In 2012, I started working my way through The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It’s an eleven-tome series on the history of Western civilization, going from Eastern influences on the West in volume one and Greek civilization to Napoleon in volumes two through eleven. I got through the first six volumes of this series last year, and this year I will try for the remaining five. This series is one that I have wanted to read for a long time, and I am very pleased to have read what I could.
All eleven volumes of The Story of Civilization amount to about 11,000 pages of reading. It’s the sort of thing that reading from cover to cover is a lifetime achievement. They did have ideas of continuing the work to the present day, but the amount of work to do the subject justice and ultimately death stopped them at Napoleon. The unimaginable scope covered but clear unity maintained by Will and Ariel Durant as they page their way through centuries of history makes this series a key reference even though it is unfinished. At first Will Durant was the sole credited author starting in 1935 with the publication of the first volume, but the series ended with the last volume in 1975, Ariel finally credited as a co-author although she had been helping from the very beginning. It is hard to write about this series without drowning you in superlatives, so I will save you from trying to breathe what you should drink.
Durant’s basic goal was to write, as far as the West is concerned, a history of everything. In the preface to the first volume, he writes:
I have tried in this book to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment wich I rashly laid upon myself some twenty years ago: to write a history of civilization. I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind — to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, the character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy, and the achievements of art. I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is, nor how immodest is its very conception; for many years of effort have brought it to but a fifth of its completion, and made it clear that no one mind, and no single lifetime, can adequately compass this task. Nevertheless I have dreamed that despite the many errors inevitable in this undertaking, it may be of some use to those upon whom the passion for philosophy has laid the compulsion to try to see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and understanding through history in time, as well as to seek them through science in space.
He knew that he was trying to do something crazy, but to see the truth of the whole, somebody had to try. He did. As I was going through the great books of Western civilization in my time in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, historical context was key for understanding what the authors said. I already owned these books because of a chance find in the used book section at my local library, but my university library had them also. (Honestly, any decent library should have them.) Whether you want to read them all or merely need something to help you figure out the historical context for a book you are reading, this is your one stop shop for knowing just about the whole of Western everything.
Durant himself admitted that errors were going to creep into his writing. Given that modern academics write fat volumes to argue the meaning of ancient philosophers’ slim volumes, you can trust him to give you a decent working answer for every subject that he touches. For example, when he talks about the Protestant Reformation, between volumes five and six on Renaissance Italy and the Reformation era in Europe, he examines the politics and economics of the Roman Catholic Church’s corruption and the cultural fault lines beneath the Protestant split from the Church. He traces Catholic attempts to reform, political trends in the rise of the independent kingdoms of France and Spain, the ethnic/cultural tension between Northern and Southern Europe, and the Church’s failure to call a truly universal ecumenical council to deal with the issues that ultimately led to the Protestant-Catholic divide that we have today.
Because European history is often synonymous with Church history, Durant’s one stop shop gives you that also: Church history in one place with the political, cultural, economic, and religious context. If you have ever taken the course Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, you will find these volumes to cover familiar subjects. As Durant traces the expansion of Christianity throughout Europe, he also details the cultural factors that the Church accounted for in its expansion beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. He covers the role of heretics in making barbarians open to orthodox Christianity and the role of the Catholic Church in easing the transition from one unified Roman Empire to a politically divided but religiously connected Europe. Durant was raised Catholic, became a materialist socialist, never went back to Christianity, but gave up materialism and appreciated his Christian roots, so he offers a uniquely objective yet sympathetic perspective on European Christianity.
Because Durant was not a Christian, concerns for orthodoxy do not pull his punches for him. Nevertheless, his familiarity and broad agreement with true Christianity and Christian morality make him sympathetic to the good side and the positive contributions of the Church to Western civilization. Sitting with Durant for thousands of pages is like sitting with a mentor who will teach you to read and think charitably and look for the best in what you encounter in your studies. His generous and collegial approach to the multiethnic and multi-disciplined fountains of civilization teaches readers to love truth whatever sources bear witness to it, Christian or not. Although his good-natured jokes about basic human motivations get old after several thousand pages (that is, women are beautiful and men notice, people like money, important people are full of themselves, so forth and so on), his humor and high grade word play make the read humane and refreshing.
It is not often that I read a book that forces me to look up a word in order to get a joke. Durant bountifully seeded his pages with puns and turns of phrase, so the reading is by no means soul-sucking and dry. I definitely recommend taking the series no more than one volume every two months or so, should you desire to work your way through the whole thing. Whatever classical literature that you have read will pay dividends when you read Durant, because he regularly alludes to it when he recounts historical events. The writing is rich and the volumes are thick, but the reach is nearly universal and lays a solid foundation for understanding history. You can find used volumes for a few dollars each on eBay (and the whole series for about $80 or so if you collect them all), or about $200 if you buy it for the Kindle or the Nook. If you did not major in history in college (as I did not), you will throughly atone for it by getting through this behemoth. Check it out!