The very first volume of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series was published by Simon & Schuster in 1935. In the the very first words of that very first volume, Durant writes,
I have tried in this book to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which I rashly laid upon myself some twenty years ago: to write a history of civilization.
This is both delightful and brash. Imagine being able to spend two decades at work on a “pleasant assignment,” whatever that may be. It is brash in its scope: “to write a history of civilization.”
In this 1935 edition, Durant outlines his plan for telling this story of civilization in five parts:
- Our Oriental Heritage: a history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, and in India, China, and Japan to the present day; with an introduction on the nature and elements of civilization.
- Our Classical Heritage: a history of civilization in Greece and Rome, and of civilization in the Near East under Greek and Roman domination.
- Our Medieval Heritage: Catholic and feudal Europe, Byzantine civilization, Mohammedan and Judaic culture in Asia, Africa, and Spain, and the Italian Renaissance.
- Our European Heritage: the cultural history of the European states from the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution.
- Our Modern Heritage: the history of European invention and statesmanship, science and philosophy, religion and morals, literature and art from the accession of Napoleon to our own times.
Durant concludes the outline of his plan for telling the story of civilization with this mild caution:
Since these ear-minded times are not propitious for the popularity of expensive books on remote subjects of interest only to citizens of the world, it may be that the continuation of this series will be delayed by the prosaic necessities of economic life. But if the reception of this adventure in synthesis makes possible an uninterrupted devotion to the undertaking, Part Two should be ready by the fall of 1940, and its successors should appear, by the grace of health, at five-year intervals thereafter.
So, we have 5 volumes, the first of which appeared in 1935, the second to appear in 1940. Doing the math, the fifth and final volume would make its debut in 1955. Except that the project seemed to take on scope creep of Homeric proportions. It is amusing to see this scope creep unfolds through the prefaces of each succeeding volume, where you can almost see Durant making embarrassed apologies and fretting, at the fact that he isn’t quite sure why things are growing as they are.
In the opening to the Preface of Caesar and Christ (1944), Durant writes,
This volume, while and independent unit by itself, is Part III in a history of civilization, of which Part I was Our Oriental Heritage, and Part II was The Life of Greece. War and health permitting, Part IV, The Age of Faith should be ready in 1950.
Already, we see that Part IV is behind Durant’s outline. In other words he split “Our Classic Heritage” into two volumes (The Life of Greece and Caesar and Christ). Durant conclude Caesar and Christ with,
Thank you, patient reader.
When we get to Part IV, The Age of Faith (1950), Durant seems to realize what is going on and modifies his outline somewhat.
This book continues the study of the white man’s life to the death of Dante in 1321. Part V, The Renaissance and the Reformation, covering the period from 1321 to 1648, should appear in 1955; and Part VI, The Age of Reason, carrying the story to our own time should be ready by 1960. This will bring the author so close to senility that he most forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.
Please note that Durant still thinks that he will be able to wrap things up in The Age of Reason, although he has given up on the history of North and South America.
The Age of Faith is the longest single volume in the series. My hardcover edition stands at 1,086 pages, not counting the bibliography and index, which ups the number to 1,200 pages. The unabridged audiobook is more than 60 hours long. Durant concludes this volume with,
Thank you again, friend reader.
In 1953, Part V is published under the title, The Renaissance. Notice what’s missing? In the previous volume, Durant had indicated this book would be titled, The Renaissance and Reformation. That would be followed by The Age of Reason. Well,
If circumstances permit, a sixth volume, probably under the title of The Age of the Reformation, will appear three or four years hence, covering the history of Christian, Islamic, and Judaic civilization outside of Italy from 1300, and in Italy from 1576 to 1648. The enlarged scale of treatment, and the imminence of senility, make it advisable to plan an end to the series with a seventh volume, The Age of Reason, which may carry the tale to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Well, the next volume is just what Durant outlined in his previous preface. Part VI is called The Reformation (1957), and all Durant adds in his preface this time is that he is sticking to his plan:
If the Reaper will stay his hand, there will be a concluding Volume VII, The Age of Reason, which should appear some five years hence, and should carry the story of civilization to Napoleon. There we shall make our bow and retire, deeply grateful to all who have borne the weight of these tomes on their hands, and have forgiven numberless errors in our attempt to unravel the present into its constituent past.
Durant concludes this 6th volume with,
Courage, reader! We near the end.
In 1961 (remember when this thing was supposed to wrap up in 1955?), The Age of Reason Begins appears in bookstores, and at once, Durant is altering his plan once again:
I had hoped to conclude my sketch of the history of civilization with a seventh volume to be called The Age of Reason, which was to cover the cultural development of Europe from the accession of Elizabeth I to the outbreak of the French Revolution… What had begun as a final volume has swollen into three, and one of the present authors, at an unseemly age, becomes a prima donna make a succession of farewell tours.
So things continue to grow, but Durant provides his final final plan:
Barring some lethal surprise to the authors1 or to civilization, Volume III, The Age of Louis XIV, should be ready in 1963; and if decay permits, a final volume, The Age of Voltaire, will appear in 1965.
The Age of Louis XIV appears as scheduled in 1963, but we learn almost at once that it is no longer the penultimate volume:
We hope to present Part IX, The Age of Voltaire, in 1965, and Part X, Rousseau and Revolution, in 1968. Some difficulties have arisen, party from the wealth of material offered by the eighteenth century, all demanding study and space. Meanwhile we shall rely on the Great Powers not to destroy our subject before it destroys us.
So the scope has increased to a tenth volume, but the end is in sight! Indeed, Volume IX, The Age of Voltaire is published on schedule in 1965, although it is apparently longer than the Durant’s expected. And finally, in 1967, Rousseau and Revolution is published and right off the bat, the Durant’s write (with the sense of relief almost palpable),
This is the concluding volume of that Story of Civilization to which we devoted ourselves in 1929, and which has been the daily chore of solace of our lives ever since.
The volume (and series) concludes with a thank you:
We thank the reader who has been with us these many years for part or all of the long journey. We have ever been mindful of his presence. Now we take our leave and bid him farewell.
Volume 10 won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in its year of publication.
And at last, we have reached the end. Except, we haven’t. In 1975, the 11th volume in the series appeared, The Age of Napoleon. Why add an 11th volume?
“By the middle of the twentieth century,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica (XVI, 10a), “literature on Napoleon already numbered more than 100,000 volumes.” Why add to the heap? We offer no better reason than to say that the Reaper repeatedly overlooked us, and left us to passive living and passive reading after 1968. We grew weary of this insipid and unaccustomed leisure.
Now, it may seem that I am mocking the Durants, but I am not. There is scope creep here, but its certainly not the kind of scope creep we find in, say, software development projects today. The source of the scope creep, in this case, is evident: Will and Ariel Durant love their subject as much as they seem to love one another. Their passion for the history of human civilization comes across in the words they write and the scenes they paint in portraying our collective past.
It shines through in other ways, as well. Will and Ariel Durant died within two weeks of each other, after having spent more than 70 years together.
Taken as a whole, the Story of Civilization is a masterpiece. It spans 10,000 pages, 4 million words, and something on the order of 500 hours of audiobook time. It provides, by far, the most comprehensive, well-written overview of human civilization that I have encountered. I have read the first three volumes multiple times and it seems to me that it just keeps getting better with each passing read.
- By this point Ariel Durant had a byline as well. ↩