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Will and Ariel Durant write:

“At any moment a comet may come too close to the earth and set our little globe turning topsy-turvy in a hectic course, or choke its men and fleas with fumes or heat; or a fragment of the smiling sun may slip off tangentially — as some think our planet did a few astronomic moments ago—and fall upon us in a wild embrace ending all grief and pain. We accept these possibilities in our stride, and retort to the cosmos in the words of Pascal: ‘When the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.’

History is subject to geology. Every day the sea encroaches somewhere upon the land, or the land upon the sea; cities disappear under the water, and sunken cathedrals ring their melancholy bells. Mountains rise and fall in the rhythm of emergence and erosion; rivers swell and flood, or dry up, or change their course; valleys become deserts, and isthmuses becomes straits. To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.”— Will Durant, Lessons of History, Chp. 2

This is beautiful and contains great wisdom. Will Durant also discusses geology and civilization in chapter one of Our Oriental Heritage (volume one of his magisterial Story of Civilization). Here he says: “Civilization is an interlude between ice ages: at any time the current of glaciation may rise again, cover with ice and stone the works of man, and reduce life to some narrow segment of the earth. Or the demon of earthquake, by whose leave we build cities, may shrug his shoulders and consume us indifferently.”

Japan destructionThese reflections are poignant, especially in light of the devastation in Japan. Certainly with this, Nature has shown us the fragility of man and his civilization.

I recommend to your attention Durant’s Lessons of History. In it he sums up in 100 pages what he learned over forty years of writing the eleven volume Story of Civilization. Lessons is one of the most profound books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Many writers have turned to Durant of late when writing of the natural disaster in Japan. They attribute to him: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” I believe the quote is likely not authentic. Perhaps it is a very nice paraphrase of the quotes above. During the past twenty five years I have spent many pleasurable evenings with the writings of Will Durant. This quote seems to lack the elegance of his style in my humble opinion. It’s like a Roman copy of a Greek statue — it captures the essence but not the grace.* Thank you to Mike Church for bringing the controversial authorship of this quote to my attention.

* For a differing view on the authenticity of the quote see the comment below from James Bishop of the Will Durant Foundation:

“It does not appear, to our knowledge, in any of his books, nor in any of the Durant estate documents. There is no doubt in our mind that Durant said it; stylistically it is Durant, and as you see from the “Lessons of History” quotation he has used the idea more than once. But the exact source for this quotation continues to elude us. One must remember, that Durant was a prolific writer and speaker. There remain many lost essays, articles, lectures, and radio adresses that have been lost to time. My best guess at this point is that this may be a statement he said in a lecture or interview that was published in a newspaper and subsequently quoted.” (found here)

Books by Will Durant may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Durant may be found here.

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Published: Mar 15, 2011
W. Winston Elliott III
W. Winston Elliott III is President of The Free Enterprise Institute, Editor of Imaginative Conservative Books and Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative. Mr. Elliott is Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts and Conservative Thought at Houston Baptist University. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Washington College and a Masters of Business Administration, with Honors, from the University of Houston.
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2 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for this, Winston. Strong wisdom, to be sure. Dawson often argued that a Catholic has as little right to overreact to extreme materialism as he does to embrace materialism exclusively. The true scholar, he argued, recognizes that the environment and the material world delimit as much as they aid. In other words, Dawson recognized the vital importance of the human person as an Incarnate soul.

  2. Mr. Elliott, I thank you for quoting my response to a question about this quotation in 2005; however, there is no longer any doubt that Will Durant was the author of this quotation, as I did eventually uncover the source of the quotation. It appeared in Will Durant’s essay titled “What is Civilization?” in the January 1946 issue of “Ladies Home Journal.”

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