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The Story of Civilization

by Will and Ariel Durant

Volume 1. Our Oriental Heritage (1935), 938 pages. Durant, I believe, deserves respect. He did the work in 800 pages touching all subjects from the beginning through ancient times. The remainder of the book is about Asia, ending with Japan to the 1920s. His first paragraph bothers me, and he ends his first chapter with "Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul" (page 4). Like Spengler he saw a civilization as the product of the spirit and possibly falling, at least relative to his values and the need to maintain it through an education that perpetuates those values – rather than letting the younger generation rethink for themselves what is to be done. My response to his piece titled "What is Civilization?" is here. Nothing in this volume, however, seems to be born from a desire to conform to any religious dogma, although he does tell the Moses story as if we know it's factual. But he also writes: "As they entered the historic scene the Jews were nomad Bedouins who feared the djinns of the air, and worshiped rocks, cattle, sheep, and the spirits of caves and hill." One other of his sentences that seemed dated to me was "The greatest task of morals is always sexual regulation." The book has been described as more thematic than chronological.

Volume 2. The Life of Greece (1939). "Just as the simple soul must picture deity in the form of a man, so the simple citizen must conceive the causes of war to be personal – usually one person." This is how the Durants began their section on the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. The Durants were exquisite writers – not stark, simple or florid. I looked for faults, thinking there might be some out-of-date passages, gloss or glorification, but maybe someone else can find something in this volume to complain about. With details much greater than what I've written, this volume's 754 pages puts the reader well into the whole Aegean region, from 3500 BCE, Crete, to Alexander of Macedonia, Hellenistic times, to 146 BCE.

Volume 3. Caesar and Christ (1944), 752 pages. Durant is a little off the mark in his description of the "Collapse of the Roman Empire," the title of his Chapter 29, twenty-five pages in length. He tells it as a story, beginning with Emperor Commodus in the year 193. In all his detail, essential points are difficult to find or not made. He writes of economic decline, but what is the connection between economic decline and the collapse of empire. One does not make the other inevitable. Germans did not invade the empire in response to its economic decline. He writes of Emperor Diocletian and the weakness of a managed economy. He writes that under Diocletian "the Roman state did what all nations must do in crucial wars; it accepted the dictatorship of a strong leader; taxed itself beyond tolerance..." This is not true about all nations. The chapter ends and Christian emperors have not yet come to power, and it is about a century before the Empire starts to break apart. It is in his epilogue that Durant gives his reasons "why Rome fell." Firstly, "fall" is a bad metaphor in describing what happened to Rome or the Roman Empire. Anyway, he describes Rome as having fallen for many reasons – no pithy explanations such as given by one historian who claims that Rome was murdered. Durant included "biological factors as one of the causes. He includes pestilence, revolutions and wars as contributing to a decline in population and writes of "rapidly breeding Germans." Not separating symptoms from cause he includes moral decay as having "contributed to the dissolution," and a loss of virile character. He includes economic causes. He lists political decay, and the Huns. In all it is a poor description of how a once mighty empire was finally unable to defend itself.

Volume 4. The Age of Faith (1950), 1086 pages. The second book among the macrohistories listed that I own, and I rarely refer to it. Durant's books are filled with specific subject matter that I would rather read about elsewhere.

Volume 5. The Renaissance (1953), 728 pages, largely biography: "The Popes in Avignon, "Rise of the Medici," Leonardo da Vinci, Savanarola, the Borgias. His description of Michelangelo are out of date, More is known about Michelangelo today than was known in Durant's time. I didn't bother reading his extensive descriptions of Machiavelli, suspecting that recently written biographies on Machiavelli would be better. The 728 pages are packed with details that might be difficult to find elsewhere, for example the sack of Rome in 1517. He sprinkles his descripions with his thoughts, one of which is, "In every age and nation civilization is the product, privilege, and responsibliy of a minority."

Volume 6. The Reformation (1957)

Volume 7. The Age of Reason Begins (1961)

Volume 8. The Age of Louis XIV (1963)

Volume 9. The Age of Voltaire (1965)

Volume 10. Rousseau and Revolution (1967)

Volume 11. The Age of Napoleon (1975

One reader on Amazon.com gives these works four stars and writes: "This magnum opus is a veritable treasurehouse of integral history." Including Will Durant's wife as an author, the reader adds, "Their conception is on grand scale, their execution magnificent. Their holistic vision is splendidly reflected in their work."

A critque of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant is here.

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