Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

“And last are the few whose delight is in meditation and understanding; who yearn not for goods, nor for victory, but for knowledge; who leave both market and battlefield to lose themselves in the quiet clarity of secluded thought; whose will is a light rather than a fire, whose haven is not power but truth: these are the men of wisdom, who stand aside unused by the world.”
― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Considered one of the finest introductions to the lives and opinions of some of the world’s greatest Western philosophers, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1926), was such a huge success (it sold more than two million copies in less than three decades), that it gave him the necessary and sufficient leisure, for almost fifty years, to work on his critically acclaimed 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization. Given the contributions he had made for the writing of popular history and philosophy, and championing freedom and human rights, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk, for a discussion on philosophy and philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Spencer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Croce, Russell, Santayana, James and Dewey, whose ideas have formed the enduring foundations of Western civilization. Philosophy, which has also been defined as  “what we don’t know,” comes alive in the delightful prose and passion of Will Durant who towards the end of his life was humble enough to admit: “Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”


Anonymous said...

Two of my favorite thoughts from Durant have something to do about libraries:

“All that is good in our history is gathered in libraries. At this moment, Plato is down there at the library waiting for us. So is Aristotle. Spinoza is there and so is Keats. Shelly and Byron and Samuel Johnson are there waiting to tell us their magnificent stories. All you have to do is walk in the library door and the great company open their arms to you. They are so happy to see you that they come out with you into the street and to your home. And they do what hardly any friend will-- they are silent when you wish to think.”
― Will Durant

“Read, think well of mankind, go to our libraries and rejoice.”
― Will Durant

Anonymous said...

Durant's book was pivotal in my life for instilling curiosity about great philosophers. Who could resist reading Spinoza after such an invitation: "Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid, recognizing that in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime's thought with stoic sculptury of everything superfluous. Do not think to find its core by running over it rapidly. Read the book not all at once, but in small
portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider
that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some
commentary, like Pollock's Spinoza, or Martineau's Study
of Spinoza, or, better, both. Finally, read the Ethics again;
it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a
second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy."

Iqra Khurram said...

I was given Story of Philosophy as a wedding gift by a dear librarian/brother. Having already read and admired parts of Story of Civilizations, I found Philosophy a welcome addition to my library even though philosophy doesn't seem to be my piece of cake. And even though Plato's 'dear delight' has always been my sleeping pill, I found myself actually enjoying Durant's 'outlines'.
I had made previous attempts at trying to understand philosophy. Plato and Aristotle and Spinzoa just sailed past well over my head.
Will Durant helped me understand that Philosophy isn't some complex hard to understand science like thing that we hear of but that it is everything.

Nomi said...

Thank you Iqra. Philsophy should be every thinking person's concern for it asks some of the most fundamental and enduring questions about life, mind and the universe; Durant calls philosophy the sixth element of civilzation and defines it as "the attempt of man to capture something of that total perspective which in his modest intervals he knows that only Infinity can possess; the brave and hopeless inquiry into the first causes of things, and their final significance; the consideration of truth and beauty, of virtue and justice, of ideal men and states." He also notes that philosophy appears in the Orient a little sooner than in Europe: "the Egyptians and the Babylonians ponder human nature and destiny, and the Jews write immortal comments on life and death, while Europe tarries in barbarism; the Hindus play with logic and epistemology at least as early as Parmenides and Zeno of Elea; the Upanishads delve into metaphysics, and Buddha propounds a very modern psychology some centuries before Socrates is born. And if India drowns philosophy in religion, and fails to emancipate reason from hope, China resolutely secularizes her thought, and produces, again before Socrates, a thinker whose sober wisdom needs hardly any change to be a guide to our contemporary life, and an inspiration to those who would honorably govern states."

But philosophy is nothing if it does not contain some lightness of being. As Durant says in the Preface that the "Story of Philsophy tried to salt itself with a seasoning of humor, not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment,
but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears
a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other."

Nomi said...

Durant also compares science and philosophy, which further illuminates the difference between the two sometimes "competitive" enterprises: "Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science—problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death; so soon as a field of inquiry yields, knowledge susceptible of exact formulation it is called science. Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises
in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the Unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy); it is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed; but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored."

Nomi said...

"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, nor 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. The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev's poem: he is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact; he wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general, and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth; he combines things in interpretive synthesis; he tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has
analytically taken apart. Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom--desire coordinated in the light of all experience can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science; to criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy: and because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom."