Will and Ariel Durant’s ‘Story of Civilization’

I’ve been slowly working through Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series, and wanted to share a bit about it. As a historian, Will Durant wanted to present a comprehensive view of both West and East, or using the now-archaic language of his time, of both Occidental and Oriental history, in one comprehensive narrative. In this way, the somewhat artificial divisions between east and west could be erased and the human story might be more sensible.

The Story of Civilization, published over the course of five decades from 1935 to 1975, has been described as the “most comprehensive attempt in our times to embrace the vast panorama of man’s history and culture.” The series comprises roughly 10,000 pages and was the life’s work of Will and Ariel, a husband and wife team. Growing up, the collection was a centerpiece of our family room library. That’s how I first became aware of it. Further perspective:

The Durants strove throughout The Story of Civilization to create what they called “integral history”. They opposed this to the “specialization” of history, an anticipatory rejection of what some have called the “cult of the expert.” Their goal was to write a “biography” of a civilization, in this case, the West, including not just the usual wars, politics and biography of greatness and villainy, but also the culture, art, philosophy, religion, and the rise of mass communication.

John Little, director of the Will Durant Foundation:

“They had no armies. They ruled no people. They received no government subsidies for their efforts. And yet ‘if knowledge is power,’ as the popular adage states, then Will and Ariel Durant were perhaps the two most powerful people to ever walk our planet.”

H.L. Mencken praised Durant, saying he had “never read any book which left me better contented.” And Clarence Darrow said of another of Durant’s well known works: “I’d rather have written his book on The Story of Philosophy than to have done anything or everything that I ever did.”

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