The Story of Philosophy, The lives and opinions of the greatest philosophers by Will Durant, New York: Time, 1926, 2nd ed. 1962, 497 pp.
It is never a poor use of one’s time to read a history of philosophy. Even for learned philosophers (which I am not) there must value in such an undertaking. There will always be perspectives that one has not previously considered. For my own studies, there were whole philosophers—Schopenhauer and Spencer—who I was entirely ignorant of, and another—Benedetto Croce—whose name I wasn’t even familiar with prior to reading Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy.
The editor’s preface to the volume is of value in itself. There is a short history there of Durant himself and of the surprising success of this volume. Teaching philosophy to public audiences for $15 a week at the Labor Temple in New York after resigning as a professor at Columbia University, Durant was unable to turn down a check sent to him for $150 offering to turn his lectures into short books. When he followed up writing the longer The Story of Philosophy he warned his publisher not to expect to sell more than 1,100 copies. But, “within four years it had sold more than 500,000 copies and ranked among the greatest bestsellers of the ’20s. The total sale reached nearly four million, probably a record among works of philosophy.” This was the beginning of a public revival of sorts for philosophy.
Naturally, Durant came at his work from a particular viewpoint. Having rejected the Roman Catholicism of his youth, it seems he was probably an atheist. As for what he positively believed, Gordon Clark wrote of Durant’s likely having been influenced by John Dewey:
“Not everyone agrees in so emphasizing the importance of the theory of knowledge. Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy, expresses his belief that ‘epistemology has kidnapped modern philosophy, and well-nigh ruined it.’ This expression, in conjunction with the subtitle of the book, The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers, may explain why he devotes fifty-eight pages to Voltaire, who can hardly qualify as a Greater Philosopher, and only eight pages to Hegel. Such a lack of balance is evidence that a refusal to face the question, How do you know? determines the outcome as completely as any positive answer. Durant’s repudiation of epistemology doubtless originates with John Dewey. This voluminous writer has consistently disparage epistemology because, according to Blanshard, a careful study of the problems of knowledge almost inevitably leads to an idealistic or dualistic metaphysics which would be inconsistent with Dewey’s naturalism.” (Gordon H. Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 285-6)
Durant’s volume naturally then is colored by his perspective. And while a Christian reviewer such as myself might not agree with his perspective, I appreciated the color in which he commented upon the lives of philosophers.
Reading of the Greek philosophers I was struck with the contrast I see between their views and that of Christianity; infanticide vs. life, state education vs. parental education, polygamy vs. monogamy, public ownership vs. private ownership, women as lessers vs. woman as equals, disdain for manual labor vs. Christian work ethic, etc.
Skipping all the way from Aristotle to the 16th century Francis Bacon, Durant shows his antipathy for Christian thought referring to it merely as a thousand years of darkness.
Next were sections on Francis Bacon and Baruch Spinoza which each greatly expanded my minimal knowledge of these philosophers. Yet I honestly don’t understand why some consider Spinoza’s contributions to philosophy to be great—he seems like a run-of-the-mill pantheist. Durant then has a section on Voltaire but largely skips over Hegel and Hume. The sections on Durant’s own contemporaries are understandably short because each of their efforts were still underway. It makes me wonder who of today might be included in a story of philosophy written in the future.
Durant is warmly descriptive of his subjects and frequently draws out the humor of their lives and writings. Though the book is tedious in places that is the fault of the subject matter more than the author.