Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Will Durant


By Richard E. Noble

I just finished reading Transition, a mental Autobiography, by Will Durant. I've also read his History of Philosophy, and I have the last three volumes of his History of Civilization which I have yet to get into.
Will Durant is not a philosopher. He is an Historian who chose to research Philosophy. He writes about philosophy, philosophers and philosophical ideas from an historical perspective as well as content and interpretation of philosophical concepts. Transition is a partially fictionalized story of his life up until about the age of forty. He lived into his nineties. The book ends with his marriage to Ariel, a fifteen year old student of his and the nearly tragic birth of their daughter Ethel. The marriage which was frowned upon socially (causing him to resign from his teaching position) and by Ariel's dad (who refused permission) seems to have been successful. The last note that I have found in my library confirms that Will and Ariel were still married at his ninetieth birthday.
Will was born a Roman Catholic up in Massachusetts. He is of French Canadian parentage. He was an ardent student. He mentions that during one two year period in his life he read over nine hundred volumes. He was selected from his parish to be educated into the priesthood. He studies for two years at a seminary only to discover, via Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, that not only isn't he a Christian but that he doesn't believe in God. Upon confession of this realization, he is asked, understandably, to leave the seminary. He then goes to his home town, and unbelievably, starts giving lectures propagating his new found heretical views.
His devout parents and family are informed of his behavior and preaching by a local parish priest. His poor mother nearly has a nervous breakdown and his dad gives him twenty four hours to blow Dodge. He then goes on to teach at a school operated by anarchists. He meets Anna Goldman, the infamous anarchist, and convicted would be assassin, Alexander Berkman.
From Anarchism he goes to Europe via an all expense paid trip by someone named Henry Alden. I don't know who this Henry Alden guy is but when the trip to Europe is over, he then proceeds to pay Will's passage through Columbia University. I must say I don't get it.
By now Will is a thirty year old, well educated atheist teaching philosophy to a bunch of grade-schoolers. One, named Ariel, who he must have met when she was thirteen or fourteen, he falls in love with. She is fifteen by the time they decide to run off and get married.
At thirty five Will convinces Ariel that they should become pregnant and have a baby. She agrees and nearly dies in the process. The experience of "family," the "miracle" of birth and his unexplainable brush with good fortune somehow convince Will that all is right with the world. I don't know if at this point he finds that God is, once again, in His heaven, but somehow the birth of Ethel is reassuring and mystically inspirational to him. I can only imagine how his philosophy would have faired if Ariel had died and Ethel had been born with multiple sclerosis.
I presume that it is this attitude that makes Will Durant an Historian and student of Philosophy as opposed to a Philosopher and a student of History.

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