of order into chaos." He
chuckles quietly. "I have it in for chaos. I
don't like chaos."
He dislikes chaos so much, in
fact, that he would rather listen to Bach, whose
baroque masterpieces reflect the order of his day,
than to Beethoven, who abandoned the aristocratic
tradition with his Third Symphony, the Eroica, and
rushed headlong toward the romantic abyss.
"Beethoven represents license, praise for
personal feeling, and free expression. That verges on
At this point Ariel Durant cuts
in again. "You have to remember," she
admonishes, casting a quick glance at her husband,
"you have to remember that these are the
opinions of an aged man. As Will approaches the
century mark, he becomes more and more conservative
and, well, more scared. He starts feeling there's too
much innovation. Therefore, his opinions aren't
necessarily the opinions you might have heard if you
had talked to him in his gut-fighting days 30 or 40
The former gut fighter smiles.
"I admit the indictment," he says quietly.
"I admit they are the opinions of an old
man." He raises his voice just a bit. "But
that doesn't necessarily prove them wrong."
She: "Old people have seen
so much, experienced so much, that they usually
modify the daring and adventure necessary to
He: "But that may be an
advantage. At least the old person has experienced
both forms, old age as well as youth. The young have
only experienced the one."
She: "But there are timid
elements in old age. There's something to be said for
youth and its daring."
He (taking her hand, eyes
twinkling): "Ariel speaks pretty youthfully for
a young lady of 77, doesn't she?"
A little more seriously, he
continues: "Well, old age stands for order, the
brake on the car; youth stands for liberty, the gas
pedal. Both are necessary, I suppose, but I think the
brake is more necessary." Warming to the
metaphor, he adds: "On the other hand, I suppose
the old ones sometimes keep the brake on even when
they're going uphill."
The Durants themselves never
kept the brakes on during their long uphill journey
together toward accomplishment and fame. They have
worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for most of their adult
lives, including most Saturdays and Sundays. How
else would we get it done? asks Mrs. Durant,
adding: But we do whats necessary to take
time out. We go to movies once a month. She
also notes that their Hollywood Hills, California
home is only five minutes away from Hollywood
and Vine, so were not too far from mischief.
But those 14-hour days haven't
left much time for mischief. And besides, it took
more than long hours to create the Durant legacy.
"The beauty of our lives," says Mrs.
Durant, "is that Will has a clear, rational,
systematic mind. He knows how to bring order out of
chaos." But the toil was parceled out equally.
"We developed our own system," says Mrs.
Durant. In interpreting history, the system
"includes a majority of two."
The system apparently works, as
anyone knows who has picked up one of their hefty
volumes. The Durants' works, while not profound in
historical interpretation or original scholarship,
are considered masterpieces of historical narrative.
And they are graced with a robust prose style,
elegant wit, and an abiding appreciation for history
as it actually was, including the contributions of
all the greats, near-greats, ordinary folk, knaves,
and fools who kept history on its inexorable course
That appreciation goes back
many years, to when Will Durant was an obscure
administrator of an adult-education school in New
York City. Durant's passion for history was evident
one day as he lectured on Plato at his school. When a
New York booklet publisher happened to hear the
lecture, a career was born. "He wrote me,"
recalls Durant, "and asked me to type out the
lecture for one of his little books. I was too busy.
I refused. He insisted, and sent me an advance check
That began a series of
publications that later formed the basis of Durant's The
Story of Philosophy, which appeared in 1925. The
book was so successful that it elevated the Durants
to what one might call - jokingly - the leisure class
and awarded them the financial independence to begin
their life's work, The Story of Civilization
The series, which began in
1935, contains three volumes on the history of the
Orient, Greece, and Rome, with the rest devoted
almost exclusively to the history of European
civilization. The forthcoming The Age of Napoleon
covers the era from 1789 to 1815 and focuses largely
on the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.
The book will crown the Durants' long career as
"We have loved
history," says Mrs. Durant, "and our love
has been highly rewarded." Her husband is quick
to point out that their love for history never could
have been requited as it was without the success of
his first book. "That was a stroke of fortune we
had no right to expect," he says. "So we
have every reason to be grateful."
Speaking as one in a little
book called The Lessons of History, the
Durants expressed their feeling for history in
another way. If a man is fortunate he will,
before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his
civilized heritage and transmit it to his children,
they wrote in 1968. And to his final breath he
will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy,
knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our
thanks to Paul Natho for his historical efforts in
preserving this article.