Reflections During a Plague Year:
a segue from Madame Langlois’ Legacy to Book Three,
reading historiography to bridge the transition
I was introduced to the work of Will Durant at Christmas of 1977 by a co-worker, she was my secret Santa and gave me one of her old books. Even though it probably was a last minute idea on her part – It changed my life! and I have never forgotten her. Durant’s understanding and interpretation of Western philosophy and History profoundly influenced my own. During my 25 year teaching career, I often reviewed his take on the subjects and events of history as I prepared my lessons. His massive life’s work, The Story of Civilization, in eleven volumes, won him the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His outlook and exposition of these ideas molded my own.
(From the Wikipedia article on Will Durant) He conceived of philosophy as total perspective, or, seeing things sub specie totius, a phrase inspired by Spinoza’s sub specie aeternitatis. He sought to unify and humanize the great body of historical knowledge, which had grown voluminous and become fragmented into esoteric specialties, and to vitalize it for contemporary application.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Durant
Writing about the state of “Civilization” in Part VI – The Philosophy of History – of the his “Mansions of Philosophy” (published in May of 1929). Dr. Durant’s closing chapter is called the ‘The Destiny of Civilization’. As section and chapter close, he is considering the historical and philosophical destiny of the new kid on the block, America. The civilization of North America in 1929, if not here in 2020, is still in its adolescence only three centuries since the Europeans arrived in any numbers. Let us hear him speak.
…“It is as ridiculous to expect art or taste from an undeveloped country as it would be to expect metaphysical or political sanity from youth; “ …
Never before has civilization found prepared for it so vast an economic base. A stimulating climate … a fertile soil …strata rich in almost every metal, and flowing with fuel oil. … railways setting the pace for the world … waterways …needing only a liberating hand to make them unsurpassed … factories well equipped … inventors better organized and more enterprising … explorers and aviators … investors holding out their gold … ; a government at last wedded to science and rising to statesmanship: what shall we do with all this good fortune?” (N.B. this was written in 1929)
The paragraph immediately following gave me pause (especially the capitalized words) as I write this in the Plague Year of 2020. The great philosopher and historian continues.
“Perhaps we shall be ruined by it. A third time let us say it to ourselves, for the good of our souls, that wealth alone does not make a nation great. It can destroy the family instead of building homes; it can corrupt government instead of patronizing art; IT CAN PURSUE POWER INSTEAD OF WISDOM, COARSENESS INSTEAD OF COURTESY, luxury instead of taste; it can give us a rotting Rome as well as a creative Greece. Which of the two is America to be?”
Never have words come down through the decades speaking such truth for the new 21st century to heed.
But it was the final paragraphs which literally sent shivers down my spine. I have had only two or three truly spiritual experiences in my 68 years. But Dr. Durant’s final words on history and its meaning created the most recent. Once again I quote:
“Even as these words are written, waves of perfect music rise from the room below. Open the door and let those strains come in; they are the second movement of the Seventh Symphony; and heaven could sing no gentler harmonies. What miracle is this, that brings the profound speech of a great heart long dead, over the barriers of space and time, to a million souls waiting for the touch of genius to heal and quicken them? It is majestic music; all the suffering of a millennium is in it, all the longing, and all the tenderness; it is unbearable.”
To wit, I was ACTUALLY LISTENING TO the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh as I read these words. Make of it what you will. For this poor scholar, during this Plague Year, it was all the Goddess had to do to convince me I was on the right track.
The above quotes are excepts from:
Durant, Will, Ph.D. The Mansions of Philosophy. Garden City, NY. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. NY. (an Imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.) First Edition. May, 1929. pp. 402-405 passim