Will Durant

From Academic Kids

William James Durant (November 5, 1885November 7, 1981) was an American philosopher and writer.

Durant was born in North Adams, Massachusetts of French-Canadian parents. He fought for equal wages, women’s suffrage and fairer working conditions for the American labor force. Durant not only wrote on many topics but also put his ideas into effect. Durant, it has been said widely, attempted to bring philosophy to the common man. He authored The Story of Philosophy, The Mansions of Philosophy, and, with the help of his wife, Ariel, wrote The Story of Civilization. He also wrote magazine articles. He tried to improve understanding of viewpoints of human beings and to have others forgive foibles and human waywardness.

In 1900, Will entered Saint Peter's Academy and, later, Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1905, he became a Socialist. He graduated in 1907. He worked as a reporter for Arthur Brisbane's New York Evening Journal for ten dollars a week. At the Evening Journal, he wrote several articles on sexual criminals.

Following this, in 1907, he began teaching Latin, French, English and geometry at Seton Hall College, South Orange, New Jersey. Durant was also made librarian at the college.

In 1911 he left the Seminary. He became the teacher and chief pupil of the Ferrer Modern School, an experiment in libertarian education. Alden Freeman sponsored him for a tour of Europe. At the Modern School, he fell in love with and married a pupil, fifteen years his junior, Ida Kaufmann, whom he later nicknamed "Ariel". The Durants had one daughter, Ethel. Ariel would contribute materially to all the volumes of The Story of Civilization but was only given title page credit with Volume VII, The Age of Reason Begins.

In 1913, he resigned his post as teacher. To support themselves, he began lecturing in a Presbyterian church for five- and ten-dollar fees; the material for these lectures became the starting point for The Story of Civilization. Alden Freeman paid his tuition for the graduate schools of Columbia University.

In 1917, working on a doctorate in philosophy, Will Durant wrote his first book, Philosophy and the Social Problem. He discussed the idea that philosophy had not grown because it avoided the actual problems of society. He received his doctorate in 1917. He was also an instructor at Columbia University.

The Story of Philosophy became a bestseller, giving the Durants the financial indepedence that would allow them to travel the world several times and spend four decades writing The Story of Civilization. He retired from teaching and began work on the eleven volume Story of Civilization. Will drafted a civil rights "Declaration of Interdependence" in the early 1940s, nearly a full decade before the Brown decision (see Brown v. Board of Education) ignited the Civil Rights Movement. This Declaration was introduced into the Congressional Record on October 1, 1945.

The Durants strove throughout The Story of Civilization to create what they called "integral history." They opposed this to the "specialization" of history, an anticipatory rejection of what some have called the "cult of the expert." Their goal was to write a "biography" of a civilization, in this case, the West, including not just the usual wars, politics and biography of greatness and villany, but also the culture, art, philosophy, religion, and the rise of mass communication. Much of The Story considers the living conditions of everyday people through out the twenty-five hundred years their "story" of the West covers. They also bring an unabashedly moral framework to their accounts, constantly stressing the repetition of the "dominance of strong over the weak, the clever over the simple." The Story of Civilization is the most successful historiographical series in history. It has been said that the series "put Simon and Schuster on the map" as a publishing house. The proof of this is easily found; rare is the American library that does not contain at least one (or more) of the volumes of The Story of Civilization.

The profound respect with which they treat Islamic culture and civilization--treading the groove first carved by Edward Gibbon but seldom followed up upon by historians who followed him--has caused at least one Arabic translation of their sections on Islamic Civiliziation. Note: their frequent use of the terms "Mohammedans" and "Mohammedanism" for Muslims and Islam, respectively, should not deter Muslim readers. It was merely a convention of the time, much as African-Americans were described as "Negroes" when the Durants were writing. Given the fairness with which all subjects Islamic are handled by the Durants, the terms can in no way be interpreted as pejorative or as being indicative of a hostility toward the Arab and Islamic world.

The misperception among some academics that the Durants ignored the role of women and focused upon Europe to the exclusion of all else, is not supported by the texts of his or their works.

For Rousseau and Revolution,(1967), the 10th volume of The Story of Civilization, they were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature; later followed the highest award granted by the United States government to civilians, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ford in 1977.

They followed Rousseau and Revolution with a slender volume of observations called The Lessons of History; which was both synopsis of the series as well as analysis. Though they had intended to carry the work into the 20th century, they simply ran out of time and had intended the 10th volume to be the last. However, they published a final volume, the 11th, The Age of Napoleon in 1975.

Two posthumous works by Will have been published in the last several years, The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time (2002) and Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age (2001).

The Durants also shared a love story as remarkable as their scholarship; they detail this in a Dual Autobiography. They died within two weeks of each other in 1981 (she on October 25 and he on November 7) Though their daughter, Ethel, and grandchildren strove to keep this from the ailing Will, he learned of her death on the evening news. Within a week, he joined his beloved in death at the age of 96. Seldom have two scholars lived lives as remarkable as their work. He was buried beside his wife in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.


  • Will Durant, Transition: A Sentimental Story of One Mind and One Era, Garden City NY : Garden City Pub. Company, 1927.
  • "Durant, Will; and Durant, Ariel." Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

<http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9031558> [Accessed May 14, 2005]

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