Monday, December 29, 2014

Books I Read This Year: Durant's Our Oriental Heritage

This is the first of a series of reviews of books I completed in 2014 (along with a few I never reviewed from 2013).

The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, by Will Durant. I imagine the professional historians would turn up their noses at a popular work like this, partly because it was written for an intelligent public which they have long ago forsaken, and partly because it is a bit dated, and history, which aspires like every other humanities discipline to be a science, can abide only the newest scholarship. It is a professional irony that historians value everyone else's past but their own. Let them dig up and re-bury their scholarly bones for obscure academic journals: As for me, I'll continue to read Durant for the great overview of history he gives and for the beautiful prose in which he presents it.

Durant was a generalist, writing in the more classical mode of Gibbon and Macauley—scholars of more than history—Durant does not get lost in the arcanae of chronology. He is always looking for (and finding) the significance of events—for their own time and ours. The only contemporary historian I know who writes history this big is Tom Holland.

Our Oriental Heritage is the first in the eleven-volume series Durant began in 1935 and finished (with the help of his wife Ariel) in 1975. A great overview of the history and culture of the East—a civilization we often ignore.

Durant, who received his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, apparently wrote these volumes in intentional defiance of professional historians who long ago gave up on the general reading public. Of course, the general reading public in the mid-20th century was far more sophisticated than it is now, but we have not changed so much that we cannot appreciate the lucidity of his prose.

Filled with colorful anecdotes and compelling insights, this book does much more than give us a chronology of events. Instead, it takes us on a tour of the literature, art, music, and politics of China, India, and Japan, helping us to understand the cultures as a whole.

The only shortcoming in Durant is his tendency to downplay the Christianity of the Christian West. As an admitted secularist, Durant views religion as quaint, mostly irrelevant—but the more Eastern is such spirituality, the more relevant he sees it. In this volume, Christianity is always portrayed as inferior to Eastern thought and religion. This is due, in part no doubt, to the fashionability of things Eastern at the time it was written. It is also a tendency you will find throughout his works.

Durant was like many thinkers even now who cling to the cultural wreckage of the old Christendom more tightly the more they repudiate the whole of which they were once a part. The two largest pieces of Christendom's remnants are materialist rationalism on the one hand and spiritualist mysticism on the other. Durant is a rationalist, but one who (like many), while rejecting the more integrated rationality of Western religion, is attracted to the arational mysticism of the East. There are books that could be written on why it is that materialists tend to become, in the end, so attracted to the misty religion of the East.

I'm thinking of Robert Blatchford and Arthur Conan Doyle here--not to mention the more contemporary Sam Harris.

But the occasional encounter with a bad judgment is a small price to pay for the sheer pleasure of reading Durant's great historic and cultural achievement.

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