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Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age by Will Durant

July 2, 2016

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Will Durant lived from 1885 until 1981. Try to fathom the amount of change he witnessed in those years—in geopolitics, technology, commerce and art. But if there was one person best suited to understand the scope and significance of that transformation, it was Durant. Possibly the greatest modern historian, Durant concerned himself with how ideas shape the world and stitch history together from era to era, culture to culture.

While lying in a hospital in Damascus in 1912, Durant conceived of an audacious historical endeavor—he wanted to chart the arc of history. All of it. He imagined a five-volume set of books that covered everything from the dawn of man through modern times, books that would be of use to those who wish “to see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and understanding through history in time.” It was a grand vision, but it was a project he had neither the means nor time to complete. So he dropped the idea. He gave up his dream of being an author and took a job running a school for adults in New York.

As is true with much of history, Durant’s personal story pivoted on a coincidence. One day, a man happened by the school and caught the end of a lecture Durant was giving on Plato. The man was a publisher of five-cent pamphlets on a wide range of subjects, and he proposed that Durant publish the Plato lecture as one of his pamphlets. Durant refused at first, but eventually agreed. More pamphlets followed from Durant, until there were eleven, enough material for a book. Simon & Schuster published The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant in 1926. That book sold well, and it gave Durant the financial means to quit his job and focus on his magnum opus.

Modestly titled The Story of Civilization, Durant’s grand project would consume most of his and his wife Ariel’s life. Durant started writing it in 1927 and over the next forty-eight years (the first volume was published in 1935, the last in 1975) the Durants published over 4 million words and nearly 10,000 pages—11 massive volumes. They would never complete the project, though; the final volume covered The Age of Napoleon.

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Heroes of History is a survey of Durant’s larger work. A low-flying plane over a vast landscape, with enough detail to bring out the humanity but never bogging down too long in the details of a particular era. It is excellent as a way to fill in some of the history lessons one might have slept through in school and to provide dig sites for further reading later (Heroclitis, Sulla).

Durant had a broadly optimistic view of history. More than just charting a timeline of rulers, wars and shifting empires, he wanted to create a “remembrance of generative souls…a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, philosophers and lovers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.”* He also points out the recurring themes of history; the list of forces that motivate man is relatively short. “In history, as in newspapers, only the names and dates change. The events are always the same.” He endeavors to tell history through the stories of the people rather than faceless events and statistics.

Although Durant was at times criticized for his approach—for lacking the courage to shine a light on the darkest parts of history, for favoring even-handedness over a provocative point of view, for turning historical figures into characters—I have found two of Durant’s books (Heroes of History and The Greatest Ideas and Minds of All Time) to be readable, informative and enjoyable. His approach is even-handed, yes, but his focus on the thoughts and philosophies that shape our world is like opening the hood to see the underlying engine of history. He is concerned not only with the What, but with the Why. He is most interested in the threads that link one era to the next (e.g. “The philosophy of one age is the literature of the next.”)

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If there is anything to be questioned in Durant’s writing, it’s that even though he criticized the Euro-centric provincialism of western historians, this book is still heavily weighted toward Europe, with a specifically Christian focus. There is a bit on Asia, but other than Egypt, Africa and South America are both left completely out. In its defense, the book is, as Durant wrote, merely a “tuning of the instruments.” It only covers history up to Francis Bacon, and a lot is necessarily left out.

Durant also doesn’t shy away from editorializing, but I enjoy his personal perspective. His interjected wit is typically wry and funny (“The Greeks might admit that honesty is the best policy, but they tried everything else first.”) If history is a grand tour and you’re looking for a good guide, you would be hard-pressed to find someone better than Will Durant.

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