The Historian of the Riverbank People
The Charms of Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization”
One of the most enjoyable ways to learn the history that formal schooling failed to impart is by reading through all 11 volumes of The Story of Civilization by Will Durant (later volumes were co-authored with his wife Ariel). Throughout 10,000 pages, Durant communicates his erudition and insight with a masterful style, shot through with brilliant epigrams. His writing even earned generous praise from one of the 20th century’s best stylists, and Rothbard’s favorite wordsmith, H.L. Mencken, who wrote to Durant:
I have just finished Caesar and Christ. What a book! It is not only the best thing you have ever done yourself; it is the best piece of historical synthesis ever done by an American. I can imagine no improvement in it. It is clearly and beautifully written, and it shows a hard common sense in every line. I have never read any book which left me better contented.
Here are the volume titles: Our Oriental Heritage (1935), The Life of Greece (1939), Caesar and Christ (1944), The Age of Faith (1950), The Renaissance (1953), The Reformation (1957), The Age of Reason Begins (1961), The Age of Louis XIV (1963), The Age of Voltaire (1965), Rousseau and Revolution (1967), The Age of Napoleon (1975).
In the preface to the first volume, Durant discussed his ambitions for the project, which he would work on for the rest of his life.
“I have tried in this book to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which I rashly laid upon myself some twenty years ago: to write a history of civilization. I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind — to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy, and the achievements of art.”
What is refreshing about this approach is that the chronicling of violence is only one part of many (the “experiments in government”). In too much historical scholarship and instruction, the domestic and foreign doings of states have played an overblown role in the tale, which led Voltaire to characterize history as “nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes”.
Durant consciously sought to avoid this failing, writing:
“The history of civilization is a river on whose waters soldiers and politicians are fighting and shedding ballots and blood; but on the banks of the river, people are raising children, building homes, making scientific inventions, puzzling about the universe, writing music and literature.”
Durant gave overdue attention to the “riverbank people”, these Atlases whose productivity and genius have ever borne the dead weight of the political class. This highly libertarian endeavor is one of the innumerable charms of the work of this (non-libertarian) author. Yet, his insightful discussions about rulers and warriors are very interesting and useful to the libertarian reader as well.