Friday, April 15, 2011

The Book I love Most

I’d name “The Story of Philosophy” by Will Durant as the book that best mirrors my soul. “Story” pips the post against “Atlas Shrugged”. 
First published in 1926, the book has never been out of print for 85 years. Durant’s magnum opus, “The Story of Civilization” spanning 11 volumes written over 3 decades is out of print. “Story of Philosophy” is still the most loved introductory book on Western Philosophy possibly outselling the more scholarly “A Brief History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell.
Durant had completed his doctoral thesis in 1917 and was teaching at Columbia University when he started writing on western philosophers for the “Little Blue Book Series”.  These books were intended for the working class and were extremely popular. Simon and Schuster evinced an interest to collect these lectures into a book and thus was born “Story of Philosophy”. Dr Durant had divided the book into 11 chapters with 9 chapters focusing on individual philosophers starting with Plato, running through Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Kant etc to Bergson with roughly 50 pages devoted to each. The last two chapters dealt with “Contemporary European Philosophers” and “contemporary American Philosophers”.
In his preface to the second edition published in 1933, Durant, very disarmingly, notes “many of the criticisms were disagreeably just. The Story of philosophy, was and is, shot with defects”. That, was from an author whose book was successful and is being re-published in a revised edition. Then he charmingly apologizes for excluding scholastic philosophy, “forgivable only in one who had suffered much from it in college and seminary and resented it thereafter as rather a disguised theology than an honest philosophy”. Throughout the book Durant’s sense of humor and candor adds levity to an otherwise tough subject. He regrets having omitted Chinese and Indian philosophy and says he atoned for it in the first volume of his “Story of Civilization”.
Page after page after page is filled with quotes he has gleaned from prodigious reading to illustrate the subject at hand. He draws on Browning, Plato, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky in the first page to outline the uses of philosophy. “We are like Mitya in the Brothers Karamazov – ‘one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions’”. The quintessential western attitude of self-deprecatory humor is evident when he quotes Cicero, “there is nothing so absurd but that it may be found in the books of the philosophers”. When he is not quoting others the accumulated wisdom of his readings is distilled into shining prose, he differentiates Science and philosophy, “every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement”.
Durant rivals a screenplay writer in introducing the philosophers. Racing through how geography of Greece contributed to its politics and culture he culminates with Critias being killed on a battlefield, “Now Critias was a pupil of Socrates and an uncle of Plato”. With that line he then open the scene for Socrates. His transition from the chapter on Aristotle to Francis Bacon is sheer mastery of drama. Within one year Alexander, Demosthenes and Aristotle had died, Durant writes the closing passage of Aristotle, “within twelve months Greece had lost her greatest ruler, her greatest orator and her  greatest philosopher…For a thousand years darkness brooded over the face of Europe. All the world awaited the resurrection of philosophy”. One could imagine the drums roll with the curtain falling in between two acts. Then comes Francis Bacon.
Will Durant wanted to reshape how history was written by historians. He called his approach “integral history”. He would not write about historical events in isolation but present them as ‘integral’ to a larger picture. In just a paragraph Durant gives a vivid portrayal of England in the time of Bacon. “Her literature blossomed into Spenser’s poetry and Sidney’s prose; her stage throbbed with the dramas of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Ben Johnson and a hundred vigorous pens. No man could fail to flourish in such a time and country, if there was seed in him at all”. The very first paragraph on Schopenhauer presents in highly stylized prose in most succinct nature the cultural setting from Schopenhauer sprang forth.
The biographical sketches are brief and filled with wit. The chapter on Voltaire abounds in sharp wit and many a tongue-in-the-cheek remarks. The romance of Voltaire and Mme Du Chatelet is famous. Chatelet was married, no surprises to a marquise. With her husband’s knowledge, we are talking about the French here, she took Voltaire as her lover,  “the morals of the day permitted a lady to add a lover to her ménage, if it were done with a decent respect for the hypocrisies of mankind; and when she chose not merely a lover but a genius, all the world forgave her”. Why was Schopenhauer so pessimistic? Our teacher turns a psychologist here. Schopenhauer’s mother, a famous author herself, was domineering and considered her son a competitor. “A man who has not known a mother’s love-and worse, has known a mother’s hatred-has no cause to be infatuated with the world”.
The care to introduce the philosophers is matched and sometimes exceeded by how Durant gently leads us into the complex ideas that those philosophers spent a lifetime to craft and expound. Baruch Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ is considered to be the most abstruse philosophical text alongside Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. Durant cautions us, “Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid”. The teacher in Durant shines when he, a tad patronizingly but wonderfully, suggests “Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some commentary, like Pollock’s ‘Spinoza’ or Martneau’s ‘Study of Spinoza’; or better, both. Finally read the ‘Ethics’ again; it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a second time you will remain a lover of philosophy”.
Immanuel Kant has the reputation of being the most obtuse philosopher. How could the hoi-polloi approach a book that Kant’s contemporary returned half read saying he feared insanity if he completed it? Durant the teacher becomes a cartographer. “Let us start at various points on the circumference of the subject, and then grope our way towards that subtle centre where the most difficult of all philosophies has its secret and treasure”. Then he plots the “roads to Kant” via Voltaire, Locke and finally Rousseau. Each section, less than a page, is like a master composer leading the listener through scales of ascending music which then bursts into a full symphony.
What about criticism? There is ample measure of it. Each philosopher is succinctly criticized by Durant the philosopher. He does not merely echo some opponent’s criticism but wears the robe of a judge himself. Francis Bacon is considered the father of modern science, especially experimental science. The Royal Society, in England, has a bust of Bacon as its patron saint. Bacon is chided that “while laying down the law of science, failed to keep abreast of the science of his time. He rejected Copernicus and ignored Kepler and Tycho Brahe”. Not content with that chiding Bacon gets scolded too, “In truth, he loved discourse better than research”. His work was “full of repetitions, contradictions, aspirations, and introductions”. Having criticized him sharply Durant then applies a balm, “he (Bacon) broke down under the weight of the tasks he laid upon himself; he failed forgivably because he undertook so much”.
Only death, the finale, remains. Francis Bacon contracts illness experimenting with a fowl to find how flesh can be preserved from putrefaction by being covered with snow. Bacon’s words in his will are cited “I bequeath my soul to God…My body to be buried obscurely. My name to the next ages and to foreign nations”, Durant the closes with, “The ages and nations have accepted him”. Nietzsche, insane in the twilight days of his life, hearing a talk of books muttered, Durant says, his face lit up, “Ah! I too have written some good books”. The concluding line is profound, “He died in 1900. Seldom has a man paid so great a price for genius”. Schopenhauer is concluded with the lines, “in an age when all the great seemed dead he preached once more the ennobling worship of heroes. And with all his faults he succeeded in adding another name to theirs”.
What impressed me deeply was Will Durant’s prodigious effort in reading not just the principal texts but biographies and criticisms. Out of his accumulated reading he weaves a tapestry that is rich and can be done only by a person who did not merely read but digested and subsumed all that he read in his bones and blood. Without that kind of assimilation the style of writing that glides from persona to another, from one idea to another, from one era to another is not possible. To that he adds a typical Western mind that does not stand in mute wonder in confronting hallowed names and much revered ideas. Foibles, fallacies and weaknesses of person and theory are not swept under a rug. Nor do we find tabloid sensationalism. Especially when dealing with Bacon’s personal weaknesses (he was corrupt and imprisoned) or Voltaire’s many foibles Durant is very conscious of their cultural milieu and is gentle. Durant does not shy away from playing favorites or discarding that which he considers inferior. He chooses Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato as the best to read amongst many. He picks his favorites amongst Bacon’s essays.
Francis Bacon in his essay on “Books” says there are books to read, skimmed and a few to be “digested”. “The Story of Philosophy” fits that last rare category of books to be digested.

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