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Biography

Over the course of six decades, Will Durant enjoyed a remarkable career as a philosopher and historian, beginning with the publication of his book, The Story of Philosophy, in 1927. A few years after releasing that book, Durant took on the monumental task of writing an integrative account of human history, which became The Story of Civilization. Durant's wife, Ariel, came to join him on his journey through time, and together they produced 11 volumes in the series, beginning with Our Oriental Heritage in 1935 and concluding with The Age of Napoleon in 1975. Their work on The Story of Civilization earned them a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

In the following interview, conducted in 1967 by journalist Roy Newquist, The Durants discuss their process for documenting human history.

WILL DURANT: I was born in 1885 in a little town in Massachusetts named North Adams. I've often resented the fact that the Lord didn't allow me to be born in nearby Williamstown - then I could have gotten a good education just by sticking around. There was a fine college there, you know.

My parents were French Canadians, and I was brought up as a good Catholic. They prepared me for the priesthood, on the theory that if any member of the family became a priest or a nun the entire family would go to heaven, no matter what they did on this earth. I was supposed to manage all that, so they were very kind to me and gave me all the education that was available - first with the French school in North Adams, which was taught by nuns who spoke only French in the morning and only English in the afternoon. In 1892, we moved to New Jersey, where I again went to a parochial school and met one of the finest men I've ever known, Father James Mooney. He was an Irishman from Jersey City, but he had been sent to Italy for his postgraduate education and came back almost entirely Italianate, with splendid manners, an impressive, immaculate cleanliness, and a good heart. He took me under his wing, saying that he had found another Thomas Aquinas. He entered me at St. Peter's College in Jersey City in 1900; I was graduated in 1907.

Father Mooney had, of course, assumed that I would enter the seminary after graduating from college. But fortunately or unfortunately I encountered the public library in Jersey City, where I discovered Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel and other terrible fellows, and the lovely faith in which I had been reared began to tremble a bit. Also, I had discovered William Randolph Hearst. This is a rather queer combination, Darwin and Hearst, but Hearst was running for mayor at the time and he made speeches which aroused my interest. I used to go to New York in the evening and root for him until I lost my voice.

A touching thing happened one night when I came back from these very late visits to New York. I found my mother sitting in her chair. It was midnight, and I asked her what she was doing up so late. She said, "Willy, I'm so worried that when' you go to New York you go to visit bad women." I'd never dreamt that she had this in her mind, but it's an example of how thoughtless we can be to those we love deeply. Night after night she had those worries, and I hadn't the sense to console her, to tell her I was the very best virgin she would ever know.

Ultimately, I got over the Hearst affair, but I went off in another radical direction: I became a Socialist. I stood on the streets of Newark, New Jersey, lecturing to all who would come near on the virtues of socialism as the hope of the world. This went on until I noticed that the working people, whom I was describing as the future rulers of America, didn't take any stock in what I said. They smiled and passed on as if to say, "If we were able to rule this country we wouldn't be shining shoes." Only a few white-collar people stayed to listen. So I gradually got over my socialistic evangelism, and was faced with a truly bewildering problem: should I chart the course I wanted, or should I follow through with all that was planned and hoped for me? Should I break my mother's heart by not going into the seminary? I entered the seminary in l 909, determined to become a good priest whether I believed or not. After two years, I began to realize that I was condemning myself to a life of hypocrisy, so I quit and brought a tremendous grief to all of us, but it had to be done. Despite all the heartbreak and recrimination, my mother, Father Mooney, and I recovered.

Then I met Alden Freeman, the son of a former treasurer of Standard Oil. He had money, a great deal of it, and he said, "You need a real education, so you must come with me to Europe." Thus, in 1912, I toured Europe, all the way from what we now call Volgograd to Edinburgh and Dublin and Killarney. When I came back to the United States, I had to earn a living and became a teacher at the Ferrer Modern School in New York - I think it was East 103rd Street. There my loveliest and most brilliant pupil was the lady who is now my wife.

I think it was in 1921 that I read an account of Buckle's death. Now, Henry Thomas Buckle had written an introduction to the history of civilization. He had planned to write the complete history, but he died of dysentery in Damascus at the age of forty. I have the four-volume Brisbane edition of his work, and it was the first historical work I read that aroused my enthusiasm. For some reason the crazy idea came to me to do what Buckle had tried to do. We couldn't approach it then, because I had to give courses of lectures at a school named Labor Temple in New York in order to butter our bread. So I went from 1914 to 1927 lecturing twice a week, forty weeks a year.

Then another fortunate accident happened. E. Haldeman-Julius, who was publishing the Little Blue Books in Girard, Kansas, happened to enter Labor Temple one afternoon and heard my lecture on Plato. He liked it, and a few days later he wrote me from Girard, asking me to write out my lecture as a booklet. I replied, telling him foolishly that I had no time to write these things out. But he wrote again, this time enclosing a check for $150, saying, "I'm paying you in advance to assure you that your time will not be wasted. Whether it's good or not, you'll be paid."

So I wrote the booklet on Plato. He liked it and he asked for another. I wrote on Aristotle; he asked for another. This kept on until - quite by accident, certainly not by design - I had written the eleven booklets which became The Story of Philosophy. He brought it to Max Schuster - I think this was in 1925 - and since Max was a lover of' philosophy as well as a great publisher, he decided to risk publishing the eleven booklets as one volume. He was reconciled to losing some money. I warned him he'd only sell about eleven hundred copies at best. He said, "I think I'll sell fifteen hundred copies." I thought he was a wild enthusiast.

The Story of Philosophy has by this time, sold some three million copies.

Well, I now had enough money to do what I wanted to do. Since many of my Labor Temple lectures were on the history of civilization, I can safely say that we have been working on this enterprise from 1921 on, actually gathering far more material than I could use in the lectures. Thus in 1927 we began to give nearly all of our time to The Story of Civilization, and as the result of eight years of work the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, came out in 1935. It was the most difficult of all the volumes for us to write; though we made two trips through Asia, the material was new to us.

These, then, are the chance incidents that led us to our life's work. We have the advantage of knowing what our job has to be, day after day. After completing any given volume we have to decide precisely what the next volume is going to cover, and we divide the job into chapters. Then we consider what we must read to create each chapter.

Usually we read about five hundred volumes for each of our books. I don't mean to say that we read these books aloud to each other, but we do read them at approximately the same time, discuss them, and make notes. The hundreds of cards in this file are some of the notes relating to Volume 10.

ARIEL DURANT: And that is only a part. We have a thousand notes in the typewritten form in galley sheets. Every note we take from our readings includes the name of the book, the author, and the page from which it was taken. The scissored slips are placed exactly where they belong in the detailed outline of our chapter.

WILL DURANT: I don't think anyone else will go through this labor again within the next fifty years.

ARIEL DURANT: If they wanted to do anything like this, they might well have to be subsidized by a government and have anywhere from a hundred to a thousand researchers to help them. There has always been just the two of us; naturally, it has been a complete devotion. Everything else has been secondary, because this must absorb your life.

WILL DURANT: It must be a mania. Yet I think that every fifty years a job like this should be done. Research progresses all the time. Already some parts of our first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, are antiquated because of the new research. Doubtless, fifty years from now, The Age of Voltaire will have to be done again. It isn't that the total outline of history changes, but discoveries are very apt to change perspectives and assumptions regarding social and internal life. Yet I doubt very much, when it is done again, that it will be done by one couple. It will be done by a consortium of scholars as in the Cambridge Modern History.

ARIEL DURANT: There you have specialists in each field contributing only highly specialized subject matter. That is very different from what we have to do. We cannot become specialists, but we have to be keenly aware of the important findings in every field. It is a very delicate task. Thus far we have been very lucky; we've sailed the stormy seas, and are almost in port. One volume to go, and we will have escaped the clutches of the specialist who might accuse us of oversimplifying or talking down to people. These things we have never wanted to do.

WILL DURANT: Our concept has been what we call "integral history." We believe that the historian should present the whole life of a people at a given period, in all its phases, so that the reader can see how men lived and felt and thought in that age. We feel that in addition to a history of religion, a history of politics, histories of fifteen decisive battles of the world, histories of philosophies and science and art, there should be a history that attempts to put all these aspects of life together.

Naturally, such a historian must confine himself to a given period of time because it would be impossible to put all this into one volume for all centuries. It would be impossible for the writer of such a history to become a specialist; we must depend upon the specialist. Our task is to put their results together into some sort of unity and perspective, and this is what we have tried to do. So the first thing we must ask of a historian is that he should define his purpose.

ARIEL DURANT: And we hope that his purpose would include total perspective, that the major contributions in each field would be recorded in their interrelation and in proportion to their real influence and significance.

WILL DURANT: Working as we do, we make mistakes. Not being specialists we are undoubtedly guilty of errors now and then, the specialist may discover. We do believe that the gap between the specialist and the public has grown so wide that there is a definite need for persons such as ourselves to bridge that gap, to bring the work of the specialist into some sort of unity and correlation, thus making history intelligible to anyone who has even the beginnings of a college education. As to the errors we've made, we hope to correct them in later editions, and they have taught us to watch our step, and that is all to the good.

ARIEL DURANT: In each volume, as we work on a particular era, we will find some outstanding character who enmeshes us emotionally. So for a time - like a mother with many, many children - the last child is the dearest and the most precious. Recently, Voltaire dominated our minds, just as he dominated Europe and his age. But now that we're finished with Voltaire we're being pulled along by Rousseau and his powerful influence, whether we like it or not. The power is there and it's centrifugal and you've got to be in it. Really, it becomes a question of time and place and the necessities of interest.

WILL DURANT: Our heroes, our fascinations, do change with each book. It's a little like being unfaithful, perhaps fickle; yet each age docs have heroes, and one who stands out above all.

One of our tasks is to see that we transmit our heritage, and we are doing it better, I believe, than any other nation has ever done before. No culture is immortal any more than any individual, except in its transmission of culture. This is the only immortality we can hope for, and it is but a fraction of a moment in geological time. I suppose a time will come when our civilization will end. But all that is in the natural course of things, and we shouldn't worry about it. Death is life's way of renewing itself.

Adapted from the book, Conversations. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally & Company, 1967.