Will Durant on Human Achievement

I spent a good chunk of the long weekend engrossed in Will Durant’s autobiography, Transition. Durant and his wife Ariel are best known for their 11-volume The Story of Civilization series, which is a fine introduction not just to history, but to literature, philosophy, art, music, science, and all the other cantos in the poem of human life.

Transition is mainly the tale of Durant’s transition from seminarian to secularist, and from his youthful flirtations with socialist anarchism to a gentler, more tolerant and mature worldview that saw humanity as a good but flawed creature, set in his ways, yet capable of breathtaking progress and achievement. This passage, describing Durant’s first trip to Europe in 1912 aboard an oceanliner, captures that transition in microcosm:

One night there was no moon, nor any star; then our great ship, ghastly alight in the engulfing dark, seemed like a phosphorescent insect struggling in the sea. But as we neared the rocks of Britain’s ancient shore the mood of my thinking changed, and I marveled not at the vastness of the ocean but at the courage of man, who had ribbed it everywhere with the paths of his floating cities; who had dared to make great arks of heavy iron and fill them with thousands of tons of the products of human hands; who had built upon these frames luxurious homes for many hundred men; who had made engines capable, through the expansion of a little steam, of propelling this enormity of steel and flesh safely and quickly across the widest seas, making the rage of the ocean impotent. It was man that was marvelous, I said, as I stood secure and relieved on the solid soil of England.

(Transition, pp. 218-19)