I often wonder why I find history and science so fascinating. With science, it’s what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out”. We learn how the universe around us evolved and how it all works. With history, I suppose, it’s similar, except instead of learning how the universe works, we learn how people work–or rather, why we are the way we are. Durant’s inaugural book in the Story of Civilization looks tries to tell this story by combing through 4,000 years of the history of mankind, with a specific look at the birth, evolution and eventual death of the oldest civilizations.
Reading the book, I noticed patterns. There are those people in history who stand out, whose names we remember for thousands of years, good or bad. Amenhotep. Ashurbanipal. Alexander. Darius. Buddha. Confucius. And there are the millions of everyday people. We get specific details about Alexander and generalizations about the masses. But even from those generalization, we have some inkling of how people lived. What fascinates me is how little has changed in human nature. The problems that men struggled with 4,000 years ago are the same problems we struggle with today. The everyday concerns and stressors are still there. Putting food on the table. Supporting our families. The moral codes ignored equally well today as they were thousands of years ago, whenever it is convenient to do so. The question becomes, what does it mean to be civilized? Reading history, one begins to wonder. We think of ourselves as more civilized today than at any time in the past, but there were periods of time when the standards seemed higher.
I find fascinating reading about people with stoic qualities. I don’t know why this is. I was impressed by those Buddhists who gave away all of their possessions and sought peace and tranquility in the wilderness. I was impressed by those generals and warriors who treated their enemies with a dignity and respect almost unheard of today. I was impressed by the quality and quantity of literature and art developed by these ancient civilizations. Art was as important to civilization 4,000 years ago as food and trade. Today, it seems to take a backseat to just about everything else.
When I got to the end of the book, I found myself wishing there was more, and glad to recall that 10 more volumes existed for me to pour over. Will Durant has an impressive writing style, a keen insight, a witty sense of humor, and an almost bitter sense of irony, especially when comparing mistakes of the distant past to similar mistakes being made all over again today. The first book in the series was incredible, I’ve never before read a history book quite like it. I felt as though I learned more history in 40 days than I learned in 12 years of grade school and 4 years of college. I highly recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by history.