An Honest Man

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.

16 thoughts on “An Honest Man”

  1. Beautifully said Susan!

    And similar to what Joyce R. said, we have learned all we need to know from Genesis. (Some say kindergarten.)

    How nothing was made without God. How His Creation made distinct differences between objects, animals, creatures, fish, fowl and genders of a person.

    This created boundaries and separations of those categories, not necessarily differences of everything WITHIN each category like we tend to focus on.

    Man continues to dissect and re-create unnecessary ‘stuff’ to, I suppose, justify his being or to become like God.

    1. Mary, I am intrigued (as you might be able to tell from some of my Musings) at married couples who work together. When I saw that the Durants had written this, I knew I wanted to read it for that, but it gave me so much more than just the story of their relationship.

  2. I totally shared this and hopped on my own soapbox. I hope that’s okay. (Regena posted the Musing to her Facebook page and added her own – very correct and well said – comments)

    1. I took out the link to your Facebook page per our policy, but I appreciate your sharing the Musing there and your comments were spot on. I love it when readers share the Musing and help get the word out. Thanks!

  3. I remember the late Paul Harvey often saying that: Generals often plan the next war with the strategies that lost the last. Paraphrased.
    With humans, we often forget the very real biological role of that age of adolescence, something that farmers and agrarians know very well because we see it in almost all the animals we raise. There is a time of restlessness, even aggression, and a need to push at boundaries, which becomes disaster if not guided by trusted elders. Although I respect Durant’s honesty in this, it strikes me he took a darned long time to figure it out! A lot can go wrong when the educators are slow on the uptake. Just my thought.

    1. CK, yes, for all of us recognizing mistakes doesn’t mean that the mistakes didn’t and don’t cause damage. I’m reminded of George McGovern after he retired from politics and ran a business saying that he would have legislated differently had he tried to run a business first. Ideally, hearing things like that or Durant’s reassessments should give adults the confidence to be the adults and not tag on to every young person’s ideas and naiveté.

  4. As usual, you cause us to ponder the deep issues of who we are and who we were meant to be. Interesting that Will Durant came to recognize many of the shortcomings of his philosophical choices but sad that he apparently never fully reconciled himself to the understanding that without the Creator and Sovereign Lord, we creatures have no basis for a lasting morality. Without the boundaries our Creator sets, sooner or later we sink into lawlessness. That, imho, is the crossroads our whole society is at. Do we return to the ancient paths established by God, or do we sink into moral oblivion like so many civilizations before us. I pray T’shuvah and restoration for us all.

  5. Holding onto our beliefs and desires without having questioned them is perhaps one of our greatest flaws as humans.

    For some reason this came to mind:

    “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:”



  6. Very nicely stated, Susan and I enjoyed reading the quotes from the book and your concluding words. Take care!

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