An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Will and Ariel Durant’

Balm of History

Reading history has a ring of familiarity. Much of Will and Ariel Durant’s Rousseau and Revolution which chronicles 18th century Europe sounds eerily like the evening news: England bogs down in an effort to squelch a nationalist uprising in her American colonies. British enemies, France and Spain, abet the colonies, not because they expect or want  the colonists to win, but because a prolonged war drains British resources while her rivals build up their own military and naval strength.

France’s internal problems include huge debt exacerbated by lavish spending by the royals, monetary aid to the American Revolution, and the refusal of the nobles and clergy to be taxed. France’s finance minister borrows heavily and prepares a favorable fiscal report for the public which excludes military spending and the national debt.

Catherine the Great attempts to emancipate Russian serfs and extend education to the masses, but is blocked by nobles and clergy who object to changes in a social order which benefits themselves. Even an absolute monarch must consider the effecst of opposition from an armed, wealthy nobility.

The modest reforms Catherine achieved failed to propel Russia into the modern world and left it ripe for Communist reformers a century later. France survived the Revolution of 1789 but endured a period of bloody anarchy, the dictatorship and wars of Napoleon, and other revolutions before finally becoming a stable republic many decades after the first revolution.

The madness of King George III caused serious problems for England—including the loss of their American colonies—but the country outlived the king and Britain built an empire upon which the sun never set for a century and a half.

Objective history provides the comfort of learning that modern people are no more given to vices than our ancestors of 200 to 300 years ago. What history can’t tell us is how to deal with scientific knowledge which has outpaced human social development and given us weapons of mass destruction without the moral and ethical restraints to avoid using them. Religion doesn’t have a great track record for that, either.

Hope from History

I am one of the relatively few people who has read all ten of Will and Ariel Durant’s ten volume History of Civilization. It’s taken over 40 years to read my entire set—a freebie for joining the Book of the Month Club and buying X number of books for two years. Although I was teaching and caring for a newborn and lacked reading time, I ordered the set. They filled out my bookcase and the colorful jackets—now mostly gone—brightened up our living room.

A couple of years after receiving the set, I actually read the first one, Our Oriental Heritage. Our Sunday School Gospel Doctrine class was studying the Old Testament that year which gave me enough information to enjoy the sections on the Hebrews. I struggled through the sections on China, Japan, India, and Persia, but lacked the background to appreciate the history and philosophy of those foreign (to me) cultures.

Not until I was a SAHM expecting baby number three and in desperate need of afternoon sofa time did I start volume II, The Life of Greece. I found the Greek stories more familiar than Asian—and it was a shorter book—only 671 pages as opposed to a benumbing 938 in volume I. Baby number four ended my serious reading time. I packed up the Durant histories and toted them through several moves despite George’s head shaking. Our kids grew—some of them dipped into Durant briefly when taking AP World History in high school, but the books remained closed to me. Finally, I retired and tackled volume III, Caesar and Christ. This time Durant challenged me much less. During the 40 years since I’d closed volume II, I had completed a history minor and taught high school world history. Now I had enough background to enjoy Durant’s gossipy details of the Roman Empire and the early Christian Church. During the past few years, I’ve preceded through volume IV, The Age of Faith, (much more positive than calling it the Dark Ages), V, The Renaissance, VI, The Reformation (a whole volume dedicated to this change in religious thought and authority), VII, The Age of Reason, VIII, The Age of Louis XIV, IX, The Age of Voltaire, and X, Rousseau and Revolution.

I confess to skipping sections on architecture and the lives and styles of artists and musicians with whom I’m not familiar, but I have found the ten volumes a remarkably good read—especially when Ariel was added as co-author beginning with volume VII. The Durants are gossips and repeat rumors of the day as well as hard facts of the political and sexual escapades of historic figures. They tell us that Russia’s Catherine the Great “invented a new form of rule by making her successive lovers the executives of the government. Each of her lovers was, during his ascendancy, her prime minister; she added her person to the emoluments of the office, but she exacted competent service in return.” If only high school texts could contain such juicy tidbits, we might not have the problem of history repeating itself because nobody pays attention.

Durant’s books detailing government corruption, religious coercion, and human cruelty, as well as human nobility give me hope that the social problems of today are really no worse than they’ve always been—it’s just that there are more of us now and our weapons are more destructive. Hopefully, the 21st century will raise up thinkers and leaders who can move us from the abyss of self-destruction. I only wish the Durants could be here to record it.

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