on May 5, 2001
"A nation is born stoic, and dies epicurean." - Will Durant
*Our Oriental Heritage* is the first volume in Will and Ariel Durant's eleven-volume history of civilization from the Sumerians to the Napoleonic era - the work of a lifetime, or rather two of them, as its publication spanned no less four decades (1935-1975) and eight years were spent on these first nine hundred pages alone.
Although well integrated by Durant's systematic approach, *Our Oriental Heritage* is actually four books in one (or five, if you include the opening ninety-page essay on the nature of civilization): the first one deals with the Near East - Sumeria, Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Judea and Persia - from the fourth millenium to the third century B.C. (275p); the second, with India from the Vedas to Gandhi, who was then still alive and, well, maybe not kicking (245p); the third, with China from the "Age of the Philosophers" to Sun Yat Sen (190p); and the fourth, with Japan from its mythical Shinto birth to the invasion of Manchuria (105p).
The organization of the book is more thematic than chronological. Though Durant does divide the histories of the various civilizations into periods and tries to follow their evolution, he limits himself to well-chosen historical highlights, seeking rather to understand the soul of each civilization by an analysis of its major cultural achievements. His focus is always on the big picture: as the title indicates, he is trying to assess the contribution of each major civilization to the progress of the human species (which he misleadingly refers to as "our race"), and never shies away from the kind of inter-cultural comparisons which our relativistic age stigmatizes (of Indian drama, he says for instance that "we cannot rank [it] on a plane with that of Greece or Elizabethan England; but it compares favorably with the theatre of China or Japan.")
Durant sees civilization as a complex of eight elements (economic, political, moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic) which serve as his conceptual framework to describe each era. His definitions of morality and religion reveal the most about his own outlook: the first he sees as merely instrumental to the cohesion and survival of the collective, defining it as "a law built into the spirit, and generating... that sense of right and wrong, that order and discipline of desire, without which a society disintegrates into individuals, and falls forfeit to some coherent state"; and the second he defines most skeptically and cynically as "the use of man's supernatural beliefs for the consolation of suffering, the elevation of character and the strengthening of social instincts and order."
Durant's own philosophy is not stated explicitly, but it is certainly less corrupt than his calling this discipline "that brave stupidity" might suggest. Of all the philosophical schools presented in the volume, he seems to have the most sympathy for Confucianism, which is perfectly understandable given his conception of the functions of morality and religion, while the Upanishads, he says, "are full of absurdities and contradictions, and occasionally... anticipate all the wind of Hegelian verbiage".
Maybe Durant could best be defined as "Voltairean": his project is reminiscent of the Encyclopedie, and seems to be his own answer to Voltaire, who wanted "to know what were the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilization"; the ninth volume of the series, dealing with the Enlightenment, is reverentially entitled *The Age of Voltaire*, and the complete works of the philosophe (in 32 volumes!) are one of the fifty or so bibliographical references Durant specifically recommends for further study.
Unfortunately, Durant's Voltaireanism also extends to his politics, and he seems to have a peculiar fondness for so-called "enlightened despots", the measure of their enlightenment being dictated by what we might call the author's acadian liberalism. Each time he finds an instance of a well-oiled bureaucratic machinery, fixing prices, taxing every single profession, managing the whole economy and throwing in a few welfare measures, he is ecstatic. He does care about "democracy" and "civil rights", but he has absorbed so many marxist fallacies (about "exploitation" and "imperialism" mostly) that he cannot help praising the planned economies of the oriental tyrants and always ascribes the disasters they caused to the ill-will of their opponents or some unfortunate combination of natural circumstances. I guess he must have been very satisfied with America's "enlightened" despot of the moment.
But politics and economics are only two of the seven elements of civilization, and Durant's treatment of the other five is brilliant. My main regret, actually, is that he spent too little time on the histories of China and Japan (he himself apologizes for his "unwilling haste".) The Ming Dynasty is dealt with in one paragraph, as are all the classics of the Chinese novel, which Durant lists without any summary, euphemistically commenting that "they are recommended to the reader's leisurely old age." As for Japan, neither Miyamoto's *Book of Five Rings* nor the *Heike Monogatari* are mentioned. I also think Korea would have deserved a chapter of its own, instead of being treated as Japan's distant cultural father.
But a book that should have been longer is a book that deserves to be read. In the words of the *New York Times*, *Our Oriental Heritage* is a "magnificent and monumental" work, which will appeal to those who are bored with today's hyper-specialized and minutely detailed factual history, and believe with Kaibara Ekken, a Japanese philosopher of the 17th century, that "The aim of learning is not merely to widen knowledge but to form character. Its object is to make us true men, rather than learned men." (p869)
on March 19, 2002
Imagine a man sat down to write the Story of Civilization. All civilization... its lessons, its poetry, its characters, its schemers, its action, and its wisdom. It will require a brave soul indeed. Picture that man at his desk.
We definitely do not want a cynic, a hermit with eyebrows curled tight in thoughts of literary vengeance or historical chicanery... let us shut that character down before the first dip of the pen. Instead, we fancy a skeptic, one who owns a moist twinkling eye that comes from perspective, and a slightly crooked smile of insight. We definitely want a man of confidence who has deep love for his undertaking, but maintains gentleness of speech and a crisp, discerning ear; a man with healthy complexion and moderately rounded belly that reflects the love of a caring, tender woman; a man with good humor and love for his neighbors and hometown that extends outward to embrace all of humanity.
A man that could write the following:
"It was a great moral improvement when men ceased to kill or eat their fellowmen, and merely made them slaves."
"Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice."
"Civilization is not something inborn or imperishable; it must be acquired anew by every generation, and any serious interruption in its financing or its transmission may bring it to an end."
You can feel the warmth of this man's breath as he reads close to your ear. You can see the proper adjustment of the spectacles; you can hear the wry grin in his voice. And passion is manifest in his full-bodied baritone.
Will Durant retrieved and dusted Voltaire's two-century old gauntlet, and found it to fit just fine. Voltaire would have approved wholesale of Durant, for he fit the wise joker's primary criteria that "only philosophers should write history". Durant had produced the master critique of philosophy, 1926's Story of Philosophy, which grandly culled the essences of Spinoza, Bacon, Aristotle, Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Bergson, and all the other deities of thought. By Confucius' rule of learning, Durant himself became an adept.
Durant was a philosopher and a prototype skeptic. He also held a mild socialism and a sunny atheism, all in hopes of his fellow man's obtaining a few unreserved hours with which to sit back with a book written by a good friend. On all four characteristics, he still always willingly held objectivity's mirror close at hand:
"Fools can invent more hypotheses than philosophers can ever refute, and philosophers often join them in the game."
"Men are always readier to extend government functions than to pay for them."
Durant began his undertaking intending only to review 18th century Europe. However, the stories of the past, as well, certainly, as the subconscious calling of his unequivocal abilities, pulled Durant back further and convinced him that he may as well take on Everything while he was at it.
The centerpiece of the 11-book set is the grand introduction to Volume 1, Our Oriental Heritage. Here, Durant surveys all of time and humanity for 109 sweeping pages, and does so with such flourish that we may collectively be tempted to inquire of Olympus for Papa Will's reincarnation:
"To transmutate greed into thrift, violence into argument, murder into litigation, and suicide into philosophy has been part of the task of civilization."
"Legend, which loves personalities more than ideas, attributes to a few individuals the laborious advances of many generations."
Proceeding forward, Durant resolved himself to remedy the primary deficiency in our so-called liberal Western education: the history of the non-white man:
"[In China,] the patriarchal family could not be democratic, much less egalitarian, because the state left to the family the task of maintaining social order; the home was at once a nursery, a school, a workshop and a government. "
Naturally, the Eastward expedition begins at the same point of all our Westward jaunts: Sumeria. Egypt provides the first semblance of the organization to which we are accustomed, but Durant tarries not long. Babylonia, Assyria, Judea, and Persia are all recounted in this efficient manner. Durant reassembles us quickly and urges us forward into the real cultural goldmines: India and China.
"'Better thine own work is, though done with fault,' said the Bhagavad-Gita, 'than doing others' work, even excellently.'"
"'What is the most wonderful thing in the world?' asks Yama of Yudishthira; and Yudishsthira replies: 'Man after man dies; seeing this men still move about as if they were immortal.'"
"It is not logic that we need, says Shankara, it is insight, the faculty (akin to art) of grasping at once the essential out of the irrelevant, the eternal out of the temporal, the whole out of the part: this is the first prerequisite to philosophy."
In Volume 1, Durant not only guided us into these Eastern lands, he also resolved his style to include every possible element of relevance that would paint the ancient cities and cultures most strikingly in our minds. His vision was simply not to miss a single romantic element... if the charm lay in a village or on a mountainside, then let us fold our arms and quiet ourselves so that we may admire; if instead history shone in the aura of a politician or philosopher, then let us sit for a spell and listen in; if a sculptor or poet, then let us introduce ourselves; if a document on clay or papyrus, then we should absorb as many lessons as possible. Will Durant knew how to embrace and admire a culture before the now-clichéd concept was forced upon us.
One of the highest praises that can be bestowed upon an author was most deserved by Will Durant... he was a crafter of splendid sentences. Whether you digest this tome in a month or in a year, your heart, memory, and reason will be finely tuned to the chords of mankind.
on August 14, 2003
Since college, I have wanted to own the ten volume The Story of Civilization by Will Durant. It simply was a purchase that a poor student or a novice pastor could afford. My father-in-law Melvin Gosser, found a set at a garage sale and purchased them for me as a Christmas present. Now, I have the daunting job of reading them. Will and Ariel Durant spent a lifetime in research and writing to complete this set, beginning with the publication of Our Oriental Heritage in 1935 and concluding in 1967 with Rousseau and Revolution. Each of these volumes are massive, between 800 and 1200 pages each.
I have to admit, I was tempted to skip over Our Oriental Heritage and begin reading where "real" history begins with ancient Greece. I am so glad I didn't. More than information, the Durants are delightfully politically incorrect. Any historian can give you the facts, a good one will do so with style, but a great historian gives himself. That is exactly what the Durants have done. As I started reading, I made myself review the first two hundred pages and began to underline delightful insights, and the beautiful prose of the authors.
Here is an example of their prose: "The scenes of your youth, like the past, are always beautiful
if we do not have to live in them again"
Example of their insights: "It is almost a law of history that the same wealth that generates a civilization announces its decay. For wealth produce ease as well as art; it softens a people to the ways of luxury and peace and invites invasion from stronger arms and hungrier mouths."
That is not to say that every chapter was spell binding, they were not. There were whole sections that I had to discipline myself to read. I won't fault the author's, however. Reading about ancient Persia, India and China, left me somewhat perplexed. My lack of knowledge of these cultures made it difficult for me to appreciate the author's insights.
As I read about the rise and fall of civilizations, I could not help but worry about our own. His insights seem to be coming true every day. Not a read for everyone, but if you have a long cold winter to endure, I can think of no better way to pass the time than by reading this book.
on August 20, 2007
Will Durant's STORY OF CIVILIZATION is such a monumental achievement that, like a monument, it is easy to overlook and underestimate. Its eleven volumes, published from 1935 to 1975, sit on the shelf in many an American home, having been purchased for a few dollars as an introductory offer to some forgotten book club and mostly left unread. Scholars tend to pass the title by, no doubt regarding it as mere popular history. Yet crack open the cover of any one of its heavy tomes and you will find within a narrative written in the high style, with an omnivorous hunger for facts and analysis, a delight in depicting the details of everyday life (the streets, clothes, housing, money, speech, labor and laws of every society), a determination to recover and explain all the main battles and events, a progressive approach to social issues (with special attention to women and the contributions of slaves), a sumptuous pleasure in recounting the attainments of the arts and sciences, a remarkably free handling of the gods and their religions (their social service and rapacity not passing without comment), an enthusiasm for broad philosophical speculations, a heartfelt tribute to each of the great thinkers and doers and the heritage they left us, and through it all an indulgent irony that, given a different turn, would bespeak of a world and a humanity as senseless and doomed, yet ever striving, as the dark horror of Joseph Conrad. I know of nothing else in American arts and letters to match it, and, though dated, it is far from obsolete. Reading it today, one can build a broad foundation of knowledge and perspective for more up-to-date and less grandiose offerings.
How did he do it? It is hard to imagine, but judging by his lists of sources, it would appear that for each historical unit (a period, society or people) he assimilated a half-dozen or more studies, such as the CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY, and used them as guides for the basic exposition, peppering his account with relevant materials drawn from his prior erudition, such as the works of German philosophy or English literature, classical architechture or Christian doctrine. He also visited historical sites and museums so as to see things with his own eyes and acquire a personal touch. Some pages, like those on ancient Egypt, read like reports from a sightseer just returned home. And finally he ran his drafts past renowned scholars, so as to gain their insights and corrections. For many a page, however, where diverse facts, skills and sciences are brought together into a harmonious synthesis, it was plain hard work.
OUR ORIENTAL HERITAGE, the first volume in the series, begins, appropriately enough, with the author's definition of civilization, not essentially different from that of Samuel Huntington and his CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS (1996), and then reconstructs, with a ready admission of fantasy, its probable origins in prehistory. The history proper begins with Sumer in a solid, but somewhat routine account, and moves on to Egypt, only recently opened up to the West at the time of his first publication (1935). As the excavations of great tombs were still fresh in memory, the account here can be read in the spirit of "what we know now." Moving on to Babylonia and the Code of Hammurabi, Durant hits his stride: we begin to see, hear and feel the society in our mind and imagination, as in the "trial by ordeal" or the "lex talionis" (the law of an eye for an eye). With a retelling of the great epics of Ishtar and Gilgamesh we are uplifted, then hear the moan of a proto-Job and the lament of a proto-Ecclesiastes, prior to witnessing the fall of Nebuchadrezzar and the crumbling of Babylon. The chapter on Assyria follows as a stunning masterpiece, not just a chronicle of massacres, eye-gaugings and tongue-extractions, but a meditation on cruelty and culture, empire and decadence, revelation and madness, glory and transience. Next comes Judea, with its gods and prophesies, where Durant, with his Jesuit education, is completely at home. For the first time in my life I have seen the order and context of the Old Testament. Durant's breakdown of Yahweh I and II, Isaiah I and II, and the Ten Commandments today might be called a deconstruction, but it is wonderfully clear, supremely knowledgeable and wisely both devastating and humane. If only history had been like this in high school and college, how much I would have learned!
As for the rest of the volume--Persia, India, China, Japan and "a motley" of other nations--I assure the reader: You can't go wrong. If you can't sail around the globe yourself or take a time machine to the past, it is worth the time to read this story and carry on your bit of civilization. As Durant writes: "Sumeria was to Babylonia, and Babylonia to Assyria, what Crete was to Greece, and Greece to Rome: the first created a civilization, the second developed it to its height, the third inherited it, added little to it, protected it, and transmitted it as a dying gift to the encompassing and victorious barbarians. For barbarism is always around civilization, amid it and beneath it, ready to engulf it by arms, or mass migration, or unchecked fertility. Barbarism is like the jungle; it never admits its defeat; it waits patiently for centuries to recover the territory it has lost."
on July 10, 2011
I was keen on reading this book and I was delighted when I had this series on Kindle. However, to my dismay, kindle edition is horrible to say the least. The pages mixed up and there are lot of typos. I have observed that, kindle editions have lot of typos, but mixing up pages really unacceptable. Here is a passage from the Our oriental history, on Buddha. You can see that, after few lines about Buddha, following paragraphs are from totally different topic. This is annoying. Amazon has to do some thing about this if it wants to take kindle editions seriously.
beings. If thou speakest not false, if thou killest not life, if thou takest not what is not given to thee, secure in self-denial--what wouldst thou gain by going to Gaya? Any water is Gaya to thee."46 There is nothing stranger in the history of religion than the sight of Buddha founding a worldwide religion, and yet refusing to be drawn into any discussion about eternity, immortality, or God. The infinite is a myth, he says, a fiction of philosophers who have not the modesty to confess that an atom can never understand the cosmos. He smiles47 at the debate over the finity or infinity of the universe, quite as if he foresaw the futile astromythology of physicists and mathematicians who debate the same question today. He refuses to express any opinion as to whether the world had a beginning or will have an end; whether the soul is the same as the body, or distinct from it; whether, even for the greatest saint, there is to be any reward in any heaven. He calls such questions "the jungle, the desert, the puppet-show, the writhing, the entanglement, of speculation,"48 and will have nothing to do with them; they lead only to feverish disputation, personal resentments, and sorrow; they never lead to wisdom and peace. Saintliness and content lie not in knowledge of the universe and God, but simply in selfless and beneficent living49 And then, with scandalous humor, he suggests that the gods themselves, if they existed, could not answer these questions.
Once upon a time, Kevaddha, there occurred to a certain brother in this very company of the brethren a doubt on the following point: "Where now do these four great elements--earth, water, fire and wind--pass away, leaving no trace behind?" So that brother worked himself up into such a state of ecstasy that the way leading to the world of the Gods became clear to his ecstatic vision. Then that brother, Kevaddha, went up to the realm of the Four Great Kings, and said to the gods thereof: "Where, my friends, do the four great elements--earth, water, fire and wind--cease, leaving no trace behind?"
Durant, Will (2011-06-07). Our Oriental Heritage: 001 (Kindle Locations 9845-9862). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
In this first volume of the history of civilization, Dr. Durant starts at our beginning. Most of us in the West have little idea of the impact the East had upon or civilization. This work changes that and through his wonderful prose, the author gives us a clear insight. The work is meticulously researched and presented in a fashion that is quite understandable. Please do not be put off by the sheer poundage of the book. At first glance, as one review pointed out, it can be quite daunting. I was quite amazed how fast the work went once I started to actually read the thing, rather than stare at it on the shelf. Will Durants multi-volume work should be required reading in all of our schools. Perhaps if it were, we, as a society, would have a greater understanding where we have been, ergo, have a greater understanding of where we are going. Overall, I highly recommend.
on April 8, 2012
This set was a very popular Book of the Month Club offering, back in the day. I have that set which became water damaged many years ago. As we've moved into the age of eBooks, I have hoped for the release of these volumes. I have downloaded volume one, and, as others have noted, there are problems with the text. However, these problems don't belong to Kindle or Amazon, but rather to Simon & Schuster. When I have come upon "typos" in the Kindle edition, I have gone back to the paper version to check whether they existed there. I have found none in the original printed version.
Twenty years ago, or so, there was a CD-ROM of these volumes released. It wasn't particularly well produced and was rather rudimentary as multimedia presentations go. However, it did have the entire text in what was essentially an ASCII format. I was curious whether that version of the digital text was the basis of these eBooks. But that version was apparently not the source since that version does not contain the errors found in the present version.
This leads me to believe that the paper version was run through some sort of an OCR process. But for those of us who have owned OCR programs -- even very good ones -- we know that careful "editing" of the OCR output is ALWAYS required. So the root cause of these problems either stems from too much trust in an OCR process OR from digital editors who weren't doing their job. But, again, these culprits don't belong to Amazon but to the publisher.
At the end of the day, I am still very pleased to have these volumes presented on Kindle. Since the total is 8,000 to 10,000 pages, being able to carry around the whole set on a portable device is a wonderful thing.
As to the content, well, it is the magnum opus of a gifted writer and historian who has written what he admits to be an impossible work to unify and integrate the history of the world (no less) for "the rest of us." It is an extraordinary gift and remains so over 75 years after the first publication of this volume. The content is recommended without reservation and is 5 star all the way. The technical execution is sloppy on the part of a major publisher.
on February 24, 2008
Will Durant's awesome accomplishment, THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION, has always seemed more encyclopedic than readable, but slowly, very slowly, I have come to the point of connecting events well enough to read through an entire volume. This first volume of the set uses the word oriental broadly in its title. It could have been entitled "Our Asian Heritage". That still doesn't take into account Egypt, although as the author explains, Egypt is functionally more a part of Asia, being separated from Africa by desert and the cataracts of the Nile.
The author makes no bones about the tenuous nature of our knowledge concerning the beginnings of civilization. I am no expert, but it seems that this limited knowledge can hardly be very much different now than in 1934 when this volume was written. Notable is the fact that the author points out the two greatest revolutions in human history as being the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, and it has only been in the time since this book was written that a third revolution has occurred - the communications revolution. But today as then, it seems unreasonable to expect to find very much incontrovertible fact about what happened so long ago. Take what little we do have from the ancient writings and match it with archeological findings and questions arise.
A common theme among the newly arisen civilizations in both the Near East and Far East is the personification of all phenomenon in the form of deities - gods and goddesses. Humankind was considered to be at the mercy of these deities or spirits, which could be innumerable and affect everything. All unaccountable events from disease to natural calamities were attributable to these animated forces. Human sacrifice at one time became a widely pervasive attempt at an appeasement or a promotion of goodwill. Priestly orders gained political power because they exerted authority as intermediaries. The priests became the only ones who could perform the rituals and sacrifices correctly.
One of the more interesting chapters, which evokes the passage of time so well, concerns ancient Egypt. Here the author takes the reader on a tour down the Nile in a vivid and insightful way. The Greeks were very much influenced by the Egyptians, but Herodotus, the historian who chronicled the Egyptians, doesn't mention the Sphinx, apparently covered during his time by desert sand. Of the Sphinx the author writes: "The lion body passes into a human head with prognathous jaws and cruel eyes; the civilization that built it (ca. 2990 B.C.) had not quite forgotten barbarism." In this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, we get a sense of the ebb and flow of civilization, from stoicism to epicureanism, sometimes on the brink of chaos, sometimes dissolving into brutal conflict; but at the same time evolving, advancing through the use of technology. The author notes that it was an advance in evolving decency when humankind stopped eating each other and merely adopted slavery.
The strongest and probably most in-depth treatment is the chapter called Judea, in which the author gives a synopsis of the Old Testament. Whether the facts here are thoroughly up-to-date does not have to be of foremost concern. The point is that there is a distinction made between the obvious myth-making of the day and what might have actually happened. Out of a polytheism - rampant during those early days (with an exception being the Egyptian Pharoah Ikhnaton) -the Hebrews gradually conceived of Yahveh as their single God, but the willfulness characterizing those early deities still remained. The early Yahveh certainly had at least as many human characteristics as divine - being quite warlike and capricious, quick to vengeance, easily slighted, and visiting on a generation punishment from sins of a distant past. There were many rules put into place by the closed caste of a priestly order, and as a result, sin played an important role because those rules could not help but be broken. As the Old Testament proceeds into the prophets, starting with Isaiah, the warlike conception changes and Yahveh changes to a more loving God. The author shows a reverence for the literature of this part of the Bible and enthusiasm for the voices of Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job.
The author surveys India, China, and Japan from the earliest known mythology to modern times. Of particular interest is the philosophy, arts and culture, and how the people lived. The subject matter does get very broad in these sections. Some of the highlights: the author's comparison of Sandhya system of Kapila and Buddhism with western philosophy; an explanation of Indian music - the fact that there is an additional ten microtones added to the regular twelve tones; the life of Gandhi; the fact that Taoism was developed in China as a nature religion and Islam never gained a foothold there.
on September 30, 1998
I found 'Our Oriental Heritage' changed the way I looked at the world. I think it helped break me out of a parochial, anglocized paradigm of our society. I also think that the book illustrates that many universal truths transcend notions of class, race, time, and geography (although not necessarily gender). Also, I cannot overstate Durant's sense of humor and beautifully simple style.
on March 29, 2000
This is the first book in the series by Will Durant about "The Story of Civilization". It was written in first half of this century, but in general still makes for a good introduction to history. This is the volume that covers basically what would be called non-European or non-Western cultures. It still contains a lot of information and is very good. The biggest short coming to the series of books is that it was written roughly 70 years ago now, so any updates in information about various aspects of history, sometimes get discussed as if they are still in debate, or are not in general debate when they are now. This time affect also explains why he only has one volume on non-European history... Much of the history of China, India, and other parts of the world have only become known in the West in the last 50 yeras. So, naturally, Mr Durant couldn't cover things he didn't know about. He does, more or less, acknowledge his lack of information in some places too.
All in all, this is still a good indroduction to history.