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  Who is Will Durant?
by Sartre
February 2003

A look at the beliefs of the philosopher Will Durant, a great contributor to Western Civilization. 

You must know of William “Billy” Durant, the founder of General Motors; but have you ever heard of Will Durant? In case you haven’t, his contribution to the understanding of the great legacy of Western Civilization, runs just as smoothly down the road of knowledge as any roadster built during the golden era of autocars. He was a soft spoken man, associated with the Ferrer Modern School an experiment in libertarian education. Durant abandoned his studies in the seminary and viewed himself to be a Socialist at one point an atheist and later an agnostic. He was influenced by Spinoza's Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated - but, above all, in his personality it revealed 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.

His significance is more in the process of his life’s work - The Story of Civilization, a series of books, than the theme of conflict between Communism and Capitalism, that he often portrays. Questions of inquiry have merit, you be the judge of the accuracy in his conclusions.

“ . . . the one escape worthy of a mature mind is to rise out of the moment and the part and contemplate the whole. What we have lost above all is total perspective. Life seems too intricate and mobile for us to grasp its unity and significance; we cease to be citizens and become only individuals; we have no purposes that look beyond our death; we are fragments of men, and nothing more. No one (except Spengler) dares today to survey life in its entirety; analysis leaps and synthesis lags; we fear the experts in every field and keep ourselves, for safety's sake, lashed to our narrow specialties. Everyone knows his part, but is ignorant of its meaning in the play. Life itself grows meaningless and becomes empty just when it seemed most full . . . “

“Perhaps philosophy will give us, if we are faithful to it, a healing unity of soul. We are so slovenly and self-contradictory in our thinking; it may be that we shall clarify ourselves and pull our selves together into consistency and be ashamed to harbor contradictory desires or beliefs. And through this unity of mind may come that unity of purpose and character which makes a personality and lends some order and dignity to our existence. Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which lifts us to security and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.”

Durant defines philosophy as "total perspective," as mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity. Our purpose is to examine how the pursuit of understanding relates to civilization. From an article - What is Civilization?

“Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.”

“For civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end. Man differs from the beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.”

In many ways Durant was a man of his era, even though his preoccupation’s were the mysteries of the ages. When philosophy examines the components of civilization, it is not like dissecting an autopsy subject. The mode of scrutiny is not based upon the scientific method. It more closely resembles a journey of introspection having the context of reliable reported history, within a framework of social mores that are in vogue at any given time. Civilization is a moving target, among universal principles. Changes in style and emphasis, for them to be valid, can not negate cosmic relationships.

While the claim of “cultural relativity” suggests that each community should be viewed and judged from the standards and values of that society, it does not mean that all cultures are equal. All too often today, the popular trend is held out as acceptable, based upon an insidious secular humanism that political elements adopt to justify their methods and policies. Intrinsic reality, reflected in the essence of civilization, is denied and discarded as an inconvenient nuisance or an intolerable restraint, upon unbridled autonomy.

Durant is correct in his assessment and selects heroic examples of what constitutes civilization. He concludes:

“ . . . the great men of the past into your homes. Put their works or lives on your shelves as books, their architecture, sculpture, and painting on your walls as pictures; let them play their music for you. Attune your ears to Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy. Make room in your rooms for Confucius, Buddha, Plato, Euripides, Lucretius, Christ, Seneca, Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Heloise, Shakespeare, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Gibbon, Goethe, Shelley, Keats, Heine, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spengler, Anatole France, Albert Schweitzer. Let these men be your comrades, your bedfellows; give them half an hour each day; slowly they will share in remaking you to perspective, tolerance, wisdom, and a more avid love of a deepened life.”

One need not surrender to a bleak social determinism, to appreciate Durant. The examples he cites strive for originality, while preserving sound, cogent codes and standards that have been the basis for human achievement. His emphasis upon merging practice and precept is valid. Civilization expedites accomplishment. Not to be confused with nebulous notions of PROGRESS, civilization retains integrity of purpose and meaning as contributions to growth build upon a foundation of bedrock. Creativity may seem chaotic, but when it is authentic; it molds a focus that frequently seems to approach anarchy into a leap of fulfillment that refines the civilization. The “death with chaos” that Durant references can subsist upon the carcass of a collapsed society, but cannot exist when the tenants of civilization are preserved.

Philosophy is the method, Wisdom is the means and Civilizations is the prize. Fast cars with chic style were products of a civilized society that allowed and encouraged the flare and elegance of the Billy Durant heritage. But it is the depth, persistency and admiring indebtedness that Will Durant contributed, that acknowledges the process and deeds that can only be achieved when we cherish civilization. Let us celebrate the triumphs of man and treasure how they came about - formulated on the heritage upon which they are based - with a significance and importance that deserves a vigorous defense of that tradition.

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