The Will Durant On-Line Editorial From John Little


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; unprovoked, unexpected and unprecedented, have left vast numbers of humanity from all over the world in varying states of shock, anger, fear and confusion. As one who has studied the ideas and philosophy of Will Durant, I have been asked many times of late, "What do you think Will Durant would think of what happened?" And "What would he say was the cause of all this?" These are very difficult questions to answer conclusively. However, I believe there exists ample materials from Dr. Durant to at least fashion a reasonable presentation of what his perspective might have been on this matter.

I should preface these quotations and opinions by stating that they have been selected by me, and, therefore must be viewed as having come through the filter of another man’s judgment. And as such, you have a right to know what stake if any I might have in all of this so that you can better weigh what I am about to present. If one still measures a man by the invisible line that is supposed to separate one block of humanity from the next, then I would be considered a "Canadian;" I was born in Toronto, attended schools in the province of Ontario but I received my education in the United States, and my mentors have been, for the most part, Americans.

Having lived in the United States for the past nine years and having two "American" children, our family was upset by the attack on the very hearth and home of our friends and family. As a representative of sorts for Will Durant, I had a business meeting to attend on October 2nd in Manhattan with the publishers at Simon and Schuster, who had been Durant’s publishers throughout his lengthy career. There was, admittedly, an impulse – a strong impulse – to postpone it; not for fear of additional terrorist attack, but the fear of actually beholding in person the awful aftermath of what the terrorists did to New York, that magnificent city and towering symbol of American "can-doism." This impulse gave way as soon as I thought of what New York meant – rather than being afraid or worried by what I might see, I found myself drawing strength from knowing what I would see – brave men and women, a will-to-power or, at least, to a will-to-persevere and to rebuild. This is power. This is fuel. This is America. It has been said that nobody ever had a rainbow until they had the rain; well, it rained hard in New York and the rainbow is in full bloom.

I took the Staten Island Ferry and looked at the skyline that used to showcase the World Trade Center and saw the cranes at work removing debris that made for unholy tombs and shattered families. I thought of the courage of the firefighters that gave their lives helping others; of the stories of heroism by passengers and crew within hijacked airplanes; of the heroes who went back into the World Trade Center towers to help those who could not help themselves. And the images – my God, the images! – the most powerful being that of a lone fireman carrying the limp body of a fellow New Yorker – a New Yorker who was only one-and-a-half years old – and weeping as he did so. I remembered a passage that Will Durant had written in praise of the human spirit that could well serve as the rallying cry for those cities and families that were hit so hard on that black day of September 11, 2001:

The blood of martyrs is the seed of saints. We speak and pass but effort is not lost. Not to have tried is the only failure, the only misery; all effort is success….We will remake. We will wonder and desire and dream and plan and try. We are such beings as dream and plan and try; and the glory of our defeats dims the splendor of the sun….We will remake.

And what of New York? I have heard some say that we should not have such high towers; that they are merely inviting targets to the soulless warriors who find it easier to kill for a cause than to live for it. To give in to such trepidation would be a mistake; the terrorists tried to kill a symbol, the fearful among us would have us finish the job and kill a soul. New York’s buildings are not mere office spaces and decadence; they are her very essence; her symbol of life; of industry, of growth, of hope. Upon my return home, I found a passage in among Durant’s writings of the beauty and significance of New York, her skyline and her buildings. I must share it with you if only to point out that these magnificent symbols of prosperity, happiness, and man’s ability to aspire – and achieve successfully – his dreams are not "targets" they are America’s very alma mater, her "nourishing mother," in a very literal sense:

…there are signs of good hope even here. The Woolworth Building was a splendid imitation; let others, if they can, look down upon it as a bargain counter of Gothic lace; for my part I cannot stand before that lofty spire of latticed stone without feeling a thrill at its audacious height, and the courage of its makers. And when I cross Brooklyn Bridge on winter evenings, and look back at the peaks of granite piled as if by giants upon Manhattan’s Atlas head, and see the windows lit with a million lights as though the mountain were studded with precious stones, I know that it is one of the sights and wonders of the modern world, and that nothing in Europe or Asia or Africa -- no, not even the bleak and artless Pyramids -- can rival it.

And then, if only to recover Whitman’s thrills, the ferry across the Hudson -- the eager walk to the fore deck of the boat, the spray of the busy river, the feeling again of home-coming, the abandonment of judgment and fault-finding, the surrender to New York.

Yes, without doubt, this skyline, this granite graph of human will, is one of the seven wonders, perhaps the greatest of the man-made wonders, of the modern world. What courage and imagination to build this iron landscape, this mountain range of architecture upon this eighteen dollars’ worth of soil! God knows there is much nonsense here to a designer’s eye, a hash of foreign styles hastily adapted to the needs of businessmen: Doric columns and Gothic gargoyles, Babylonian ziggurats and Venetian Campaniles, Roman Pantheons and Moorish domes, Irish cathedrals and English homes. What could be expected of a people so alien and varied in origin but that it would bring with it all these motifs to pour into the crucible of our chaotic life?

Therefore I marvel all the more at these airy audacities; at the Telephone Building, Number One Fifth Avenue, the Woolworth and Metropolitan Towers, the Graybar Building with its jeweled head, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the Hudson River Bridge; I beg leave to admire these achievements with all the simplicity of an unsophisticate. It is clear that the energy and will of New York are not in its politics, not even in its industry, but in its building, its passion for power and mass, its mad push into the skies. After all, a state is only a group of politicians clinging to office, an organization of tax-gatherers collecting taxes; we must expect to have such things as long as we are such men.

This is New York. I see the brokers, salesmen and clerks ebbing and flowing in Wall Street at noon; billionaires working sedulously eight hours a day; lawyers wondering whether to be honest or rich, whether to pore over precedents or to join the Organization; businessmen amassing fortunes, and then wishing they had an education; dreamers practicing futuristic art and love in Greenwich Village shoppes and tearooms; patrician plumbers denouncing Russia; unplaced communists excommunicating heretics, and preparing to burn socialists at the stake; churches symbolically closed for repairs; the Church of the Ascension dark, respectable and dead since it lost its soul; St. Patrick’s always crowded; Tammany always victorious; Crime Club books on the newsstands, murder movies at the theatres, murder sketches on the radio; the ambitious young immigrant studying eagerly in the crowded Library; the country elder wondering which night club will show him the most women for the least money. I see the filth of lower Manhattan, the dilapidation of Coney Island, the garbage mountains of Queens, the beauty of Riverside Drive, the panorama of Fifth Avenue’s gaudy stores, the restless lakes and bridges, lanes and fields of Central Park, the sparkling giants of the financial district seen from Brooklyn Bridge on a winter evening, the aristocratic facades of Fifty-seventh Street, the new skyline around Central Park. Behind the great monuments of architecture I see thousands of dingy brick stores, garages, apartment-houses, the offices of half the business in America gathered here on a little island, ten thousand shouting signs, vulgar and exhilarating; elevated structures obstructing traffic and obscuring the avenue; a million automobiles marvelous and mad, hunting like rats for a hole in which to hide. Five million people rushing through the streets, stumbling over torn-up pavements, running into one another, stamping down stairs into catacombs, fighting and scratching to get into cattle-pens. How this noise and chaos cry out for a dictator, some Napoleon to outlaw them with an imperious word -- not waiting to count the insensitive noses that will re-elect knavery and incompetence, or throw it out to replace it with incompetence and knavery! And over it all, the unworried stars, careless of the destiny of these millions of souls.

What a medley of good and evil, of nonsense and majesty! London is better governed, but who can stand its weather, or its accent? Paris has history, manners, perfect opera, and the Louvre; but who can stand its hotel-keepers? Vienna is beautiful but dead, Venice is lovely but dead, Rome has grandeur and holiness, Munich is quiet and quaint, Moscow has profound bassos and shirt-sleeve Napoleons. But this disorderly Isle of Towers now equals any of them; nowhere on earth has man in our day built for himself a more impressive monument. I would not live in it, for it leaves me in no mood for work; but I would not have it too far away to let me look at it now and then, to feel its will to power, to catch the electricity of its feverish life.

But what of the "causes?" I hear repeatedly that these terrorists might have had reason to hate the United States. Can this be a serious proposition? One individual intoned that it "was American materialism" that so infuriated the terrorists that they felt they had to strike out at us. Not only is this a grotesque position to assume, but history has revealed that "American Materialism" is shared by the world far more readily than "American Generosity." As Durant pointed out over 70 years ago:

Once more it is a romantic delusion that vilifies the actual and idealizes the distant; no man who has traveled can subscribe to the notion that the American is more greedy for gold than the average European or Asian. It is inevitable that where there has been, until recently, no appreciable percentage of inherited wealth, every man, being forced to carve his own path, would be "on the make." A new continent must, for the rapid development of its resources, select, stimulate and reward the earthly type of man -- the man who is willing to take great risks, and explore novel possibilities, if he is permitted to hope for great gains. This has resulted in the dominance of the acquisitive type among us, and a disposition to think night and day of the financial aspects of life. But at the same time it has transformed with incredible quickness a vast wilderness into the most prosperous region on earth, and has given to the common man luxuries, facilities and opportunities once dreamed of by reformers and reserved for aristocrats and kings. We need not be so conscience-stricken about comforts; we may be sure that no one denounces them except for the thrill of moral superiority. Money is an evil only when it is in another man’s pocket.

The traveler is driven to the conclusion, however awed and courteous he may set out to be, that the foreign criticism of America is largely envy. For he observes everywhere in other nations an eagerness for money which seems to him quite as keen as the American’s, and he comes away with the impression that there is a little more glue on foreign fingers. Let any tourist recall his experiences with the hotels in Bermuda, or Paris, or Geneva; let him observe the haste of Europe and Asia to imitate the industrial methods (except the policy of high wages) of the Americans whose greed and materialism they denounce; let him recall the protest of European employers against Henry Ford’s proposal to pay his workmen in Europe as handsomely as his workmen in Detroit. Let him also recall the exploitation of workingmen by Europeans and Japanese in Manchester, Birmingham, Cape Town, Bombay, Calcutta, Shanghai and Osaka. Let him reexamine the specious arguments by which we were urged to cancel completely (after having reduced them more than half) debts deliberately incurred by European governments to prosecute, or to recover from, a war in which their real aims, dishonestly concealed from our own government, were not justice but territory, not honor but iron and coal, markets and power, oil wells and trade routes, and other "spiritual" objectives; and let him remember that Europe, which so disdains material pursuits, took at Versailles hundreds of thousands of square miles of land, and gave to these United States, so quick to respond to idealistic catchwords, only a Covenant whose central article invited America to guarantee forever, with all her arms and blood, the territorial acquisitions of her allies in Europe, in Africa and in Asia. No one would have suspected, from these suave and altruistic suggestions for cancellation, that if Europe did not meet these obligations America would have to take from its own harassed people, in increased taxation, the funds to meet the principal and interest on the bonds held by those who provided, often out of modest savings, the substance of these loans. The general feeling in European foreign offices is that Americans are gullible enough to believe anything if it is told them with an Oxford accent.

It is poor taste for Americans to say these things. It is not poor taste for foreigners to say the opposite, after accepting lavishly of our hospitality and our homage.

If "American materialism" is not the cause, could it be that we have done something to rouse the ire of the Judaeo-Christian God, who orchestrated such a catastrophe in order to make us a more "God-fearing" nation? This is the opinion advanced by "Moral Majority" leader, Jerry Falwell, a mere two days after the attacks in the October 25th edition of Rolling Stone magazine, who announced:

…the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

The crime is not that a man might be allowed to voice such opinions – but that he should have followers that listen to them. This is not morality but theology and bad theology at that. These are not words of comfort – which is the solace of a religious faith – but an opportunistic sales pitch, akin to the "ambulance chasing" attorney who knows that out of tragedy arises opportunity. Such intolerance by a "spiritual leader" is sufficient to cause many to reconsider Santayana’s phrase that, "Faith in intellect is the only faith yet sanctioned by its fruit." I wonder if Mr. Falwell can divine whether or not the body of that poor lifeless child the fireman was carrying was gay or lesbian? Please do not look to Jerry Falwell for the Christian position on this matter, for he shows an appalling lack of empathy for the ethics of Christ. As Durant pointed out in 1943:

What is the most important sentence in the Bible? "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This alone lifts the Bible above every other scripture or writing, even above all the literature of the Greeks. It appears several times in the two Testaments; first in Leviticus; xix, 18. The word neighbor may there have a racial limitation; but in verse 54 we read:

The stranger [i.e., foreigner] that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.

In Exodus; xxiii., 4., the idea of good will is extended even to one’s enemies:

If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden [i.e., fallen] thou shalt surely help with him.

It was natural for the Jews to think of men as brothers, since they were the first people to think of God as one. "Ye are the children of the Lord your God," says Jehovah in Deuteronomy xiv, 1. The brotherhood of man is an inevitable conclusion from the fatherhood of God. "The Greeks," said Renan, "conceived the idea of natural law, science and philosophy; but the Jews conceived the greater idea of social justice and the brotherhood of man." In this sense Isiah is greater than Aristotle.

In Confucius we find not only a statement of the Golden Rule, but the simple proposition:

Within the four seas all men are brothers.

In Jesus the idea reaches its fullest development and widest application, and becomes the center and summit of his moral code. Over and over again he repeats: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." (Luke x, 27); he wisely described this as a summary of the Old Testament by saying, "This is the Law [i.e., the Pentateuch] and the Prophets [Matthew vii, 12);" this phrase was always used by the Jews to mean their entire sacred scriptures. When "a certain lawyer" asked him, "Who is my neighbor?" he took the opportunity to extend the term to one’s worst enemies, by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, For the Samaritans were the bitterest enemies that the Jews had in all the ancient world. They, too, were neighbors, and had to be loved as "one’s self." (Luke x, 50).

From that time to this the idea of the "brotherhood of man" has been the most powerful inspiration to the betterment of human character and society. It has entered into a thousand reforms, into the cleansing of prisons, the charity of the fortunate to the unfortunate, the emancipation of slaves – individually and en masse – the care of the sick, the building of hospitals, the suppression of infanticide, and of gladiatorial games, the exaltation of womanhood, the improvement in the conditions of labor, and the whole movement of social reform. Let not cynics tell us that the idea is impractical; it has already accomplished great things, and will accomplish more.

No, if we are looking for causes, we need not look at religion, but at human ignorance and intolerance. President Bush is right in not condemning Islam for these attacks – but rather ignorant and intolerant human beings, who are not worthy of their country or their faith. Let us reconsider the words of Durant’s famous "Declaration of Interdependence":

  • That differences of race, color, and creed are natural, and that diverse groups, institutions, and ideas are stimulating factors in the development of man;
  • That to promote harmony in diversity is a responsible task of religion and statesmanship;
  • That since no individual can express the whole truth, it is essential to treat with understanding and good will those whose views differ from our own;
  • That by the testimony of history intolerance is the door to Violence, brutality and dictatorship; and
  • That the realization of human interdependence and solidarity is the best guard of civilization.
  • Therefore, we solemnly resolve, and invite everyone to join in united action.
  • To uphold and promote human fellowship through mutual consideration and respect;
  • To champion human dignity and decency, and to safeguard these without distinction of race, or color, or creed;
  • To strive in concert with others to discourage all animosities arising from these differences, and to unite all groups in the fair play of civilized life.

ROOTED in freedom, bonded in the fellowship of danger, sharing everywhere a common human blood, we declare again that all men are brothers, and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.

Let us consecrate this moment to burning these words into our souls.

If ignorance and intolerance are the causes, what shall be our response? While no civilized country wishes war, no civilized country can endure when its foundation has been attacked; when the very root that allows for freedom and civilization to grow has been threatened by the ax wielded by such terrorist groups. Durant, a man who loved peace and abhorred war, once said:

…variety and freedom are worth the price we pay for them, even the price of war.

Will there be a war? It would appear a certainty, even though it is equally certain that many more innocent men, women and children will lose their lives. As a parent this troubles me. But upon reflection it does not trouble me as much as having my children live in a world in which the office building in which they work can be turned into a steel and concrete hell, or the planes in which they must fly to experience and learn and understand foreign cultures can be commandeered at knife point. I think of the fear that those passengers must have experienced when they knew they were not getting out of that plane alive. For my children – and yours – to be the inheritors of civilization, there must first be a civilization that can be inherited. And in a world run by terrorists, civilization will be the first casualty.

And so we return to New York. I believe that Will Durant would applaud the President’s decision to offer financial aid to New York City. For reasons already indicated, this is a symbol that needs to be repositioned on the American landscape so that all the world can see its representation of liberty and human possibility. As New York goes, the politicians tell us, so goes the American economy. This is probably true, but, perhaps, more importantly, as New York goes, so goes the soul of America. Let it shine. There will be great struggles ahead, admittedly, but also great achievement, advancement, understanding and – Jerry Falwell and his God willing – harmony of all peoples, of all creeds, persuasions, colors and beliefs. Do not let the prospect of the struggle dim the vision of such a future, because it is within our grasp – if we but make the effort required to reach it. For, as Durant once said:

Perhaps we mistake our personal fatigue for the exhaustion of life. A few of us are tired of struggling, and we conclude that our race or our civilization is finished. Our children, who are not tired, do not understand our apathy; they astonish us by insisting on believing, hoping and planning again. Do we wish to recover our sense of life and meaning? Let us put aside our fatigue, and while profiting by our experience, take our stand with our children, and lose ourselves in their dream.

We will remake.