Thursday, July 4, 2013

Will and Ariel Durant - A personal tribute and remembrance

Will and Ariel Durant - A personal tribute and remembrance

Mel Gibson’s great and controversial movie “Apocalyptic”, released in 2006, fictionalized the decline and fall of the famed Mayan civilization: it begins with the following graphical quote:

‘A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself within’.

These are the words of Will Durant, written nearly fifty years ago in the hallowed pages of his epic work “The story of civilization” in eleven volumes. In nearly thirteen thousand pages of immaculate writing, poetic audacity, delectable idioms and sweeping generalizations; both Will and his wife Ariel Durant spans the lifetime of human civilization in all its principal aspects with a finesse, grace and erudition that has never before been attempted , and In my opinion , can never be bettered in its execution. The work took them fifty years to plan and complete, and during that period, the husband and wife traveled the globe a dozen times, saw and read every classic in its source, met and interacted with some of the finest minds of the generation, taught innumerable students the appreciation of History as a holistic study of Human endeavor, popularized Philosophy as the greatest refinement of the mind and character possible, Parented a beautiful and intelligent girl and loved each other so deeply that they died two weeks after each other. Such lives are truly blessed. The result of their passionate labor has and will continue to educate and enthrall generations to come on the progress of Man in his episodic march of cultural, social and political advancement.

The first book of this series (Our Oriental Heritage) was published in the year 1935 and remaining ten volumes came out every five years, culminating their mammoth effort in the year 1975, with the final masterpiece “the age of Napoleon”. This was no easy task, considering that every book condensed nearly five hundred to thousand years of recorded history in all its manifestations. The compelling rationale behind this entire work was the need to present history comprehensively, not broken up into pieces. The authors had to embrace, synthesize and tie together numerous strands of knowledge, without losing the central theme of the book and equally holding the reader’s interest. These volumes were intended for the general educated reader and no background or qualification was required to approach them. That makes the task even more arduous and overwhelming, because complex ideas need to presented in a language, style and metaphor that should be easily accessible, without taxing the reader and letting interest dwindle. In some of the most breath taking passages in the work, the Durant’s would summarize a life time within a single paragraph or sometimes even a single line. Consider this brilliant synopsis of the fate of Rome:

‘Rome remained great as long as she had enemies who forced her to unity, vision, and heroism. When she had overcome them all she flourished for a moment and then began to die.’ (Caesar and Christ, 3rd volume).

To me, personally, these eleven volumes have been nourishment that has forever transformed the way I look at the march of Man through the ages. The calm wisdom and penetrative insights of the Durants have taken me on journey that I would have never willingly walked, if not, for the gentle assistance and the painstaking patience of Will and Ariel Durant. For nearly a year, I have read pages of these volumes every night before I went to bed. Each volume has produced new insights and perspectives and has helped me sharpen my capacity to cut through the inessentials and head straight to the center of a thought process, and the art of articulating it in a succinct and meaningful fashion.

I finished the last volume yesterday night, and as I closed my Kindle, I was flushed with emotion. A friend has left me, leaving behind a perfume, a trace that will forever be with me as long as I am intellectually alive.

God Bless…..

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