I’ve read three short books about philosophy recently; this is the second. Each is quite different from the others. If the first book (review here) was an overview focusing on the big questions that philosophy asks – What should we do? What is there? and How do we know? – this second one is a philosophy fan-boy’s collection of top ten lists. So if the interest is, who are the top 10 philosophers of all time, this is the place to come.

Simon & Schuster, 2002. Compiled and edited by John Little. 127pp including index.

Durant was in fact a well known historian and public intellectual, for decades throughout the 20th century. He was the author, along with his wife, of an 11-volume work called THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION, published over many years, from 1935 to 1975, with a final volume unfinished at the time of his death in 1981, at the age of 96. (As I recall the Durants lived in Santa Monica, or adjacent Brentwood, and Will’s passing was a big deal in local news at that time. In part because there was discussion of what would happen to his enormous collection of books. If I recall correctly, the honors went to Dutton’s, a once-famous, by now long-closed, bookstore on San Vincente Blvd.)

This little book was compiled in 2002 by an authorized expert on Durant, but there’s no indication inside it of when the component essays were first published. As magazine articles, perhaps? But for audiences in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s? Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much, because the overwhelming impression of the book is that Durant, presumably for his entire life, was a proponent of several classic attitudes about history and philosophy:

  • He defends the “great man” theory of history, in which historical advancements of the entire human race were/are due to the brilliance of a select number of key men (always men). Geniuses he calls them, defending this thesis in the first, short essay here as Chapter 1, “A Shameless Worship of Heroes.”
  • Concomitant with this is his Western-bias, which was likely excusable throughout most of his lifetime, but wouldn’t be now. Of his ten greatest thinkers and ten greatest poets, only two – Confucius and Li-Po – are non-Western.
  • I sense a certitude of opinion in these writings. Durant seems to have developed fixed ideas about who and what have been the most important of all time. Neglecting, in contrast, any influence of taste and changing fashion (even among poets), or knowledge that has superseded the beliefs of some of his favorite thinkers.
  • His prose is florid, sometime effectively, sometimes verging into fan-boy territory.

On this last point, two examples. First, in his chapter about the “greatest” thinkers, he begins by imagining when the miracle of thought began. I’ll quote (p8):

When did the miracle begin? Perhaps when the great surges of ice came down relentlessly from the Pole, chilling the air, destroying vegetation almost everywhere, eliminating countless species of helpless and unadaptable animals, and pushing a few survivors into a narrow tropical belt, where for generations they clung to the equator, waiting for the wrath of the North to melt. Probably it was in those critical days, when all the old and wonted ways of life were nullified by the invading ice, and inherited or traditional patterns of behavior found no success in an environment where everything was altered, that animals with comparatively complete but inflexible instinctive equipment were weeded out because they could not change within to meet the change outside; while the animal we call man, dowered with a precarious plasticity, learned and rose to an unquestioned supremacy over all the species of the forest and the field.

It was on some such life-and-death emergency as this, presumably, that human reasoning began. …

This isn’t bad; Durant does not reject the lessons of geological and evolutionary history. On the other hand he’s wrong; humanity was not triggered into “thinking” by the traumas of the end of the last ice age. Human thinking began *much* earlier, though the ice ages may have influenced the survival of Homo sapiens vs. Neanderthals in the Europe of 12,000 years ago…

Second, his fan-boy take here, p14:

Why do we love Plato? Because Plato himself was a lover: lover of comrades, lover of the intoxication of dialectical revelry, passionate seeker of the elusive reality behind thoughts and things. We love him for his unstinted energy, for the wild nomadic play of his fancy, for the joy which he found in life in all its unredeemed and adventurous complexity. We love him because he was alive every minutes of his life…

And so on. No particular concerns with whether Plato was *right* or not, in view of later thinkers. (Some later thinkers have called Plato’s Republic fascist.) But Durant is not evaluating their thinking per se, but rather their influence, as he stipulates up front. What are the criteria of genius? An enduring influence upon mankind. And he limits “thinkers” to philosophers and scientists.

So then, I’ll summarize his various lists, with only the occasional comment.

Ch2, The Ten “Greatest” Thinkers

  1. Confucius
  2. Plato
  3. Aristotle
  4. Saint Thomas Aquinas
  5. Copernicus
  6. Sir Francis Bacon
  7. Sir Isaac Newton
  8. Voltaire
  9. Immanuel Kant
  10. Charles Darwin

Voltaire? Apparently for his influence in passing others’ ideas throughout France. In passing, author mentions many others that he could not include: Lucretius, Epicurus, Leibniz, Kant, Spinoza…

Ch3, The Ten “Greatest” Poets

Here author admits these aren’t picked due to fame, but due to his personal prejudices, for those who evoke “that strange mixture of music, emotion, imagery, and thought.”

  1. Homer
  2. David (of the Psalms)
  3. Euripides
  4. Lucretius
  5. Li-Po
  6. Dante
  7. Shakespeare
  8. John Keats
  9. Percy Bysshe Shelley
  10. Walt Whitman

Wikipedia indicates the Chinese poet is now known as Li Bai, given changes in transliteration practices over the years. (Peking became Beijing, and so on.) And from the author’s description, and other things I’ve read, Lucretius sounds more interesting as a thinker than as a poet.

Ch 4, The One Hundred “Best” Books for an Education

This is where it might have been useful to know when this list was compiled. Because the majority of particular titles on the list are now so dated as to be of historical interest only. Wells as a history of the world? John Kellogg about health? Avoid psychoanalysis and behaviorism, author advises? (Well maybe yes.)

The list is no longer useful. I Googled around for a contemporary version, focusing on “books for a [general] education,” and couldn’t find anything; people tend to compose lists of “best” books, though I think a modern list of 50 or 100 books that in toto would comprise a general education would be a really good idea. (The Harvard Classics? No, since they’re about classics, and don’t address modern science at all.)

Author mentions that his 27 starred, most-recommended, books should run only $90 at second-hand bookshops. Again, when was this written?

Ch 5, The Ten “Peaks” of Human Progress

He begins by recalling Condorcet, who wrote the rare book optimistic about the progress of the human spirit… we encountered him in E.O. Wilson, review here. And he defines progress as “increasing control of the environment by life.” Which isn’t bad. (My go-to definition is “the expansion of options.”)

  1. Speech
  2. Fire
  3. The conquest of the animals
  4. Agriculture
  5. Social organization
  6. Morality
  7. Tools
  8. Science
  9. Education
  10. Writing and print

Is this list chronological? Well he does describe the list as “stages of growth, from the savage to the scientist,” in which case I’d say that evidence about when these various stages occurred has changed substantially since the author composed this list. For decades, I’ve gathered, the use of tools was defined as the essential difference between humans and animals. Indeed, the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey depicts how the discovery of tools – even if indirectly by extraterrestrial inspiration – was the key that gave our primitive ancestors domination over the other animals, long before speech or fire.

My take on the thinking of recent decades is that social cooperation, and morality (what I’ve been calling Savannah morality, very tribally based), preceded everything else, even fire. While tools nevertheless must have preceded agriculture and perhaps even the “conquest” (how very Western, this idea, like the “conquest” of the Americas, and the supposed “conquest” of space, a phrase current in the 1950s and 1960s) of the animals. Though domestication of a few species, maybe a couple dozen around the world, hardly constitutes a “conquest.” And did science and education really precede writing and print? Perhaps.

Interestingly, his discussion of the progress of morality echoes the themes of Steven Pinker, in that he observes the reduction of superstition, how we’ve become a gentler and more generous species, considering how serfs were once treated, how there were debtor prisons, torture, slaves, and so on. And: we think there’s more violence in the world than before, but in truth there are only more newspapers, 98.2, a very contemporary insight. (And now there’s TV and social media, of course.) Modern marriage is an improvement on the practices of capture or purchase. There is less brutality, women have become emancipated, the idea of love has flourished. (It came to Pinker to explain why these changes occurred. Because the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution.)

Ch6, Twelve Vital Dates in World History

This strikes me as the weakest list.

  1. 424bc, introduction of the Egyptian calendar
  2. 543bc, the death of Buddha
  3. 478bc, the death of Confucius
  4. 399bc, the death of Socrates
  5. 44bc, the death of Caesar, with the subsequent Golden Age of Rome
  6. ?bc, the birth of Christ
  7. AD 632, the death of Mohammed
  8. 1294, the death of Roger Bacon
  9. 1454, Gutenberg’s printing press
  10. 1492, Columbus discovers America, and revolutionizes European culture
  11. 1769, James Watt perfects the steam engine, beginning the Industrial Revolution, and the beginning of the modern age
  12. 1789, the French Revolution; author considers the French Enlightenment the peak of human history

An odd list for various reasons. Did particular deaths, or births, really mark history in some vital way? Surely it was those extended lives that had a lasting impact. This sort of undermines the notion of their being specific “vital” dates. And the James Watt item recalls the notion of Steam Engine Time (which perhaps is only a science fiction concept), the idea that when historical circumstances allow a particular invention to be built, it will be built, and it doesn’t matter who builds it; if James Watt hadn’t perfected the steam engine, someone else would have sooner rather than later. Granted, Durant doesn’t celebrate Watt as a hero himself; but I think a more correct statement would be to say “steam engine perfected” with Watt not given full credit.


I won’t dwell on this little book any further. And I am unlikely to read anything more by Will Durant. But his Wikipedia page does provide this long quote about his conclusions “on the decline and rebuilding of civilizations,” echoing Spengler.

Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a “conflict between science and religion.” Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile, among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.

We think of the modern world as being the one that, in its great expansion of science and technology, has undermined traditional religious and moral values. But Durant suggests here, it’s happened over and over again. Well, OK, that’s certainly plausible… I will think more on this, and be attentive to other examples.

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