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date: 27 February 2021

Durant, Willfree

(05 November 1885–07 November 1981)
  • Joan Shelley Rubin

Ariel Durant and Will Durant.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103853).

Durant, Will (05 November 1885–07 November 1981), and Ariel Durant (10 May 1898–25 October 1981), America's foremost popularizers of history and philosophy., were among America’s foremost popularizers of history and philosophy. William James Durant was born in North Adams, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph Durant, a celluloid plant supervisor, and Marie Allors. His parents, who were French Canadians and devout Catholics, hoped that he would become a priest. After living in several New England mill towns, the family moved in 1892 to Kearny, New Jersey, and about six years later settled in Arlington. In 1900 Durant entered St. Peter’s College, a Jesuit institution in Jersey City. There he completed high school and in 1907 earned his undergraduate degree. In this period, encounters with the theories of Darwin shook Durant’s faith, and adolescent flirtations tested his suitability for the priesthood. He tried a brief stint as a cub reporter for the New York Evening Journal. Nevertheless in 1908, following a year of teaching Latin, French, and geometry at Seton Hall College, Durant entered the seminary at Seton Hall. Influenced by the writings of Edward Bellamy and other utopian thinkers, he managed to sustain his belief in the church by allying himself with Christian socialism.

By 1910, however, continued reading (particularly of Spinoza) and contact with other skeptics convinced Durant to resign from the seminary. To ease his parents’ disappointment, he arranged to stay on at Seton Hall for the remainder of the school year, resuming his post as a lay teacher. Subsequently he was employed as a substitute in the Newark public schools. At this time, however, his most important activities were avocational: he joined a social science club comprising young intellectuals; he became a protégé of Alden Freeman, a scion of Standard Oil who championed radicalism; and he began giving public lectures at the home of a freethinking friend for an admission fee of three dollars. In 1912 the Francisco Ferrer Association, an anarchist group based in New York City, invited Durant to speak on the origins of religion. Durant, who, as he noted in A Dual Autobiography (1977), evinced some bisexual tendencies, responded by lecturing on the link between the primitive church and “The Evolution of Sex, Homosexualism, Autoeroticism, and Malthusianism.” A few days after his presentation, he was excommunicated by the bishop of Newark.

As Durant recounted in his romantic, fictionalized autobiography Transition (1927), he paid a heavy personal cost for his heretical views: his mother became hysterical, his father expelled him from home, and he himself acquired a persistent longing for the “unity and peace of mind” the seminarians enjoyed. To counter his perception that science and industrialization had engendered “fragments of men, and nothing more,” Durant became more involved in physical culture (he was a devotee of Bernarr Macfadden) and radical politics. Through Freeman, who took him to Europe in 1912 and partially supported him thereafter, he was appointed instructor at the Ferrer Association’s “Modern School” in Greenwich Village.

Among his pupils was a young Jewish immigrant named Chaya (in English, Ida) Kaufman—the future Ariel Durant. Born in Proskurov, Ukraine, she was the daughter of Joseph Kaufman and Ethel Appel. Her father immigrated to New York in 1900 and secured work selling newspapers; the rest of the family joined him the following year. Once in America, her mother, who also sold papers (sometimes with Chaya’s help), grew increasingly restless in her marriage. Leaving her children behind, she moved out of the house. Although she missed her nurturing presence, Chaya absorbed her mother’s passionate nature, openness to heterodoxy, and love of freedom, qualities that suited her for the Modern School that, in 1912, opened its doors across the street from where she lived. Within a few months, she and her teacher had fallen in love. (Durant at first called her Puck; in Transition, he named her Ariel, which she adopted legally.) Overcoming her mother’s initial objections, they were married in 1913, when Ariel was fifteen.

By that time, with Freeman’s assistance, Will Durant had enrolled as a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University. There his most important instructor was John Dewey, who was then pragmatism’s preeminent representative. Dewey argued that philosophers should forego epistemology and instead apply scientific method to improve society. Although Durant, still hungering for unity, was more anti-intellectual, suspicious of science, and captivated by philosophical idealism than his mentor, Durant’s doctoral dissertation, “Philosophy and the Social Problem” (1917), revealed Dewey’s unmistakable influence. It endorsed a “society for social research” comprising scientific researchers who would investigate ills and disseminate information about remedying them. Beginning in 1913, Durant himself continued to fashion a role as disseminator by lecturing at Labor Temple, a Presbyterian adult education project on New York’s Lower East Side. Imbued with a lifelong confidence in his ability to function as a knowledgeable generalist, Durant eventually taught such subjects as music, psychology, and art as well as philosophy at Labor Temple. After completing his Ph.D. in 1917, Durant also served as instructor in Columbia’s extension division. He was dismissed at the end of the academic year, perhaps because of his opposition to World War I. In 1921 Durant became director of Labor Temple School.

Ariel Durant sometimes accompanied her husband to his Columbia classes. Her primary involvement from the time they were married until the mid-1920s, however, was in the cultural life of Greenwich Village, from which she drew her friends and intellectual interests. In 1919 she gave birth to a daughter. The Durants adopted the son of Ariel’s sister Flora in 1928.

One of Ariel Durant’s Greenwich Village contacts was the maverick publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. In 1922 Haldeman-Julius approached Will about contributing a popularization of philosophy to his series of cheap pamphlets, the Little Blue Books. The result was a set of eleven essays on figures ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Voltaire, Kant, and Russell. (Conspicuously absent were Descartes, Locke, Mill, and others Durant consigned to epistemology.) In 1926 the fledging house of Simon & Schuster combined and reprinted the pamphlets as The Story of Philosophy. It became the bestselling nonfiction book of the year. Sales totaled some 100,000 copies in the first year, enabling the Durants to live on the income the book generated.

The Story of Philosophy appealed to Americans for many reasons. First, it satisfied the public’s craving for volumes that, like H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920), organized and simplified specialized knowledge. Each essay was part biography, part paraphrase; most concluded with Durant’s evaluative remarks but contained no reference to the work of other scholars. Thus the book played upon the 1920s fascination with personality while minimizing the need to grapple with competing interpretations. Durant—authoritative and expert at storytelling—tacitly assured his audience that his subjects were models of the wholeness and autonomy so difficult to attain in modern America. “So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-cancelling vacillation and futility,” Durant wrote in the introduction. “We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before it is too late.” He also implied that culture was accessible and, to some readers, that summaries could replace encounters with philosophical texts themselves. Finally, Simon & Schuster marketed The Story of Philosophy with a no-holds-barred advertising campaign that depicted the book as a painless form of liberal education.

Although John Dewey wrote a flattering preface to the volume, The Story of Philosophy received mixed reviews from academics: one professor compared the book to instant coffee and soap flakes; another observed that it was a trendy diversion akin to auction bridge. In the late 1920s, however, Durant’s stature among general readers continued to grow, earning him numerous invitations to speak and write. In 1927, for example, he undertook strenuous nationwide lecture tours, produced a serialized history of civilization for newspaper syndication, and drafted some of the essays eventually published in The Mansions of Philosophy (1929). By that year Durant was giving most of his attention to a project he had begun planning as early as 1904: a multivolume, synthetic outline of world history—The Story of Civilization—that would illuminate the interrelationships between politics, economics, and culture. No single author had ever executed such a work (although Durant drew inspiration from Henry Thomas Buckle’s preliminary effort to do so in the mid-nineteenth century). In Durant’s view, the undertaking required extensive travel. Ariel Durant, who between 1926 and 1929 intermittently joined her sisters in running the Gypsy Tavern, a tearoom in Greenwich Village, left that work in 1930 to accompany her husband on a research trip around the world. (The Durants took several more journeys to Russia, Mexico, and Europe during the next four decades.) At home in Great Neck, New York, where the Durants lived from 1928 to 1943, Ariel helped Will and his other aides arrange into chapters and topics the approximately thirty thousand data slips he gathered for each volume of the history.

The first of these, Our Oriental Heritage, appeared in 1935. Although several reviewers criticized the book for errors of fact and reliance on secondary sources, Durant defended his effort to write for nonspecialists. The Life of Greece (1939), conceived as “the biography of civilization,” was in Durant’s estimate the best organized of his books. In 1943 the Durants moved to Hollywood Hills, California, where Will completed Caesar and Christ (1944). Attacked again for factual mistakes and for ignoring recent scholarship, Durant declared that narrow studies added nothing of value to a general history. He continued to operate from that premise—and to incur denunciations from such prominent historians as J. H. Plumb—with subsequent Story of Civilization volumes: The Age of Faith (1950), The Renaissance (1953), The Reformation (1956), The Age of Reason Begins (1961), The Age of Louis XIV (1963), The Age of Voltaire (1965), Rousseau and Revolution (1967), and The Age of Napoleon (1975). The last five bore Ariel Durant’s name as coauthor to acknowledge her increasing contribution to research for the project. Will Durant, however, wrote all of the volumes alone as well as all but one chapter of his and Ariel’s A Dual Autobiography (1977).

Yet despite its dismissal by many professional historians, Durant’s history won favor with its intended audience. The Story of Civilization’s appeal derived from its sparkling anecdotal style, intimate tone, and reassuring message. History, Durant suggested, revealed the steady eradication of barbarism, especially in the United States. As in his earlier “story,” Durant managed to ease readers’ anxieties by providing them supposedly essential knowledge. At the same time, he tempered his authority by paying homage to his audience’s prerogatives, using humor and revelations of his own ignorance to undercut his expertise. That combination of pontification and geniality, together with the tendency to reduce liberal learning to the acquisition of information, made Durant a prime representative of American middlebrow culture.

Simon & Schuster continued to use aggressive marketing techniques for The Story of Civilization volumes, and, as a result, many of the volumes became bestsellers or selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Consolidating Durant’s fame, the club eventually distributed the entire set as a premium for new members. Although he suffered from arthritis and other ailments in his later years, Durant continued to lecture widely and tirelessly as well as to champion liberal causes. He and Ariel also issued The Lessons of History (1968) and Interpretations of Life (1970). Awarded several honorary degrees, the Durants received the Pulitzer Prize for Rousseau and Revolution in 1968 and the Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Ariel Durant caught her husband’s temperament exactly when she noted in A Dual Autobiography the “sentimental, idealizing blend of love, philosophy, Christianity, and socialism which dominate[d] his spiritual chemistry.” Will’s letters to her, reprinted in the autobiography, reveal the sensuality he brought to their long partnership as well as the marriage’s occasional strains. Ariel herself supplied their relationship with warmth and devotion; to their work she contributed lively intelligence, capable assistance, and faith in their role as popularizers. Ariel Durant died in Hollywood Hills; Will Durant died in Los Angeles ten days later.


The most comprehensive account of the Durants is A Dual Autobiography (1977). The fullest secondary treatment is in Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992). For an excellent discussion of The Story of Civilization, see Cullen Murphy, “The Venerable Will,” Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1985, pp. 22, 24. Obituaries for Ariel Durant are in the New York Times, 27 Oct. 1981 and 28 Oct. 1981, and for Will Durant, 9 Nov. 1981.