Quotations from Will Durant

Will Durant wrote a magnificent series of books entitled The Story of Civilization. It took him thirty years to complete the ten-volume series (with his wife’s help on the last four), and the result is, in my opinion, the best overall view of Western civilization ever written. Academics gripe about its lack of rigor, but the work was never intended as an academic piece; it’s history for the layman, and marvelous history it is. If you really want to understand Western civilization, this is the series you must read. It will take a while, but it’s great reading. Durant is one of the finest writers I’ve ever enjoyed, and I believe that my writing style has improved from reading him. I first read the series back in the late 1970s, but recently I took up his second volume, The Life of Greece, once again. What you get out of a book depends largely on what you already know, and I thought it might be interesting to see what a second reading thirty years later might reveal. The result: it was a completely new experience. I learned vastly more this time around, because I had so much more context in which to read.


Some of Durant’s writing is so delightful that I selected a few blossoms for special honor:

On Polybius the historian: "...he understood that mere facts are worthless except through their interpretation, and that the past has no value except as our roots and our illumination."

"The earliest uses of writing in Greece were probably commercial or religious; apparently priestly charms and chants are the mother of poetry, and bills of lading are the father of prose."

"Since papyrus was costly, and each copy had to be written by hand, books were very limited in the classical world; it was easier than now to be educated, but as hard as now to be intelligent."

"...the musician, like other artists, belongs to a profession that has had the honor of starving in every generation."

"...the goddess of liberty is no friend to the goddess of equality...under the free laws of Athens the strong grow stronger, the rich richer, while the poor remain poor. Individualism stimulates the able, and degrades the simple; it creates wealth magnificently, and concentrates it dangerously. In Athens, as in other states, cleverness gets all it can, and mediocrity gets the rest."

"The Greek might admit that honesty is the best policy, but he tries everything else first."

"The Athenians are too brilliant to be good, and scorn stupidity more than they abominate vice."

On romance: "As refinement grows, and superimposes poetry upon heat, the tender sentiment becomes more frequent; and the increasing delay that civilization places between desire and fulfillment gives imagination leisure to embellish the object of hope."

"Socrates, who denounced Zeno’s dialectical method, imitated it so zealously that men had to kill him in order to have peace of mind."

Idealism offends the senses, materialism offends the soul; the one explains everything but the world, the other everything but life."

On Socrates: "All in all he was fortunate: he lived without working, read without writing, taught without routine, drank without dizziness, and died before senility, almost without pain."

"Meanwhile, says Thucydides, in a sentence that explains much history, ’The Peloponnesus and Athens were both full of young men whose inexperience made them eager to take up arms.’"

"The basic principle of democracy is freedom inviting chaos; the basic principle of monarchy is power inviting tyranny, revolution, and war."

"The old problem of ethics and morals -- to reconcile the natural epicurianism of the individual with the necessary stoicism of the state -- found no solution in religion, statesmanship, or philosophy."

"The Greeks offered the East philosophy, the East offered Greece religion; religion won because philosophy was a luxury for the few, religion was a consolation for the many.

"It was above all an age of intellectuals and scholars. Writing became a profession instead of a devotion, and generated cliques and coteries whose appreciation of talent varied inversely as the square of its distance from themselves."

"Dramatists continued to turn out tragedies, but, whether by accident or good taste, tradition has covered them with oblivion’s balm."

On Polybius: "He must have performed this ungrateful task well, for several cities honored him with monuments -- though one can never tell in what tense man’s gratitude is felt."

"Philosophy, like a prodigal daughter, after bright adventures and dark disillusionments, gave up the pursuit of truth and the quest of happiness, returned repentant to her mother, religion, and sought again in faith the foundations of hope and the sanctions of charity."

(describing the advance of science in the 16th century) "On a hundred fronts the noblest of all armies was advancing in the greatest of all wars. In that war for the conquest of knowledge the central battle is that of life against death -- a battle which individually is always lost and collectively is regularly won."

Probably every vice was once a virtue -- ie., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.

The imitative majority follows the innovating minority, and this follows the originative individual, in adapting new responses to the demands of the environment or survival.

It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.

Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws. Despotism may for a time retard the concentration; democracy, allowing the most liberty, accelerates it... In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength in number of the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or revolution redistributing poverty.

We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive redistribution.

(This was written circa 1930): A similar process has centered power in the Federal Government of the United States; it was of no use to talk of ’state’s rights’ when the economy was ignoring state boundaries and could be regulated only by some central authority. Today international government is developing as industry, commerce, and finance override frontiers and take international forms.

Man is not willingly a political animal. The human male associates with his fellows less by desire than by habit, imitation, and the compulsion of circumstance; he does not love society so much as he fears solitude... in his heart he is a solitary individual pitted heroically against the world. If the average man had had his way there would probably never have been any state. Even today he resents it, classes death with taxes and yearns for that government which governs least. If he asks for many laws, it is only because he is sure that his neighbor needs them; privately he is an unphilosophical anarchist, and thinks laws in his own case superfluous.

It is war that makes the chief, the king, and the state, just as it is these that make war.

Property was the mother, war was the father, of the state.

Every state begins in compulsion, but the habits of obedience become the content of conscience, and soon every citizen thrills with loyalty to the flag.

Science and philosophy, in the history of states, reach their height after decadence has set in; wisdom is a harbinger of death.

Just as science was at first a form of philosophy, struggling to free itself from the general, the speculative, the unverifiable, so philosophy was at first a form of poetry, striving to free itself from mythology, animism, and metaphor.

Poetry seems natural… prose is the emblem of a nation’s maturity and the epitaph of its youth.

The crossroads of trade are the meeting places of ideas.

Greece respected wisdom as India respected holiness.

A state which should rely upon force alone should soon fall, for though men are naturally gullible, they are also naturally obstinate, and power, like taxes, succeeds best when it is invisible and indirect.

Custom gives the same stability to the group that heredity and instinct give to the species, and habit to the individual.

To violate law is to win the admiration of half the populace, who secretly envy anyone who can outwit this ancient enemy; to violate custom is to incur almost universal hostility. For custom arises out of the people, whereas law is forced upon them from above.

Our heroic rejection of the customs and morals of our tribe, upon our adolescent discovery of their relativity, betrays the immaturity of our minds; given another decade and we begin to understand that there may be more wisdom in the moral code of the group... than can be explained in a college course. Sooner or later the disturbing realization comes to us that even that which we cannot understand may be true.

To transmute greed into thrift, violence into argument, murder into litigation, and suicide into philosophy, has been part of the task of civilization. It was a great advance when the strong consented to eat the weak by due process of law.

[On Angkor Wat]: One sees in imagination the crowded population of the capital: the regimented slaves cutting, pulling, and raising the heavy stones; the artisans carving reliefs and statuary as if time would never fail them; the priests deceiving and consoling the people; the devadasis deceiving the people and consoling the priests; ... and raised above all by the labor of all, the powerful and ruthless kings. The kings, needing many slaves, waged many wars. Often they won; but near the close of the thirteenth century... the armies of Siam defeated the Khmers, sacked their cities, and left their resplendent temples and palaces in ruins. Today a few tourists prowl among the loosened stones and observe how patiently the trees have sunk their roots or insinuated their branches into the crevices of the rocks, slowly tearing them apart because stones cannot desire and grow. Tcheou-ta-Kouan speaks of the many books that were written by the people of Angkor, but not a page of that literature remains; like ourselves they wrote perishable thoughts upon perishable tissue, and their immortals are dead. The marvelous reliefs show men and women wearing veils and nets to guard against mosquitoes and slimy, crawling things. The men and women are gone, surviving only in the stones. The mosquitoes and lizards remain.

[On the Taj Mahal]: If time were intelligent it would destroy everything else before the Taj, and would leave this evidence of man’s alloyed nobility as the last man’s consolation.

[On the Tao of Lao-tze] There is something medicinal in this philosophy; we suspect that we, too, when our fires begin to burn low, shall see wisdom in it, and shall want the healing peace of uncrowded mountains and spacious fields. Life oscillates between Voltaire and Rousseau, Confucius and Lao-tze, Socrates and Christ. After every idea has had its day with us and we have fought for it not wisely or too well, we in our turn shall tire of the battle, and pass on to the young our thinning fascicle of ideals. Then we shall take to the woods with Jacques, Jean-Jacques, and Lao-tze; we shall make friends of the animals, and discourse more contentedly than Machiavelli with simple peasant minds; we shall leave the world to stew in its own deviltry, and shall take no further thought of its reform. Perhaps we shall burn every book but one behind us, and find a summary of wisdom in the Tao-Te-Ching.

[On Calvin}: He was ahead of his time in doubting astrology, abreast of it in rejecting Copernicus, a bit behind it (like Luther) in ascribing many terrestrial occurrences to the Devil. His timidity concealed his courage, his shyness disguised an inner pride, his humility before God became at times a commanding arrogance before men.