Thursday, February 09, 2012


Will & Ariel Durant, A Dual Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1977, 406 pp


This is the first book by Will Durant that I ever completed. In April, 2001, I was in the midst of his first volume in The Story of Civilization series. (More about that in my next post.) I had attempted to study history in college, but being a lazy student in those days, I would get bored. From my college texts it seemed that history was just a list of rulers and wars. I could not see how it was helping me to understand the world. Later in life I actually learned how to study by looking up the words I did not know in a dictionary, using a globe and an atlas to find locations geographically, and taking the time to ponder how I could use what I was studying in life. When I heard that Will Durant wrote books about history and philosophy (another subject that baffled me in college) with the aim of making them accessible to lay readers, I got curious.

So while making my way through Our Oriental Heritage, I discovered this autobiography of Will and his wife Ariel. Will Durant began his education studying religion, because his mother wanted him to be a priest. Like many people, not being really sure what he wanted to do or be in life, he tried to please his mother and dutifully entered the seminary after college. But his real passion lay in history and philosophy. In his autobiography he relates how the study of history and philosophy led to the loss of his religious beliefs. (More about that in tomorrow's post.)

He became a teacher instead and in 1926 published a book called The Story of Philosophy. (I have read about three quarters of that one and it DID open up the mysteries of philosophy for me.) The book was a surprising bestseller and led Durant into a career as a traveling lecturer. He went all over the country, mostly by train, giving talks to many types of groups and continued to do this for most of the rest of his life. He was like a rock star of history. Between tours, he would travel the world, visiting the countries and historical sites about which he was writing; then he would go home and organize his data into books.

Back when he was still a teacher he met and married one of his students, Ariel, who was only 14 at the time! More rock star behavior. Wasn't it Jerry Lee Lewis who married a child bride? But also perhaps evidence of how deeply involved in history Durant was. Back in ancient times, plenty of women married when they were 14. Ariel became his devoted helper and by the seventh volume of The Story of Civilization, he gave her equal authorial billing.

Here is what I had to say in April 2001 when I finished A Dual Autobiography:

"I just spent almost a week of my life reading this book. It was utterly fascinating to me. Will Durant was a lover of philosophy and history. I can't even imagine how many books he must have read.

He devoted his life to writing about philosophy and history so that the common literate man could learn it, understand it, and hopefully learn from it, therefore becoming able to assist in building a lasting civilization.

I have found a new hero. I would like to read all his books, though it would take me so long. I wish I could have known him."

Yes, I was right. It is taking me years and years to get through his books. But every hour spent has turned out to be worth it.

(Will Durant's books are out of print; a crime in my opinion. They can be found in libraries and through used book sellers. I purchased the entire eleven volume Story of Civilization series for $40 at a Friend of the Library sale in my town.)

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