The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage
© 1935 Will Durant
Our Oriental Heritage is the introductory volume of a greater work, an eleven-book set covering prehistory to the last days of Napoleon. Judging from the preface, Durant initially planned to write The Story of Civilization as a five-volume set that went beyond Napoleon, even approaching the 20th century. This first volume begins in prehistory, Durant spending time to comment on the evolution of civilization’s economic, political, moral, and mental elements before beginning his trek proper with Sumeria. Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Judea, Persia, India, China, and finally Japan follow. Although the majority of his subject nations have passed away into extinction, the latter three civilizations are still extant, and Durant follows their story up to the ‘present day’.
Our Oriental Heritage is epic history: not only is the timeframe at hand vast, but Durant’s approach is to tackle politics, religion, science, art, drama, and artisanry all together, giving his story depth as well as breadth. Despite the abundance of information, his presentation is never confusing. Sections are clearly delineated, and I enjoyed Durant’s writing style: he’s approachable, but dramatic, often waxing on eloquently about a particular poet, ruler, or philosophy. There’s also occasional humor — dry, of course, as historian humor tends to be.
Throughout Durant’s work, civilizations rise and fall like waves crashing on a beachhead: they are born, he says, in stoicism, and perish in epicureanism. Those words are used chronically throughout the book, fading only in the last two general portions. I don’t rightly understand that characteristic of his writing. While the misuse of epicureanism is understandable (being common, and objectionable only to people familiar with Epicures) as referring to powerful, rich states that grow sedentary in their success, slowly rotting inside before falling to a more youthful power, ‘stoicism’ always seemed out of place. He used it most often to refer to newfound religions or philosophical approaches that were puritanically moralistic.
Durant’s place in all this seems a bit odd: while he approves of progress and prosperity, they reach their height during these epicurean periods which involve a worship of the intellect and the decline of emotionally-charged elements of civilization, particularly religion. He habitually mourns this decay, thinking of religion as a means by which people put their persistent tendency to believe in the supernatural to use — strengthening individual characters, offering consolation to the suffering, and strengthening society and social order. Thus he tacitly approves of the vibrant religion of those who finish the decadent civilizations off and establish their own, all the while sadly recounting the horrors that the conquerors visit upon the vanquished. (Hinduism is the only religion in his book that doesn’t attack the beliefs or artifacts of other civilizations, apparently because it co-copts them. Buddhism doesn’t die in India: Hinduism simply absorbs it.)
As I cannot comment intelligently on much of the content (being wholly ignorant of some of his subjects, particularly early India and China), I can only say that I enjoyed reading the work, quirks included, and that I think my understanding of part of the human story improved for having read it. The book’s age is somewhat problematic for the reader looking for a work like this: in Durant’s world, the “present day” is the early 1930s — and much has changed since then. Hitler has been the chancellor of Germany for two years and is swiftly turning it into a totalitarian nightmare; Great Britain is the master of India, and Imperial Japan has annexed both Korea and a northern province of China, operating it as the puppet-state Manchukwo. Durant speculates on whether Japan and the United States will fight over their competing economic interests in the Pacific: he thinks they will, in all likelihood, for economic competition has driven war throughout human history. Although old scholarship isn’t necessarily bad scholarship, in the nearly eighty years since this book first saw publication, archaeological discoveries or linguistic breakthroughs might have added context that makes Durant’s summaries inaccurate. An inconsequential example of this is Piltdown Man, which Durant references in tracking prehistorical hominids across Eurasia: Piltdown Man is a hoax, one not exposed until the 1950s.
There are undoubtedly other books and series written in the subject of ancient history or general surveys, probably some written within the last decade with up-to-date scholarship. Are there better books in this subject? That I can’t answer, not having read any series to recommend this book over. As said before, I did enjoy the book and do think myself edified for having read it. Durant’s distinguishing characteristic, I imagine, is his decision to give a history that does not discount one thread of human life for another — instead, he pursues economics, politics, religion, philosophy, drama, literature, and the like all with equal diligence. That approach is why I decided to start reading the series, it is why I will continue in it, and it is why I think the book worth your investigation if the subject is of interest to you.
- The Story of Civilization on Wikipedia, which contains a detailed table of contents.
- The Outline of History, H. G. Wells. I have not read it, but it’s on my “Eventually” list.
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