An interview with Heroes of History editor and Estate historian John Little


When did you first discover the writings of Will Durant?

There was a copy of Durant’s The Story of Philosophy in our household when I was growing up; my father had read Durant and liked his presentation of the ideas and lives of the greater thinkers from the Western tradition and, when I came to the "age of inquiry," which is to say teen years, I thought philosophy would be a good tool to have in my arsenal as I prepared to face and question the world outside of my home. That book offered to give me its "secrets" without obscurity or without my having to be trained in another language such as that spoken by most collegiate metaphysicians and epistemologs. The ideas and their vitality to my life were immediately apparent. That particular book, by the way, has had a very enduring influence and is responsible for introducing more people to the subject and study of philosophy than, perhaps, any other book. It was first published in 1926 and is still – some 75 years later – the leading seller for introductory texts to philosophy. I recently checked Amazon.com and was delighted to see that it was still in the top 1,800 of its book sales – out of Amazon’s catalogue of millions of titles!

Why do you think Durant’s philosophy writings have proven so popular?

Well, Durant made philosophy – and, later, history -- intelligible to vast numbers of people; he created a better frequency by which to transmit its message which resulted in people clearly understanding its message and its significance to human existence. Durant was what Walter Kaufmann once said of Nietzsche: "a philosopher that a great many intelligent people read for the sheer pleasure of it."

I well remember the photo of Mohandas Gandhi sitting in his humble way, totally absorbed in reading Durant’s The Case for India – which is interesting in itself to consider; here was a man with a sub-continent on his head, and laboring for the liberation of 320,000,000 people; a man who had "zero" leisure time and yet he made time for -- and presumably found a certain degree of emotional refueling in – reading the words of Will Durant. Apart from the Pulitzer committee, who awarded Durant its coveted award in 1968, Durant’s insights and prose inspired and impressed everyone from Presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman and Ronald Regan to literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Mencken, to philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, to public defenders such as Clarence Darrow who once remarked, "There are few people whom I have ever known for whom I have a higher regard and a greater appreciation. I’d rather have written his book on The Story of Philosophy than to have done anything or everything that I ever did."

This said, it was always for the common man and woman that Durant wrote, believing that philosophy was not to be the playground of professional academics, but a pastime that was available to all who wished to better understand the meaning of life. The Story of Philosophy sold a million copies – a million copies, for a philosophy book! – in its first year of publication, alone.

What drew you to Will Durant’s work?

I was drawn to the humaneness of it; Durant always wrote with an understanding and forgiving eye and spoke with unparalleled erudition and eloquence on the greatness of our human heritage. Listen to this phrase from the opening chapter of Heroes of History as but one example:

I will not subscribe to the depressing conclusion of Voltaire and Gibbon that history is "the record of the crimes and follies of mankind." Of course it is partly that, and contains a hundred million tragedies -- but it is also the saving sanity of the average family, the labor and love of men and women bearing the stream of life over a thousand obstacles. It is the wisdom and courage of statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, dying exhausted but fulfilled; it is the undiscourageable effort of scientists and philosophers to understand the universe that enveloped them; it is the patience and skill of artists and poets giving lasting form to transient beauty, or an illuminating clarity to subtle significance; it is the vision of prophets and saints challenging us to nobility.

On the turbulent and sullied river, hidden amid absurdity and suffering, there is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there, bringing new treasures every day; Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley is borne on the west wind; Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there, calling to us to come and share his bread. These and a thousand more, and the gifts they gave, are the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.

We shall not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us -- we shall work undiscourageably to lessen them -- but we shall take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance. Let us, varying Shakespeare’s unhappy king, sit down and tell brave stories of noble women and great men.

Such eloquence actually causes me to pause in wonder and appreciation. Will Durant is the only philosopher I have ever read, besides Plato and Nietzsche, who can lift philosophic prose into the realm of poetry. He is without question the greatest prose stylist philosophy has ever had to represent it – and that’s saying something. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote in illuminating and concise prose; writing, like Durant, for clarity rather than reputation. But he was still of a very scientific mindset which made some of his texts such as Human Knowledge, It’s Scope and Limits and Principles of Mathematics read like textbooks in science and mathematics, respectively, which, apart form the odd spark given off by Russell's renowned wit, were rather austere reads. Durant's writings, by contrast, are like a crackling fire; which not only comforts the soul, but fills the entire room with its illumination. He glorified the achievements of men and women in the fields of art, literature, science, philosophy and the humanities in a spirit that sought to understand and forgive – rather than to critique and vilify, which I found both refreshing and inspirational.

What sets Will Durant apart from other philosophers?

Durant advanced a philosophy that was very "this world" oriented; many philosophers claim their metaphysics for example to be based on "what is" or reality – but closer inspection reveals their beliefs to be tethered to the clouds of abstraction; which is to say, mental gymnastics rather than the realities of life and man. Durant turned his back on that sort of philosophy as he found it insensitive to the element of vitality that he found in himself and in everything else. Science can tell you how to measure things in space but it did not answer the fundamental question of "what is man?" As a result Durant looked to history for it was in man’s past that one could really see the "what is" – how man actually behaved. History was, when viewed from Durant’s perspective, not simply dates and records of events, but "philosophy teaching by example." From his broad survey of history he cultivated a philosophy of perspective, not sectarianism; understanding, not ridicule; which has resulted in millions the world over coming to envision a better way for human beings to live in harmony with one another and to live more meaningful and enlightened lives. He was discouraged to find that most of the philosophers over the past two hundred years or so were content merely to study and write about the various parts of philosophy, but never to see that these parts existed in relation to a greater whole; the well-being of mankind. In reflecting back on the philosophic journey of his life in the late 1960s, Durant recalled his displeasure with the philosophic establishment, stating that:

Philosophers were losing themselves in epistemology – endlessly discussing the processes of knowledge – instead of going on to apply philosophic perspective to the actual problems of life. I pleaded with the professors to advance from epistemology, logic, and metaphysics to such questions as our changing morals, our dissolving marriages, the goals of education, the improvement of conduct and character, the ideals of art, the meaning of history, the reality of progress, the relation of ethics to politics, the responsibilities and possibilities of statesmanship, the conflicts of nature and civilization, of East and West, of communism and liberty, of faith and doubt, and the silent but pervasive flight of the intellectual classes from religion to secularism in modern states.

Whether in prose or in debate, Durant saw human beings not as many of his philosophical contemporaries did, i.e., as tragic or comedic automatons in an indifferent universe, but as beings that could, when sufficiently inspired, rise to levels of genius and heroism. I came away from reading Will Durant revitalized and feeling surprisingly good about the human race. To put a sharper point on the question of what sets Durant apart from other philosophers, I think that philosophers today are still missing the bigger picture; the perspective that a "love of wisdom" should instill. They are like the man who wishes to build a home by calling to his site bricklayers, carpenters and electricians – but neglecting to fashion a blue print. The materials are useless if they are not purposefully employed and likewise the various branches of philosophy. I suppose it’s impressive to train your thoughts to do full, twisting back layouts over the vault of the mind – but to what end? Does this accomplishment make for a happier life? Does it make you more understanding and forgiving? Does it teach you about man’s nature? Does it reduce racial or religious intolerance? Does it make for a better life? For a better world? Durant, by contrast, was a thinker who saw philosophy as vital to such everyday issues as life, death, love, parenting, marriage, political policy, adversity, racism and living a more rewarding life.

As an example, unlike the cloistered academics who turn up their noses at Durant’s attempt to bring philosophy back into the arena of human affairs, Durant was not content merely to write articles for peer-reviewed journals; he took his beliefs to the people, fighting for equal wages, women’s suffrage and fairer working conditions for the American labor force. Durant even drafted a "Declaration of Interdependence" in the early 1940s – presaging the "Civil Rights Movement" by some two decades – and calling for, among other 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.

No other philosopher of his caliber or generation spent the time or the effort to combat racial and religious intolerance so stridently in so early a stage in America’s history. Durant pursued this issue so vigorously that his ‘Declaration’ was introduced into the Congressional Record on October 1, 1945. We would have to wait until the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King on the Civil Rights scene -- some ten years later -- to hear such eloquence on this issue again.

By what name would you call Durant’s philosophy of life?

Had he ever chosen to give his creed a name, it might well have been called "Perspectivism" -- as that was his council; to see the part in the light of the whole. To see human nature against the backdrop of our actual history and the practical effects and consequences of certain ideas that went with and against the grain of human nature. Whereas Spinoza, who was Durant’s personal favorite among the philosophers, had sought to see things sub specie eternitatis – that is, "in view of eternity;" Durant believed that such a view was not possible for human beings to envision because human beings are not eternal but temporal beings. Instead, Durant suggested we seek to see things sub specie totius – "in view of the whole;" that is, from as broad a perspective as possible.

Has professional philosophy (i.e., philosophy as taught and practiced in Colleges and Universities) changed since Will Durant came on the scene?

In certain respects; since Durant came on the scene, there has been a greater receptivity to ideas that have a broad practical value; people are not as inclined to discount a man’s viewpoint simply because he is not lettered in philosophy as they might have been in times past. Although Durant received his PhD. in philosophy from Columbia, he never referred to himself as "Dr. Durant" and never by-lined himself with that title. It was always the value of the idea, rather than the vehicle of its delivery that was of interest to him. After all, neither neither Plato nor Aristotle were PhDs, but few today would doubt the significance of their thought. On the other hand, the situation that Durant fought against is still in existence; philosophers today, as in Durant’s day, have in many respects abdicated their moral responsibility to society; they’ve retreated from the real world by burying their heads in the sand castles of Epistemology; they are well versed in means but ignorant of ends; they have lost sight of the forest by focusing their gaze too intensely on particular trees – or even, with the majority of metaphysicians and epistemologs, upon the bark of a particular tree. Durant implored them to come out of the classroom and into the world.

How did your involvement with the estate of Will Durant come about?

For years I had wanted to do something that would point out the significance of Will Durant’s ideas and work and the best way to accomplish this was, obviously, to work with his estate. It occurred to me that the odds were that someone who lectured and wrote so extensively about philosophy and history over a period of some 60 years would probably have left behind a much greater wealth of concentrated lore, unpublished treatises and life-changing ideas. I was right. I wanted, for purely selfish reasons, to have Will Durant as "my teacher" for philosophy and history; to be his student as he played Virgil to my Dante; guiding me through the "Country of the Mind." You come out of such an enterprise a much different person than you were when you went in and I would rather be taught by Will Durant than any other professor that I could think of. I also thought that I could organize and edit his materials competently so that they would be meaningful to a contemporary audience. With this as my main spur, I contacted the estate, a meeting was arranged, and I laid out before them my desire to reintroduce Durant and his teachings. They evidently liked my proposition and, so they said, my credentials; that is, my background in philosophy and knowledge of Durant and his ideas, and they agreed to grant me access to materials that were heretofore unseen by anybody save the immediate Durant family – that was quite an exciting position to find myself in. I was delighted to discover that the Durant estate had preserved audio recordings, videos, movie film, essays, notebooks, journals, letters and, even more significantly, what proved to be the manuscript of Durant’s last book – written at 92 years of age – Heroes of History.

Tell us about this new book, Heroes of History. What’s the story behind its release?

Well, four years before his death, Will Durant began work on an abbreviated version of his highly acclaimed eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization in which he compressed over 110 centuries of human civilization into eleven volumes. To take that same 110 centuries and try to telescope it into one 360 page book is no less monumental an undertaking, but that’s what he did. The project was originally conceived as a series of audio lectures, but Durant soon realized that the dialogues could be developed into a book that would serve as a wonderfully readable introduction to the subject of history – and history as a relevant form of philosophy. He completed twenty-one of a proposed twenty-three chapters before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety-six and those chapters span thousands of years of human history -- from Confucius to Shakespeare, from the Roman Empire to the Reformation, finally ending in the eighteenth century. The "story" behind the discovery of the manuscript was that, while doing my research in the Durant archive, I happened upon a series of typed "mini-talks" along with letters to his daughter, Ethel, indicating that he intended to publish these scripts as a book entitled Heroes of History. Unfortunately he passed away before he could realize this vision. Upon his passing, the manuscript for the book, along with his many papers were boxed up with his other affects and put into storage. Ethel passed away in the latter part of the 1980s and her daughter, Will and Ariel’s granddaughter, Monica Mihell, inherited the boxes. The papers were almost destroyed when water leaked into the storage area after a severe bout of rainstorms that hit Los Angeles in 1996. In fact, some papers were water damaged beyond salvation. I recall picking up old essays that Durant had written and they would disintegrate in my hands as I held them, which was terrible and rather depressing. However, on the brighter side, the vast majority of materials including the manuscript for Heroes of History emerged from the deluge relatively unscathed and I think it is in many respects appropriate that twenty years after his passing – and twenty years after Durant finished it – it will be released to the public as he intended. Its discovery is a major event, not only for lovers of his prose, but for students of history and philosophy the world over.

Can you give us an overview of the book?

Heroes of History is a book that contains stories of life-enhancing wisdom and optimism, complete with Durant’s wit, knowledge, and unique ability to explain events and ideas in simple, exciting terms. It is the lessons of our heritage passed on for the edification and benefit of future generations. Some of its chapters are entitled:

  • What is Civilization?
  • Confucius and the Banished Angel
  • India -- From Buddha to Indira Gandhi
  • From the Pyramids to Ikhnaton
  • Philosophy and Poetry in the Old Testament
  • The Road to Pericles
  • The Golden Age of Athens
  • From Plato to Alexander

What else can we look for in the immediate future concerning Will Durant? Do you see a renaissance of sorts for his legacy?

Apart from the Heroes of History book, which will be released by Simon and Schuster this November, I am presently working on editing the audio tapes of Will and Ariel reading the book – which is really exciting as it will allow the listener to attend private lectures on history, art, philosophy and civilization from Will and Ariel themselves! I’m also just completing the final edits on no less than four new Will Durant titles and Simon and Schuster have indicated interest in them as a "Will Durant Library" imprint of books. As you may know, many of Durant’s books are now out of print, which is a pity as they contain timeless wisdom and magnificent teachings, and I wish to excise those portions and add new, never-before-published material that speak to these same topics – from the meaning of life to the pursuit of happiness to the relevance of philosophy. There is also a wonderful book that I think is the perfect companion piece to Heroes of History, which is entitled Significance and contains Will Durant’s carefully considered ranking of the best of our human heritage in terms of the thinkers, poets, books and events that profoundly shaped human progress. I also am planning to make available a series of e-books, which will make the teachings available within minutes to people who want to read them right away. In addition, I hope to begin work soon on a documentary (Little’s documentary on Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee: In His Own Words won the Toronto and Montreal International Short Film Festivals and was also shown to standing-room only audiences at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Warner Bros. released it as a premium on their 25th anniversary re-release of Enter the Dragon – Ed.) as well as a series of videos and audios featuring Will and Ariel Durant. I truly think these will be products for people who take civilization and civilized living seriously. There is tremendous benefit for people who appreciate Durant’s unique ability to compress complicated ideas and events into a few sentences without ever "talking down" to people and, this is enhanced by his memorable wit and a razor-sharp judgment about men and their motives. The very qualities that made all of his books huge best sellers. That’s why I’m excited about Heroes of History; not only is it nice to see his final book released as he intended it to be, but its publication signals a carrying on of his tradition of making scholarship and philosophy understandable to the general reader, and making them good reading, as well. I do entertain a vision of a major reintroduction and re-appreciation of Will Durant, his teachings and his legacy. Apart from the release of this book – the first new Durant book in two decades – and the other educational products I just mentioned, we have launched this web site with the support of his family and will continue to update it for the benefit of those who want to know more about the lives of Will and Ariel and of their teachings. All of these, in addition to several other projects I neglected to mention, will, I believe, positively contribute to the preservation and perpetuation of his legacy.

What do you most hope readers will take from the writings of Will Durant?

That’s such a broad question as each person will probably take something different from the writings, according to their need or interests. Those who are lovers of history, philosophy and great prose will certainly enjoy the writings for their own sake. On a deeper level, those seeking more meaning from life will be amply rewarded for their time reading Durant’s writings. We all know that there are people who are sorely troubled by the prospect of existence; one report indicated that once every seventeen minutes in the United States, a person takes his own life. Such people – obviously – are having a lot of trouble seeing the silver lining of an existence lived within the confine of a very dark cloud. They need to know that there is a big world out there and a rich heritage to which they are heirs. They need only open their hearts and their minds; Will Durant and his "Country of the Mind" will furnish the rest. Durant will speak to them as a friend or, as I like to think of him, as the grandfather they might have wished they had. He was worldly, wise, compassionate and kind. The type of person you could go to with your life issues and who would have the insight and erudition to help you out, without ever lecturing to you. He stressed understanding and forgiveness and these are two qualities that are in short supply in the world today. They should not expect Pollyanna platitudes; for Durant’s insights are not based on airy whim, but rather on his own special quality as a thinker -- he is tough-minded, optimistic, courageous, and convinced that without a knowledge of the past there is no wisdom to guide us to the future. At the very least, it is my hope that they will own a copy of Heroes of History, as this was his last word on the subject, and so much of the book is aimed directly at the doubts and fears of people today. Its publication is truly a major, and unexpected, literary and historical event. With the dawn of a new millennium and the beginning of a new century, nothing could be more appropriate than reacquainting ourselves with the teachings of this brilliant and gentle man and to receive his gift to us of the collective fruits of our human heritage. I would hope that readers will come to share his view on the meaning of human civilization and history and learn to draw from the experience of the past the lessons we need to know with which to put the future into context, and to learn thereby how to step beyond the confines of fear and ignorance into a life of harmony and total confidence.