The Story of Civilization, Vol. I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant

I’ve always heard that Will Durant was our modern Herodotus.  At the end of the first volume, I can safely confirm my belief in this notion, save for the fact that Durant’s history is more historical, and Herodotus is a better storyteller.  Even so, when it comes to scope and audacity, this may be the first time Herodotus was equaled.  What’s in here is more than just names, dates, and facts.  It’s social understanding, cause and effect, and, yes, storytelling.  That is ultimately what history is, is it not?

When I first started this series a short time ago, it was after nearly 25 years of being intimidated by its depth and breadth.  I’ve spent a lot of years working up to the idea of being confident in my ability to understand it.  I’d like to say that I needn’t have worried, as the book did lull me into a false sense of security.  But the deeper I went, the heavier it became.  This is no bad thing.  Quite the reverse, I feel like this book would be quite the springboard for deeper investigation, which may happen at some point, should I get the itch to learn more Eastern history.

This first volume of the series is an overview of the whole of Eastern history, and the author says up front that to present this subject properly would take a lifetime.  As the focus of the rest of the series is on Western history, this first book provides the foundations for everything that comes later, both in the establishment of civilization as a concept, and as supplemental information that will be needed when the inevitable “East meets West” collisions happen throughout the narrative.

This volume is broken into three books and a lengthy introduction.  The introduction deals with the origins of civilization: hunting, agriculture, economics, government, morality, religion, science, and art.  It’s essentially a discussion of the kind of things we’ll learn in detail in each region.  From here, we learn of our prehistoric ancestors, industry, writing, and the idea of lost civilizations.  Book one focuses on the Near East: Sumeria, Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Judea, and Persia up to the time of Alexander.  Book two regards India through to the time of Mahatma Gandhi (current at the time the book was written).  Book three covers the Far East: China and Japan, also up to the time contemporary to its printing.

Thanks to art studies and other types of dips into history over the years, I had a pretty good handle on book one with some knowledge of books two and three.  I won’t pretend I fully grasped the information on India, but I definitely came out with more than I had when I went in.  Theirs is a truly complex history and social structure, and I’m grateful I had some basic understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism before I read this book.  I feared I might need a scorecard when I began the section on China, but I settled in at some point in the chapters on Confucian thought and found my stride by the time I reached the Khans and Marco Polo.

What this first volume has done is given me a far better idea of what I didn’t know that I didn’t know, if you take my meaning, by filling in all manner of gaps between the larger milestones of previous knowledge.  It’s also given me quite a bit of perspective as there is much in the first book alone that was ancient even by the understanding of Julius Caesar and his contemporaries.  And through all of it, I am also quite aware now of what the author meant when he said a lifetime of study would be needed to better expound upon what’s here in this first volume.  It also gives me some idea as to the level of detail I can expect on the subsequent volumes if this much knowledge will be imparted for each volume that follows.  It’s for this part that I’m grateful, for as much information as this book departed, it also ran through whole swaths of territory on fast forward.  That sounds contradictory considering how many gaps in knowledge are filled, but when something is skipped, he hangs a lantern on it, so you know he skipped.  I suspect this sort of thing is partly due to the author’s goal in providing only foundational knowledge for the books that follow, partly because some of that knowledge will be filled in by later books during those “East meets West” encounters, and partly on the idea that the author presented in odd statements that most lengthy histories are boring.  I think Durant took great care to avoid that particular problem, but in doing so, some connective tissue is lost.  That said, he does provide enough that if I really want to know, now I know where to look.  To ask the right questions, one must first have information enough to form those questions.  And for all that’s here, for all that’s given, what’s missing isn’t nearly enough to diminish the book on any level.  As Durant was aware from the beginning, to record the entire story of civilization is a fool’s errand at best, for such a task is truly impossible.  If someone feels something has been left out to the detriment of the story, I defy that someone to do better.  I’ve seen more modern history tomes make the attempt, and as much as I’ve enjoyed them, and as more complete as they may be on a smaller cross-section of time or place, they don’t come close to achieving what’s found here.

Being a history written before such discipline removed social commentary, and being a story that’s far more than just history, the most amazing benefit of this volume, I feel, has been not in the offering of information, but in the comparison of one culture to another, and sometimes to our own, as a matter of helping to bypass cultural bias and smug moral indignation.  This is part of what lifts this entire project from sterility and into something living and more reflective of the time in which it was written.  A side effect to our modern sensibilities is that some physical descriptions of a people or cultures may come across as surprising or even unintentionally laughable, especially if presented without context.  The eye-rolling points in question are few and far between, and are due to outlining perceived western stereotypes in an effort to move quickly past them.  The veil of distortion is lifted without much grace, but it would have been effective for its unworldly audience of the time.

One volume down, ten more to go.  I have little doubt this will have been the most difficult one for me by the time I finish, regardless of how detailed it becomes, given my previous studies of Western history to date.  This was most definitely worth the time and dedication, on its own or as the foundation to the whole series.  While I will take a palette cleansing break between each volume and continue to read other things in conjunction with this series, I am truly looking forward to continuing and ultimately completing the journey this series has laid before me.  By the time this is done, I’ll no doubt feel I’ve earned the autodidact equivalent of a Ph.D.  I’ve waited a generation to read these volumes.  I’ll likely be pondering them for another generation.

5 stars

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