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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1446

Will and Ariel Durant have spent their lives bringing the gifts of philosophy and history to thousands of people in the form of their books and lectures, and their dual autobiography may be the best gift of all. They have described here the joys and the sorrows of their journey...

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Will and Ariel Durant have spent their lives bringing the gifts of philosophy and history to thousands of people in the form of their books and lectures, and their dual autobiography may be the best gift of all. They have described here the joys and the sorrows of their journey across so many decades. We are treated to stronger and more personal opinions than they often have expressed in their public speeches and written words.

The book is arranged chronologically with Will and Ariel alternating in the narrative. Much of the story is devoted to their personal lives and their infatuation with each other, but a great amount of space is also devoted to the social and political events that influenced their intellectual development. The contrapuntal arrangement of their observations gives rise to something of a dialogue and is far less distracting than may be supposed. That they chose to present a dual autobiography is not surprising, for the last several volumes of The Story of Civilization were a joint project. It might be, in fact, very difficult for this inseparable pair to produce individual autobiographies.

Perhaps the most inviting and intriguing chapter is the first, where Ariel, without much of Will’s editorial hand, describes her childhood and adolescence. Ariel comes across as part feminist/radical socialist and eventually part dutiful wife in the old style, a fascinating combination. Her political fires seem to mellow as her attention and energies have turned more and more to the “family business” of writing books. Throughout the remainder of the work, those sections written by Ariel that alternate with the sections written by Will have come under his polishing pen, and her thoughts frequently reach us through his graceful style. That Will seems to have taken on the general editorial duties is also typical of their roles in life, ever since they became acquainted as teacher and pupil at the Ferrar School in New York so long ago.

By all rights the Durant marriage never should have worked. There is a thirteen year difference in their ages. Will was well educated and well read when they met, while Ariel was just discovering books and ideas. Will had been reared in a strongly Roman Catholic family, Ariel in a less strongly Jewish one. But their love was strong enough to overcome such inauspicious circumstances, and to abide through the weeks of loneliness and separation that they endured for so many years while Will was on the lecture circuit. In our day of all too frequent divorces it is heartening to find a pair that could overcome a number of formidable obstacles and remain so devoted.

Nevertheless, this autobiography does not exclude some moments of doubt and accusation—Ariel’s terrible loneliness while Will was away, for example, or a number of petty jealousies. These are all honestly, if blushingly, shown in excerpts from their correspondence. In this regard, the Durants play Everyman and Everywoman for their readers. In the end, they have come through it all, given patience and perspective, with a rock-solid marriage, and in so doing may shed a positive light on similar experiences for others.

Will’s concern for his repudiated religious beliefs is a theme that is recorded throughout his life. He began firmly grounded in the Roman Catholic Church, so firmly grounded, in fact, that the natural course of his life led him into a seminary to study for the priesthood. As he read more and more theological and philosophical works, he came to value the creative wonder that is man’s mind more than the dogma of his Church. He left the seminary and rebounded into the radical socialist libertarian Ferrar School as a teacher. By comparison to many others connected with this institution he discovered that his views are really fairly moderate. Thus began a lifelong reevaluation of his personal religious faith and his political preferences against a background of intellectual exercises and discoveries as well as more personal and emotional experiences. Thousands of his readers have experienced similar struggles, many while officially adhering to a particular faith or political stance.

This aspect of the autobiography is not as overburdening as it may sound. It is, rather, a great strength in the story to watch Will Durant struggle with so many doubts and conflicts and yet resolve them into a philosophy of optimistic patience and perspective. It is refreshing and almost amusing to watch as he discovers, in his summation, that his idealistic socialism has mellowed into more idealism than socialism.

Will particularly celebrates the abilities of the human mind. Many reviewers and historians have complained that Will Durant is a popularizer of history, and Durant has spent considerable effort to answer that charge. What his critics seem not to have comprehended is that such a designation should carry no negative connotations. He writes for a different audience from that envisioned by the academic historian, but his audience is no less valid. He explains it best in the preface to The Story of Philosophy:Perhaps each kind of teacher can be of aid to the other; the cautious scholar to check our enthusiasm with accuracy, and the enthusiast to pour warmth and blood into the fruits of scholarship.

And yet the question remains why so few people read the scholars, and so very many read the Durants?

What seems to have started Will Durant’s success and continued it, is his ability to share with his readers his own enjoyment of historical research and his curiosity and excitement over what he discovers. He reads and distills his readings, putting them into a larger context, and then shares with a very personal pleasure his findings. It is this enthusiasm for his discoveries that engenders a like enthusiasm for history and philosophy on the part of his readers.

While enthusiasm is the key ingredient here, it would be of no consequence were he not a very good and hardworking writer. In this synthetic approach to the recordings of civilization the Durants interpret the events and movements of history, art, science, and philosophy for the reader in order to draw these various aspects into one cohesive picture, illuminated with many biographical essays. The term “synthetic” often has a negative connotation suggesting that which is not real, and to use it without a word of explanation would be a disservice to the Durants. Something that is synthetic, in the true meaning of the word, is a combination of various elements drawn together into a cogent whole. Theirs is a synthetic autobiography just as their books were synthetic, or integral, history.

Aside from its great worth as the autobiography of a fascinating pair, the book includes many short biographies of leading writers and public figures of the last several decades, since many of them were friends or correspondents of the Durants. Luckily, these persons are all represented in the index to the book, which was thoughtfully provided to make these items retrievable.

The Durants take a genuine delight in laudatory reviews of their work and share thank-you notes from the great and glorious of our time in such an innocent way that it almost seems that they are surprised to have been the objects of such attention. There are moments in the work that this emphasis on the positive becomes almost smug, even though they do quote generously from negative reviews as well. The deceivingly smooth flow of their lives from year to year is perhaps a function of Will’s pen gliding over the final draft of most of the chapters. This makes the book very pleasant to read, but it might have been a little more fun if more of Ariel’s pithiness had been interspersed as in the first chapter.

The Durants each wrote an ending to the book. Will once again synthesizes the more dominant elements in his life into a typically philosophical essay. Ariel, as is her wont, admits more poignancy to her summation, emphasizing again the great love that has sustained them throughout. Ariel is quite correct in closing with the observation that they have led enchanted lives. From inauspicious beginnings, through the uncertainties of social change, depression, and wars, they have stayed together in a wonderfully close and stable relationship and managed a family “business.” Their life’s work is something which they enjoy immensely, and they have made a great deal of money doing it. Moreover the fruits of their labors have brought understanding and pleasure to thousands of people.

Sources for Further Study

Book World. November 27, 1977, p. E1.

Booklist. LXXIV, October 15, 1977, p. 352.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, September 1, 1977, p. 564.

Library Journal. CII, October 15, 1977, p. 2154.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, September 19, 1977, p. 135.

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