Some Insights from Will and Ariel Durrant

Lucky Garvin

In my last column I wrote about two extraordinary historians, Will and Ariel Durrant. Here are some of the stories, thoughts and wisdom from these two remarkable individuals:

In Granada, Spain in the year 1601, there lived a strange and complex man, Alonso Cano who was a master sculptor of his time.  His was a temperament which possessed what Durant describes as: “…that creative fury which throws off guidance and convention, and cuts a path, almost violently, for its own way.”

Commissioned to render a statue of St Anthony of Padua, he completed it in 25 days and went to the royal accountant for his promised fee [100 doubloons.] “You esteem your labor at 4 doubloons a day?” said the auditor learning how long the statue had taken.

“You are a poor accountant!” came the response from the fiery artist. “It has taken me fifty years to arrive at the point in art where I could create such as this in 25 days!”

“I spent my youth and patrimony in the university at Padua,” retorted the accountant.  “And now being the auditor of Granada, a profession far more noble than yours, I make 1 doubloon per day.”

“Nobler than mine?!” Cano screamed.  “A king can make an auditor from the dust of the earth but God reserves for Himself the creation of an Alonso Cano!!”  With that, he  smashed the statue.

As with some artists, he was far more responsive to beauty than to reason. On his death bed, he rejected an offered crucifix because it was poorly carved.

Ninon de Lenclos, France, born 1620, prostitute at age 15; suffered no formal education but picked up Italian and Spanish  “Perhaps as an aid to international commerce,” speculates the wry Durant. She read Charron, Montaigne and Descarte and after a time in prison gathered about her the most expansive minds in France.  Even the king visited her Salon.

She outlived almost all of her contemporaries but remained the hostage of feminine vanity until the end.  “If God had to give a woman wrinkles, He might at least have put them on her feet.” Jesuits and Jansenists vied for the honor of converting her to their respective doctrinal perfections as the end drew near.  She converted to both creeds concurrently – why hurt anyone’s feelings? – the effort of choosing one over the other striking her as not worth the effort; the final choice probably to be met with much shoulder-shrugging in Heaven.  She left a small amount for her funeral, to ensure simplicity and a large amount of money so the son of her lawyer, M. Arouet, might purchase books to study.  Later in life, the lawyer’s son changed his name.

To Voltaire.

Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  Strange how things come around, eh?

‘Religions are born and may die; only superstition is immortal.’ Durant.

Madame De Pompadour lay on her death bed on April 15, 1764.  A priest, having just finished conferring last rites turned to leave.  She whispered, “Wait a moment; we will leave the house together.”

And died.

I have previously written of the extreme height of French hairdos worn by the aristocratic women who lived during the reign of Louis 14.  Durant reports that a German visitor calculated that the chin of a French lady lay exactly halfway between her feet and the top of her hair.

Of Dr. Johnson, Durant wrote, “Being nearsighted, he took little pleasure in the beauty of women, nature, or art. `The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty.  You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot?’ He tried to learn some musical instrument, `But I never made out a tune.’ `Pray, sir, who is this Bach?  Is he a piper?’ He so disliked music that, upon hearing a violinist praised for the difficult feats he performed, commented, `Difficult, sir? I wish it had been impossible.’”

Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, died in 1616.  On his death bed he predicted that his book would sell 30 million copies.  Per Will Durant, “The world smiled at his naivete; and bought 30 million copies.” The book has been translated into more languages than any other work except the Bible.

Napoleon was speaking with his secretary, “Well, Bourrienne, you too will be immortal in the minds of man, because I am.”  To which the more realistic Bourrienne answered, “Tell me, sire, the name of the secretary of Alexander the Great.”

Napoleon said to a French noblewoman, “Madame, I do not like it when women mix in politics.  She answered, “You may be right, General. But in a country where they may have their heads cut off, it is natural for women to want to know why.”

The Tale of Columbus’ Egg.  At court one day, there were couriers diminishing Columbus’ exploits in the New World.  They jibed, “If you hadn’t found the Indies [original name of Americas], wouldn’t someone else have done it?” By way of answer he asked for a hen egg to be brought to him.  “Make it stand on its end,” he said, passing the egg to the skeptical gathered around him.  Several tried; none could do it.

Columbus took the egg and broke the end gently pon the table top; and there it stood.  On end. “Once shown the way, it is a very easy thing to follow,” he demolished his critics.

By Lucky Garvin
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