This week features a quote from Will Durant, whose epic Story of Civilization, partially co-written with his wife, was a masterful review of western history — surveying literature, politics, philosophy, etc — from Mesopotamia to Napoleon. This particular quote comes from his much shorter Heroes of History, which introduced me to the author.
“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.”