A Tale of Two Historians

Lucky Garvin
Lucky Garvin

How does this sound for the beginning of a successful, productive life? You are scheduled to take holy orders, you study fervently and devotedly under Jesuit monks. After a while, you quit the church, take a job as a cub reporter, but that doesn’t last so long either and you quit. You are hired to teach, and you fall in love with one of your students. You are twenty-six years old, she is thirteen. For obvious reasons you quit your job to legally continue the relationship. She roller-skates to the church for your marriage ceremony and takes her vows chewing gum with her skates slung over her shoulder. You take a job lecturing at 5-10$ per lecture to support your new family.

The year is 1913.  The story is true. Remarkably true in fact.

These two people stayed married and in love for sixty-eight years. He died at age ninety-six. He was sent to the hospital, not expected to live. The family tried to keep the secret from her, but by some freakish accident, she heard about her dear – and famous -husband’s peril on the news, and stopped eating. They died within two weeks of each other [1981], neither willing to live on without the company of the other.

Will and Ariel Durant. Never heard of them? More’s the pity. He [and she] wrote some of the most literate, entertaining and insightful history that was ever set to paper. Although they wrote a number of books, none comes close to matching their magnum opus, The History of Civilization. He never wrote a word of history until age forty-one, but from then on, it was a torrent of the highest quality expository literature.

This masterpiece is written in long-hand, eleven volumes of 1000-1800 pages each, taking five decades to write. I’m in my sixth reading of it. Beginning with a history of China, they patiently advanced to The Age of Napoleon [with notes left behind for yet two other volumes: The Age of Darwin and The Age of Einstein] but death by then had stilled their pen.

Of his and her inability to live long enough to adequately investigate their passion, he wrote “We could do almost anything if time would slow up, but it runs on, and we melt away trying to keep up with it.” But their website adds, “…and yet not even time ever covered 110 centuries in fifty years.”

Of the woman he chose to marry, his foresight was much rewarded. Ariel began helping him by doing research and gradually became a formidable historian in her own right. As you read the Credits of the early volumes, Dr. Durant thanks his wife among many others for their help, Then, as a testimony to her prodigious growth, the later volumes, the covers of each volume announce the author not as Will Durant, but as Will and Ariel Durant. In their work and in their life, Ariel confirmed her husband’s prescience.

The Durants’ prose, their wit, humor and tolerance, the breadth and depth of their scholarship rewards me time and again. Be it literature, the arts, economics, theater, literature, their work is beyond compare. As a poor example, take literature: these two not only explore the author and his/her works, but then compare and contrast it with literature centuries before and that which came later. Their breadth of knowledge and scholarship is beyond description. I still find gems previously missed. You will look long and hard to find volumes as well-read, scruffy, underlined and as margin-annotated as mine.

In another column we shall explore the insight and wisdom of this most exceptional man and wife. Until then, Durant warns us of something which has been true throughout many centuries and civilizations, and may have a particular bearing for all of us today. Chillingly, they write: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” Hmmm.

I can imagine the Durants listening patiently to those who are convinced that 200+ year-old America will always be as it has been. To that opinion they would softly utter one word, “Etrusca’ – a civilization on the west coast of Italy that thrived on its world stage for 800 years in the Pre-Roman times, and now but a few have ever even heard of it.

Look for Lucky’s ‘The Oath of Hippocrates’ – available locally and on-line.
By Lucky Garvin
[email protected]

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