Human history is a fragment of biology. Man is one of countless millions of species and, like all the rest, is subject to the struggle for existence and the competition of the fittest to survive. All psychology, philosophy, statesmanship, and utopias must make their peace with these biological laws. Man can be traced to about a million years before Christ. Agriculture can be traced no farther back than to 25,000 B.C. Man has lived forty times longer as a hunter than as a tiller of the soil in a settled life. In those 975,000 years his basic nature was formed and remains to challenge civilization every day.
In that hunting stage man was eagerly and greedily acquisitive, because he had to be. His food supply was uncertain, and when he caught his prey, he might, as like as not, eat it to the cubic capacity of his stomach, for the carcass would soon spoil; in many cases he ate it raw -- "rare," as we say when he returns to the hunting stage in our profoundly masculine restaurants. Furthermore, in those thousand times a thousand years, man had to be pugnacious, always ready to fight -- for his food, his mate, or his life. If he could, he took more mates than one, for hunting and fighting were mortally dangerous and left a surplus of women over men; so the male is still polygamous [or polygamous] by nature. He had little reason to contracept, for children became assets in the hut and later in the hunting pack. For these and other reasons acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and ready sexuality were virtues in the hunting stage -- that is, they were qualities that made for survival.
They still form the basic character of the male. Even in civilization the chief function of the male is to go out and hunt for food for his family, or for something that might, in need, be exchanged for food. Brilliant though he may be, he is basically tributary to the female, who is the womb and mainstream of the race.
Probably it was woman who developed agriculture, which is the first soil of civilization. She had noted the sprouting of seeds that had fallen from fruits or trees; tentatively and patiently she planted seeds near the cave or hut while the man went off to hunt for animal food. When her experiment succeeded, her mate concluded that if he and other males could band together in mutual protection from outside attack, he might join his women in planting and reaping instead of risking his life and his food supply upon the uncertain fortunes of the chase, or of nomadic pasturage.
Century by century he reconciled himself to a home and settled life. Women had domesticated the sheep, the dog, the ass, and the pig; now she domesticated man. Man is woman's last domestic animal, only partially and reluctantly civilized. Slowly he learned from her the social qualities: family love, kindness (which is akin to kin), sobriety, cooperation, communal activity. Virtue now had to be redefined as any quality that made for the survival of the group. Such, I believe, was the beginning of civilization -- i.e., of being civil citizens. But now, too, began the profound and continuing conflict between nature and civilization -- between the individualistic instincts so deeply rooted in the long hunting stage of human history, and the social instincts more weakly developed by a recently settled life. Each settlement had to be protected by united action; cooperation among individuals became a tool of competition among groups -- villages, tribes, classes, religions, races, states.
Most states are still in a state of nature -- still in the hunting stage. Military expeditions correspond to hunting for food, or fuels, or raw materials; a successful war is a nation's way of eating. The state -- which is ourselves and our impulses multiplied for organization and defense -- expresses our old instincts of acquisition and pugnacity because, like primitive man, it feels insecure; its greed is a hedge against future needs and dearths. Only when it feels externally secure can it attend to its internal needs, and rise, as a halting welfare state, to the social impulses developed by civilization. Individuals became civilized when they were made secure by membership in an effectively protective communal group; states will become civilized when they are made secure by loyal membership in an effectively protective federated group.
How did civilization grow despite the inherent hunting nature of the male? It did not aim to stifle that nature; it recognized that no economic system can long maintain itself without appealing to acquisitive instincts and eliciting superior abilities by offering superior rewards. It knew that no individual or state can long survive without willingness to fight for self-preservation. It saw that no society or race or religion will last if it does not breed. But it realized that if acquisitiveness were not checked it would lead to retail theft, wholesale robbery, political corruption, and to such concentration of wealth as would invite revolution.
If pugnacity were not checked, it would lead to brawls at every corner, to domination of every neighborhood by its heaviest thug, to the division of every city by rival gangs. If sex were not controlled, it would leave every girl at the mercy of every seducer, every wife at the mercy of her husband's secret itching for the charms of variety and youth, and would make not only every park, but every street, unsafe for any woman. Those powerful instincts had to be controlled, or social order and communal life would have been impossible, and men would have remained savages.
The hunting-stage instincts were controlled partly by law and police, partly by a precarious general agreement called morality. The acquisitive impulses were checked by outlawing robbery and condemning greed and the disruptive concentration of wealth. The spirit of pugnacity was restrained by inflicting punishing injury to persons or property. The sexual impulses -- only slightly less powerful than hunger -- were disciplined to manageable order by banning their public excitation and by trying to channel them at an early age into responsible marriage.
How was that complex moral code -- so uncongenial to our nature, so irritating with its "Thou shalt nots" -- inculcated and maintained through five special institutions that are all in disrepair today: the family, the church, the school, the law, and the public opinion that these helped to form? The family, in the agricultural regime, taught the uses and comforts of association and mutual aid; the mother led and taught her daughters in the care of the home; the father led and taught his sons in the care of the soil; and this double leadership gave a strong economic base to parental authority. Religion buttressed the moral commandments by attributing them to an all-seeing, rewarding, and punishing God. Parents and teachers transmitted the divinely sanctioned code by precept and example; and their authority was strengthened, till our century, by this connection with religion. Law supported large parts of the code by the use and fear of organized force. Public opinion checked immorality with adjectives and contumely, and encouraged good behavior with praise, promotion, and power.
Under this protective umbrella of social order communal life expanded, literature flourished, philosophy adventured, the arts and sciences grew, and historians recorded the inspiring achievements of the nation and the race. Slowly men and women developed the moderation, the friendliness and courtesy, the moral conscience and esthetic sense, which are the intangible and precious graces of our heritage. Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation.
Now what if the forces that made for order and civilization are failing to preserve them? The family has been weakened by the disappearance of that united labor which held it together on the farm; by the individualism that scatters jobs and sons; and by the erosion of parental authority through the mental freedom, the utopian aspirations, and the natural rebelliousness of the young.
Religion has been weakened by the growth of wealth and cities; by the exciting developments of science and historiography; by the passage from fields proclaiming creative life to factories preaching physics, chemistry, and the glory of the machine; and by the replacement of heavenly hopes with perfect states. Our educational system is discouraged by class and race war, by armed minorities presenting "nonnegotiable demands," by the revolt of overburdened taxpayers and by the collapse of bridges between youth and age, between experiment and experience. Laws lose their edge by their multiplication and their bias, by the venality of legislators, by improvements in the means of escape and concealment, and by the difficulty of law enforcement in a population breeding beyond control. Public opinion loses force through division, fear, apathy, and the universal worship of wealth.
So the old instincts return unchained and untamed, and riot in crime, gambling, corruption, conscienceless moneymaking, and a sexual chaos in which love is sex -- free for the male and dangerous for the race. Consultation gives way to confrontation; law yields to minority force; marriage becomes a short-term investment in diversified insecurities; reproduction is left to mishaps and misfits; and the fertility of incompetence breeds the race from the bottom while the sterility of intelligence lets the race wither at the top.
But the very excess of our present paganism may warrant some hope that it will not long endure; for usually excess generates its opposite. One of the most regular sequences in history is that a period of pagan license is followed by an age of puritan restraint and moral discipline. So the moral decay of ancient Rome under Nero and Commodus and later emperors was followed by the rise of Christianity, and its official adoption and protection by the emperor Constantine, as a saving source and buttress of order and decency.
The condottiere violence and sexual license of the Italian Renaissance under the Borgias led to the cleansing of the Church and the restoration of morality. The reckless ecstasy of Elizabethan England gave way to the Puritan domination under Cromwell, which led, by reaction, to the paganism of England under Charles II. The breakdown of government, marriage, and the family during the ten years of the French Revolution was ended by the restoration of law, discipline, and parental authority under Napoleon I; the romantic paganism of Byron and Shelley, and the dissolute conduct of the prince of Wales who became George IV, were followed by the public propriety of Victorian England. If these precedents may guide us, we may expect our children's grandchildren to be puritans.
But there are more pleasant prospects in history than this oscillation between excess and its opposite. I will not subscribe to the depressing conclusion of Voltaire and Gibbon that history is "the record of the crimes and follies of mankind." Of course it is partly that, and contains a hundred million tragedies -- but it is also the saving sanity of the average family, the labor and love of men and women bearing the stream of life over a thousand obstacles. It is the wisdom and courage of statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the latter dying exhausted but fulfilled; it is the undiscourageable effort of scientists and philosophers to understand the universe that envelops them; it is the patience and skill of artists and poets giving lasting form to transient beauty, or an illuminating clarity to subtle significance; it is the vision of prophets and saints challenging us to nobility.
On this turbulent and sullied river, hidden amid absurdity and suffering, there is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there, bringing new treasures every day; Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley is borne on the west wind; Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there, calling to us to come and share his bread. These and a thousand more, and the gifts they gave, are the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.
We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us -- we should work undiscourageably to lessen them -- but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance. Let us, varying Shakespeare's unhappy king, sit down and tell brave stories of noble women and great men.
Copyright © 2001 by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant
A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age
Heroes of History
A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age
Four years before his death, Will Durant began work on an abbreviated version of his highly acclaimed eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization. The project was conceived as a series of audio lectures, but Durant soon realized that the dialogues could be developed into a book that would serve as a wonderfully readable introduction to the subject of history.
Durant completed twenty-one of a proposed twenty-three chapters before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety-six. Those chapters span thousands of years of human history -- from Confucius to Shakespeare, from the Roman Empire to the Reformation, finally ending in the eighteenth century. The manuscript was recently found by Will Durant scholar John Little -- twenty years after Durant finished it -- and its discovery is a major event, not only for lovers of his prose, but for students of history and philosophy the world over.
Heroes of History is a book of life-enhancing wisdom and optimism, complete with Durant's wit, knowledge, and unique ability to explain events and ideas in simple, exciting terms. It is the lessons of our heritage passed on for the edification and benefit of future generations -- a fitting legacy from America's most beloved historian and philosopher.
Will Durant's popularity as America's favorite teacher of history and philosophy remains undiminished by time. His books are accessible to readers of every kind, and his unique ability to compress complicated ideas and events into a few pages without ever "talking down" to the reader, enhanced by his memorable wit and a razor-sharp judgment about men and their motives, made all of his books huge bestsellers. Heroes of History carries on this tradition of making scholarship and philosophy understandable to the general reader, and making them good reading, as well.
At the dawn of a new millennium and the beginning of a new century, nothing could be more appropriate than this brilliant book that examines the meaning of human civilization and history and draws from the experience of the past the lessons we need to know to put the future into context and live in confidence, rather than fear and ignorance.
Will Durant's work is marked by his own special quality as a writer -- he is tough-minded, optimistic, courageous, and convinced that without a knowledge of the past there is no wisdom to guide us to the future. Heroes of History was his last word on the subject, and much of it has been aimed directly at the doubts and fears of people today. It is a major, and unexpected, literary and historical event.
This book is also available on audio tape and CD format, read by Will and Ariel Durant. If you would like more information on this and other products featuring Will Durant's life-enhancing philosophy, we encourage you to visit the web site at www.willdurant.com.