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Jane Ahlin, Published December 29 2012

Ahlin: Wisdom of the Durants as the new year begins

Before embarking on the new year of 2013, the following words of 20th- century philosopher Will Durant are worth considering: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things historians usually record – while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks.”

I knew nothing about Durant until almost a decade ago when a good friend referred to that particular Durant quotation in an online journal. Born in 1885 and living to the ripe old age of 95, Durant – with his wife, Ariel – authored an 11-volume work over a period of 40 years titled “The Story of Civilization.” Their marriage, which lasted more than 65 years, was about as epic as the work, a true yin-yang relationship that nurtured them and led to great accomplishments for them both.

Only 15 when she married Durant, who not only was 13 years older than she but also was her teacher (he resigned his teaching position to marry her), Ariel referred to their collaboration, which grew as years went by, “as representative of the unity that a man and woman can achieve and must achieve – and will achieve all over the world.” Together they were awarded the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Theirs is a fascinating success story, perhaps the best match ever of academically trained intellect, inwardness and self-discipline (his character points) with curiosity-based intellect, sociability and energy (her character points) – melding both personal and professional that caused no lessening of the emotional ties that made them lovers. She did not play the role of muse to his literary talents as happened to many women involved with male authors; rather, they matured together with Ariel always participating and with no sense of inequality between them. Not surprisingly, both of them championed women’s rights because they believed men and women should work “shoulder-to-shoulder.” Their deep companionship continued until they died within a few weeks of one another in 1981.

But back to the quotation. We hardly hear the word “civilization” used anymore unless it’s in conjunction with something old and dusty. The word “civil” also seems resigned to language of an earlier era. (Is “civics” part of any school’s curriculum?) Certainly, we don’t talk about education as the means for “the transmission of civilization” the way the Durants did. Nor is there public conversation about the responsibility for each generation to renew civilization and teach the next generation to do the same, including the hard truth that no generation can do the work for the generation that comes next.

Progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Life “on the banks” is the Petri dish for progress and stabilizing force in misfortune and catastrophe. When Americans worry we can’t continue to lead the world or remain on the cutting edge of advancements, the context of our civilization should be part of the conversation. In fact, the continuum of civilizations – how they rose, how they faltered and/or renewed themselves and how they fell – should be part of the conversation.

Because Durant viewed history through the lens of philosophy, he saw it broadly and believed that for us to learn from history, we can’t isolate the things “historians usually record …” from the rest of human life. In undertaking “The Story of Civilization,” he and his wife sought to write a unified history of human experience, history to learn from. As he said, “Most of us spend too much time on the last 24 hours and too little on the last six thousand years.”

That’s the thing to think about. Ending one year and beginning another doesn’t really change anything unless most of us pause to consider where we’ve been and where we’re going, not only personally but also in civilization’s “stream” and on its “banks.” If we go “unnoticed,” it’s no less important.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.