By Chet Yarbrough
By Will Durant
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Edward R. Murrow interviewed several famous people in a 1950s series called This I Believe. One of the participants was Will Durant.
Durant wrote his own “THIS I BELIEVE ESSAY” after having spent fifty years of his life researching and writing an eleven volume work titled “The History of Civilization”. His wife, Arieal Durant, a scholar in her own right, also labored those fifty years on this and other historical works. Durant writes, in his “THIS I BELIEVE ESSAY”,: “I find in the Universe so many forms of order, organization, system, law and adjustment of means to ends, that I believe in a cosmic intelligence and I conceive God as the life, mind, order and law of the world. I suspect that when I die I shall be dead. I would look upon endless existence as a curse as did the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew. Death is life’s greatest invention; perpetually replacing the worn with the new.”
Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume set of the history of civilization is tightly summarized in a 1968 publication titled “The Lessons of History”. It opens one’s eyes to the value of history; i.e. what humankind has done right and wrong and how history shapes today’s culture. Will Durant does the same thing with a book published in 1926, “The Story of Philosophy” and in 1929 with “The Mansions of Philosophy”.
A first exposure to any of these Durant’ books will influence one’s interest in philosophy, history, and society. Though “The Story of Philosophy” only summarizes famous early 20th century philosophers, it creates a road map for a life-long pursuit of human understanding, meaning, and purpose. Every life experience, i.e. books read, jobs held, marriage, children, education, and life’s trials and tribulations are on that map. The map does not ease the pain of suffering or offer clear paths to happiness but it offers a kind of comfort– knowing that one is not alone in their confusion, depression, joy, or happiness.
“The Story of Philosophy” begins with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and ends with Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, William James, and John Dewey. The in-between is a discussion of Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and a few others.
Socrates’ and Voltaire’s philosophies are renewed by Durant with high praise; i.e. exemplifying principle and candor, with Socrates choosing Hemlock and Voltaire speaking truth to power. Socrates is executed and Voltaire is exiled but the truth of their wisdom survives persecution; offering method for the inquisitive and hope for the oppressed.
Durant enlightens one’s understanding of Rousseau. Rousseau’s insistence on emotion and instinct sets precedent for the French revolution’s ugliness but makes one appreciate the reaction of society to suppression and inequality.
Durant writes about Plato’s “Republic” and its utopian description of a perfect state ruled by a Philosopher King.
Durant gives a summary of Aristotle; showing the birth of the scientific method that is severely limited by lack of adequate tools of measurement.
3 MINUTE VIDEO OF ARISTOTLEAN PHILOSOPHY:
Durant gives scope to Spinoza’s philosophy and life-his excommunication, and exile. Spinoza makes a case for rationalist belief in God and begins an enlightened revolution that rages (even today) against organized religion.
10 MINUTE HISTORY OF SPINOZA: http://www.youtube.com/embed/GmbGbo-oyKc” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>iframe>
Durant’s Schopenhauer de-mythologizes much of Kant by showing how disparate strains of philosophy grow from interpretations of Kantian contradictions.
3 MINUTE VIDEO OF KANT’S PHILOSOPHY: http://www.youtube.com/embed/xwOCmJevigw” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Schopenhauer’s lucidity is contrasted with Kant’s opacity to make both philosophies more accessible. Both philosophers write about ethics. Kant believed that ethics are determined by universally accepted beliefs with no grey areas whereas Schopenhauer suggests that ethics are malleable based on human will and self-interest.
10 MINUTE VIDEO HISTORY OF SCHOPENHAUER: http://www.youtube.com/embed/GGwSe0ZptV0” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Russell, Santayana, James, and Dewey are addressed to show how America is in its philosophical infancy in the 1920s.
BERTRAND RUSELL’S 2 MINUTE VIDEO MESSAGE TO THE FUTURE:http://www.youtube.com/embed/O8h-xEuLfm8” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Russell, though English, spent much time in the United States and proffered a strong belief in socialism, pacifism, and atheism; with a humanism that emphasizes the importance of love for one’s fellow man. George Santayana considered himself an American but was from Spain and spent much of his life outside the United States. His contribution to philosophy reaches back to the Greeks in belief that the goal of life is happiness; not from material goods but from living life to the fullest. William James
brings logical positivism to belief in God and man. James is considered one of the leaders in the American Pragmatist philosophical belief-system. Along with C.S. Peirce (not mentioned in Durant’s book), and John Dewey, they constituted the Pragmatist’ movement that insists on cause and effect to clarify life’s meaning. James and Dewey participated in life as scientist and teacher to explain the world in concrete terms that offered reason for action.
Durant is not irrefutably or completely revealing the world of philosophy. He is opening a door to the importance of philosophy. He shows that philosophy addresses the fundamental questions of human life.
In an essay titled “The Pleasures of Philosophy “–Durant writes: “Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.”
In Durant’s updated (1950s) version of, “The Mansions of Philosophy”, he decries the paucity of philosophical interpretation of science and the failure of late 20th century philosophers to synthesize current scientific discoveries. He infers humanity is losing its way because scientific discoveries have little context and no direction.