Will Durant and the River of History

by Dan Sanchez on July 3, 2011

Many people have come to be Mises Academy students through discovering and coming to love the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.  It is easy to acquire, from reading the classically educated Mises and the consummate scholar Rothbard, a passion for erudition and western civilization in general.  Modern-day schooling and writing are both starved of this spirit.  One can scarcely find it in present-day classrooms or bookstores.  But if you know where to look, you can find it in certain corners of the internet.  In one corner, on the Internet Archive web site, you can find, free of charge, the complete 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization, by Will Durant, in audiobook, PDF, and ePub ebook format (see links below).  Since discovering this series a few months ago, Durant has become by far my favorite historian.  I simply can’t put the Story of Civilization down (in a figurative sense, since I’m reading it by listening to the audiobook). Since January, I’ve already read the first 5 thick tomes of the series, and I am well into the 6th.

The most evident among its charms is how Will Durant’s encyclopedic erudition and insightful brilliance are communicated through a masterful and elegant style, shot through with delightfully quotable epigrams.  Durant’s writing even earned generous praise from one of the 20th century’s best stylists, Rothbard’s favorite wordsmith, H.L. Mencken:

I have just finished Caesar and Christ. What a book! It is not only the best thing you have ever done yourself; it is the best piece of historical synthesis ever done by an American. I can imagine no improvement in it. It is clearly and beautifully written, and it shows a hard common sense in every line. I have never read any book which left me better contented.

Yet the most lovable thing about Durant as a historian is his earnest humaneness.  In the preface to the first volume of The Story of Civilization, Durant discusses his initial ambitions for the project.

“I have tried in this book to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which 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, 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.”

What is refreshing in Durant’s plans for his series, is that chronicling violence is only one part of many (the “experiments in government”).  In too much of historical scholarship, the domestic and foreign doings of states have played an outsized role in the tale, to such an extent that Voltaire characterized history as “nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes”.

Durant consciously sought to avoid this tendency.  He wrote:

“The history of civilization is a river on whose waters soldiers and politicians are fighting and shedding ballots and blood; but on the banks of the river, people are raising children, building homes, making scientific inventions, puzzling about the universe, writing music and literature.”

As a historian, Durant tried to give overdue attention to the “riverbank people”, these Atlases whose productivity and genius have ever borne the weight and parasitism of the political class.  This distinctly libertarian endeavor is one of the innumerable charms of the writings of this (non-libertarian) author.

I cannot think of a more artfully crafted introduction to the full scope and sweep of history than Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, which is available, in full and free of charge, from the Internet Archive:

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