Sometimes, what I start out thinking I am going to write about and what I end up saying are entirely different. Last week was a case in point. I intended to write about the book I had just read, Will and Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography, but from an entirely different perspective than I ended up doing.
As I read, I was captivated by the honesty of Will Durant. Over the course of a long life, he often found his ideas tested by reality and he showed immense strength of character and depths of wisdom in a willingness to question some of his strongest convictions.
Relatively early in his career, his socialist leanings absorbed a harsh blow when he and his wife, Ariel, travelled to Russia during its Stalinist era. What they saw was far from the worker’s paradise in which they believed. Over the years, Mr. Durant developed an understanding of human nature that sought to merge his affection for the ideals of socialism with the reality of what actually motivates people to work hard.
His ideas on education were also uprooted as he saw the flourishing of roots that he had helped to plant. As far back as 1941, he wrote words that resonate today. In an essay titled, “Self-Discipline or Slavery,” the man who, starting in 1912, taught at a libertarian school (tending towards anarchy) and believed in its principles wrote:
Education, above all in America, surrendered to the student. For the most part he chose his teachers and his courses, discountenanced discipline, avoided tasks that required concentration, and helped a superannuated curriculum to transform school and college days into an enfeebling isolation…
Every lad of eighteen sat in judgment upon institutions of society, and codes of conduct, that represented the experience of a thousand generations of men; if he could not understand in one adolescence what had been learned in a millennium, he was free to trust his powerful eighteen-year old reason, and to reject the family as tyranny, marriage as bondage, religion as opium, government as exploitation and property as theft. Every restraint aroused resentment; standards faded from conduct—even, here and there from memory…
Libertarian education was a mistake, a pleasant indulgence of parental love, a weak inability on our own part to command because we had never learned to obey. The result is an adolescence without responsibility, a maturity without character…”
His abandonment of the Catholic Church into which he was born and for which he always retained a tenderness, led Mr. Durant into further introspection. Remaining an atheist, he had the honesty to recognize the dangers and flaws in a society which abandoned God.
Writing about her husband’s thoughts in the 1960s, Ariel Durant says that her husband was tremendously concerned about where society was going, recognizing that much of it was in response to ideas in which he believed. She writes:
“Had not the apparent victory of the scientists, the historians, and the philosophers deposed the God who had been the very staff of life to the poor, and a pillar of support to the moral code that had helped tame the savage hunter into law and order, morality and civilization? Would philosophy or education or statemanship (sic) ever succeed in establishing an effective moral code without the aid of religious sanctions and beliefs? And if they failed, and religion continued to fade, would Western civilization lapse into a chaos of sexual laxity, political corruption, mutual violence, and a common, consuming despair? Could it be that all that enthusiastic slaughter of irrational creeds had undermined the secret foundations of civilization itself? Will repeatedly broached these problems to me…”
I apologize for quoting such long passages but I found the writing in this book so elegant, entertaining and thoughtful that I wanted to share some of it. Although I come from a different perspective than Mr. Durant on both religious and political issues, I finished the book with great respect for the authors and also a hope that we can return to a time when ideas can be dissected and debated with intelligence, humility and grace.