Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age
© 2001 Will Durant
Will Durant is an author I’ve heard of but not yet read from, and this slim volume intended to summarize his large series on world history seemed a good way to introduce myself to his work. Durant made it clear in his introduction that his purpose in writing history is to celebrate civilization, which he thinks of as “social order promoting cultural creation”, vital to domesticating more savage instincts and making life beautiful. Although initially concerned that this would be a book recounting “great kings”, Durant’s heroes are poets and saints; philosophers and theologians. He lavishes love on political figures and states then and again, but allows the text of poems like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to use valuable page space. He sees civilization as forever veering toward decadence or puritanism, and holds high those individuals who strive to hold their lives in balance — and higher still those who help others right their own paths. Durant is a man plainly in love with human history, which heightens my interest in reading more of him.
After the introductory chapter (“What is Civilization?”), Durant picks up the thread of human stories with Confucius, and from there moves through India and Egypt to Greece: the rest of the book is devoted toward western civilization, with great emphasis on Greece, Rome, Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. Durant died before completing his work; his last chapter is titled “Shakespeare and Bacon”. At 347 pages, this is a slender volume, and those well-read in western history may find nothing new of interest, although the book may serve to fill in gaps in the readers’ education. The ideal reader for this work would someone with a casual interest in western history, who only need a guiding hand to start exploring it in full. Durant’s authorial voice is forever tender toward his subjects and friendly to his readers, although some may not appreciate his areas of emphasis. For my own part he conflated Epicureanism and more ‘decadent’ hedonism, and the praise he lavishes on the pre-Constantine church was a bit too intimate for my liking. Still, he honors hardened skeptics who call for people to let go of superstition with the same zeal he favors charitable figures who rooted their approach to helping others in a religious tradition.
I imagine this would be a fair read for someone interested in history, but yet not introduced to it. The detail he gives to Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance may be particularly helpful to those with gaps.Though his summaries are quick, they’re by no means shallow: Durant spends considerable time on the culture and living conditions of the people who give rise to his ‘heroes’. I recently finished a Renaissance and Reformation class, and Durant’s three chapters are detailed enough to increase my own appreciation of the period. Below is one of the first passages that grabbed me.
“I will not subscribe to the depressing conclusion of Voltaire and Gibbon that history is ‘the record of crimes and follies of mankind’. Of course, it is partly that, and contains a hundred million tragedies — but it also the saving sanity of the average family, the labor and love of men and women bearing the stream of life over a thousand obstacles. It is the wisdom and courage of statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the latter dying exhausted but fulfilled; it is the indiscouragable effort of scientists and philosophers to understand the world that envelops them; it is the patience and skill of artists and poets giving lasting form to transient beauty, or an illuminating clarity to subtle influence; it is the vision of prophets and saints challenging us to nobility.
On this turbulent and sullied river, hidden amid absurdity and suffering, there is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there, bringing new treasures every day; Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley is borne on the west wind; Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there, calling to us to come and share his bread. These and a thousand more, and the gifts they gave, are the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.
We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us — we should work undiscouragingly to lessen them — but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance. Let us, varying Shakespeare’s unhappy king, sit down and tell brave stories of noble women and great men.”
– page twenty, concluding “What is Civilization”.