I have started to read Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization series.
When I bought most of them in May of 2019, my wife asked me if I was going to read them. To be honest, my positive response at the time was probably a little optimistic when I gave it, but after scouring the library for Charles Sanders Peirce last month, I managed to squeeze most of the books I’d ordered from ABC Books this spring and things I bought at LibraryCon last year (and the copy of Pragmatism by William James depicted in the post on Charles Sanders Peirce) into the gaps on the bookshelves.
But not, of course, the 30 inch stack of The Story of Civilization. I don’t have any 3″ gaps left on the shelves, much less 30″.
So I decided to start reading them. I mean, I found The Lessons of History to be readable even with their the old Left viewpoint expressed in the 1968 book.
I didn’t have the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, as the one in the set I saw last spring was marked $129 (the whole story of my incomplete mismatched set is in the above linked post). So I ordered one off of eBay. And I started it.
The first volume is a book about the history of Egypt, China, and India, which the Durants (well, Will in this case, as Ariel becomes official co-author later in the series) assert offer the roots of Western civilization. I’m interested in getting these histories because although I got some history of Egypt from the audio course Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations, more is always better. I haven’t gotten much history of India (that is, the divided kingdoms that became the India of the British Raj and has since split again into separate nations). The Chinese history is pre-revolution, so I am interested to see how it differs from the more recent histories I’ve read.
But to get to that, I have to make it through 100+ pages of Durant laying out what he means by civilization and what makes a civilization civilized. Through it, we get a good table-setting of the old Left viewpoint, where natural rights do not exist and relativism between civilizations where the historian takes a dispassionate, detached view comparing the different customs and morals. Although some values are more better than others, of course. When talking about sexual morals and marriage, communal sex and partner swapping among primitive tribes is better than marriage, which treats women like slaves (as did primitive man, who hunted a bit and rested while the women foraged, kept the homes, and reared the children). So there’s a bit of pining for communal systems that did not lead to anything but sustenance level existence, a view you still find today.
I’m a bit of a homer who thinks Western civilization is the best produced so far (and which might adopt better practices it finds from other cultures, which is a feature of Western civilization). And I don’t think the Durants have written a polemic here, so it should prove readable and enjoyable once we get to the history.
I’m overexuberantly optimistic that I’ll read it all the way through, as it does run some 10,000 pages, but, come on, that’s like nine Stephen King and/or Tom Clancy books (I have that much on my shelves and most of it in the remaining five volumes of The Dark Tower alone). I’ve bought many fine series: Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill’s history of World War II, the complete works of George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Copleston’s A History of Philosophy. But I’ve rarely committed to reading them. I mean, I started Volume I of A History of Philosophy and took copious notes on it, but I was using it as a carry book and bogged down that way.
So I’m trying to read a chapter every day or so just to make incremental progress. Perhaps once the history part takes off, I’ll find it more riveting and captivating to read. However, it’s definitely a stretch goal to finish reading the this year or next (see also how I bogged down reading the complete works of Shakespeare: I got five comedies in 2018, and it’s languished beside my reading chair since).
So stay tuned to see how my reading goes. Assuming I make any progress, of course; if I don’t, I won’t speak of it again.