Friday, May 29, 2009

Lord, what fools these mortals be

Ariel and Will Durant are pictured on the dustcover of their book, "The Lessons of History." This brief, 91-page book summarizes their collective conclusions from a lifetime as students of religion, philosophy and history, and as authors of undoubtedly the most exhaustive account of world history ever written, the 11-volume series, "The Story of Civilization."

The lessons of history are there for all to learn

Part I

There have been more than a few times I have mentioned Will and Ariel Durant here -- as well as in newspaper columns I have written previous to these times -- and how influential their work has been in shaping my own ideas. My estimation of the Durants, for better or for worse, credits them with producing the most significant wisdom offered in book form by mere mortals during the 20th Century.

William "Will" Durant, November 5, 1885 -- November 7, 1981, was prepared to become a Roman Catholic priest until what he learned through his studies drew him away from religion. His next love was socialism, but that, too, turned out to have been only an infatuation as he came to realize the ineffectiveness of it as a political and economic system. For a while, he taught Latin, French and English. All the while, he studied philosophy. His first writing effort was a book still read today and titled, "The Story of Philosophy."

I "met" Will when I was in college and was myself intensely reading religion and philosophy and smoking cigarettes until the room was clouded, very late into most nights. He wrote that he had sought refuge through the study of religion. He had not found it. He said that he next sought it through the study of philosophy. Not there, either. He gradually came to realize that his refuge, his truth, was to be found through the study of history. He hooked me then, and still has me.

Chaya Kaufman, who later became Ariel Durant, May 10, 1898 -- October 25, 1981, was born in the Ukraine and arrived in America as an infant. She was a student of Will's, who was nearly 13 years her senior. She married him when she was 15-years-old. She used her roller skates to travel the distance from her home to a courthouse for the ceremony. Say and think what you will, but the proof of this union is in its longevity: Their marriage lasted their lifetimes. They died within days of each other. All people should be so lucky. They are buried in Los Angeles, and a pilgrimage to their grave site is on my list of things that I would never forgive myself for should I fail to mutter an agnostic's prayer from the earth above them.

The youthful Ariel preferred the company of artists and poets to that of teachers and philosophers, but something between Will, philosophy and history won her over. The couple grew to become full-fledged intellectual and writing partners, as well as household and bedroom partners, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

The magnum opus of the Durants, there is no argument, is their 11-volume series, "The Story of Civilization." My own warped opinion is that this group of books should be required reading before the conferral of a bachelor's degree from any legitimate college or university. Oh, well. The dilettantes and the pedantics rule, not the realists. Pass the escargot, dear, and make certain the wine list is appropriate for the meal.

"Captain of our fairy band ….
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

(Sorry, Fram the First says, with a laugh on his lips, for making me, Fram Actual, interrupt with those lines, but you know him. The lines were predestined; Will's original nickname for Ariel was Puck. Fram the First absolutely could not resist tossing this quote from Puck into the fray. But, it just dawned on him. Does he actually have to reference Shakespeare, too, for readers to recognize those lines? He hopes not. But, just in case: "A Midsummer Nights Dream," act 3, scene 2. Anyway, moving right along.)

Should a reader here wish to learn more about the Durants, I will use a phrase I am prone to say: Do your own research. You will be better for the effort and from what you learn through reading them. To read the writing of the Durants truly is an intellectual test to determine a measurement of your own knowledge of history and of civilization's march.

My intent with this post, split roughly in half between today and (probably) Sunday, is to introduce you to Will and Ariel through some quotations from their book, "The Lessons of History." I re-read it during my Memorial-weekend excursion. This is not a book review per se, but meant to be a "taste" of the Durants and their thoughts. There only are 91 pages, not counting notes and guides and contents. It is a very simple reading task to accomplish in a brief amount of time. And, I believe there is more wisdom present in those 91 pages than anywhere else short of Ecclesiastes.

(Here we go again. Fram the First reminds me there may be those among us who do not know that Ecclesiastes is a book in the Old Testament of the Bible. It is hereby so noted.)

Ecclesiastes, by the way, was written by the "preacher," who was said to be on a search for the true meaning of life. It also is worth the time to read, and to think about, for anyone who has not already done so. Now, on to the Durant's "Lessons," chapter by chapter:

I. Hesitations

Obviously historiography cannot be a science. It can only be an industry, an art, and a philosophy -- an industry by ferreting out the facts, an art by establishing a meaningful order in the chaos of materials, a philosophy by seeking perspective and enlightenment.

II. History and the Earth

Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home. Its rivers, lakes, oases, and oceans draw settlers to their shores, for water is the life of organisms and towns, and offers inexpensive roads for transport and trade.

III. Biology and History

So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition .... The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and where one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically ....

The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed.

IV. Race and History

A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a co-operative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it; it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.

V. Character and History

It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife between the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.

VI. Morals and History

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exception because it is interesting -- because it is exceptional .... Behind the red facade of war and politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate, troubled and happy with children.

VII. Religion and History

Religion does not seem at first to have had any connection with morals. Apparently (for we are merely guessing, or echoing Petronius, who echoed Lucretius) "it was fear that first made the gods" -- fear of hidden forces in the earth, rivers, oceans, trees, winds, and sky.

Hear the appeal of the agnostic Renan in 1866: Let us enjoy the liberty of the sons of God, but let us take care lest we become accomplices in the diminution of virtue which would menace society if Christianity were to grow weak. What should we do without it? ....

If Rationalism wishes to govern the world without regard to the religious needs of the soul, the experience of the French Revolution is there to teach us the consequences of such a blunder.

To be concluded in a day or two ....


Katy said...

Fascinating stuff, Fram, thank you - and it seems as if I've another book to add to my 'must read' list. I think your idea of an international book exchange is a good one, by the way...

It's funny you should mention this - "it was fear that first made the gods" - today because I was thinking about the origins of religion in between looking at the rooks and the magpies on my way home from work. Like you do :-)

Anyway, the thought that I had was that religion was at least partly born out of ego - our human desire to give ourselves a purpose beyond 'just being'. After all, birds and slugs and grass 'just be' and we thought ourselves somehow to be different from / better than that. And at the same time as a manifestation of our need to create definites where none exist (by coincidence what I've written about today). But fear of the power of nature is probably a much more likely explanation - it might even partly be the same thing?

Anyway, looking forward to the next part of the tale on Sunday or whenever...

Fram said...

Then, there was Katy.

Certainly, you are on solid ground, I think, in suggesting religion is born from other elements as well as simply fear. Ego had to be an ingredient in terms of "better than" or even in coming from the opposite direction, a desire to become a "favorite of" some greater power, as a means to inflate self-perception.

I do not know if you have read any of Joseph Campbell's work, for example, but his concepts about the foundations of religion go back even beyond the origins of rational thought, and he theorizes that innate instincts are the basic building blocks of mythology. He asks, ".... does not [man] possess any innate tendencies to respond, in strictly patterned racial ways, to certain signals flashed by his environment and his own kind." By this means, reactions go on to evolve into rituals.

In the area of religion, I think the Durants begin at the dawn of history in forming their conclusions, while Campbell begins even before there is a glow of light on the horizon.

TheChicGeek said...

Fram, I am awake from the dead and I believe my mind is once again in working order, although, I suppose some may find that debatable...LOL A good night's sleep did me well :D
The Durants were very fascinating people. Too bad they're not on this earth anymore. It would be lovely to spend an evening socializing with them. You're lucky to have met Will :)

History, once recorded, will last for centuries but eventually artifacts may crumble or be forgotten. Understanding the past helps us to make better choices for our future. Thankfully, in my view, God is eternal. I believe God loves all his creation just as they are, even the slugs on the earth. It is not through what we do that makes God love us, it is simply because we are his creation. Organized religion and a personal relationship with the God of the Universe are two entirely separate things.

Trusting in God, of course, is an act of faith, a choice to believe in the unbelievable, what you cannot physically see or touch on this earth. That, for me, is the magic and mystery and strength in my life.
You have given me much to think about today :)
Thank you!
Have a Happy Day!

Fram said...

You have given me an idea for travel, Kelly. I probably could put together a list of 20 people in 20 seconds who have crossed over the River Styx (or wherever) that I really would like to have interviewed. Why not put together a list of 20 who are still among us, and see if they are amenable to an interview? Such a "list of the living" I might want to interview would not be so easy for me to compile, but it is worth considering.

As for your religious beliefs, I admire you and envy you for them, and believe that you practice Christian principals in your daily life. As I have said here before, I departed from organized religion when I was 14, and eventually came to define myself as an agnostic.

The fact that I am in that position and value the church to the degree that I do is because of the Durants. Their wisdom convinced me that organized religion might be the only glue which holds the fabric of society in a unified form.

It is fine for an individual to proclaim himself to be free of religion, but when an entire society does it, the result is an ever increasing growth in chaos and disorder and destruction, and an inevitable end to that society.

Something special ....