by Robert W. Merry

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 interpretations.

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 youthful 77.

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…”

That’s as far as he gets before his wife cuts in with a little devil’s advocacy.

“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."

He: "Invigoration? 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 defeat?"

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 forthcoming book.

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 we’re engaged in is whether a moral code can survive without the support of supernatural beliefs,” says Durant. “That’s 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 perceptions.

"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, “that’s a mouthful.”

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 chaos."

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 years ago."

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 youth."

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 what’s 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 we’re 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 toward today.

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 for $150."

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 series.

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 historians.

"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 lasting life.”

Our thanks to Paul Natho for his historical efforts in preserving this article.