Monday, November 18, 2013

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant #review

Title: The Story of Philosophy
Author: Will Durant
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 1933

I’ll start by saying I own a (very) battered copy of the 1933 edition of The Story of Philosophy that my husband has been trying to get me to read ever since we got married. A little digging tells me that Will Durant and his wife were rather prolific, and I’m curious to give a stab at the epic The Story of Civilization. But that’s for another time. At any rate, what’s abundantly clear is that the Durants had an abiding love of history and learning, and for this incredible legacy they have given us I’m eternally grateful.

Now for a little trivia: according to Wikipedia, The Story of Philosophy started out as a series of Little Blue Books (basically education pamphlets geared toward the working class) and they went down such a treat that Simon & Schuster published them as The Story of Philosophy in 1926, which became a bestseller.

Durant went from being a starving writer to a wealthy man, and could spend much time travelling the world – I think a dream all of us would share.

Now back to The Story of Philosophy. The book itself profiles nine Western philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Two final chapters offer an overview of prominent European and American philosophers. Within this hefty tome, Durant first details the lives, history and background of the philosophers being discussed, then he segues into an examination of their work. What I enjoyed was that he gives both the pros and the cons, and also compares their thoughts to contemporaries and those who went before.

Philosophy itself is such a vast topic to try to cover, and Durant merely skims the surface, but if you’re absolutely clueless, like me, then you’ll appreciate a starting point that at the very least lays down a skeleton upon which to embroider. The Story of Philosophy is very Eurocentric. There’s no getting away from that. And though I don’t know enough yet to point out the holes, I can sense they’re there.

I loved seeing how the Greek philosophers built on each other’s viewpoints, and how the seeds of modern thought were sown from Socrates through to Plato and Aristotle. Spinoza is one I’d love to dip into again, as is Voltaire, though I do admit that I struggled with the chapters on Kant and Schopenhauer. Nietzsche deserves a volume all of his own, but his fire is inspiring. Another philosopher mentioned in the American chapters that I’d like to look into is George Santayana, who straddled Old and New World thinking.

I’d dearly love to say more but I admit freely that my mind is very much still like a leaky sieve when it comes to retaining the mechanics of the various philosophies. This I hope to remedy by focusing on the various areas in further reading. What I gained overall here was that bigger picture I needed to have in my head, which up until now was missing. Durant offers a good starting point. Yes, this book misses a lot, but I think it would dovetail nicely with others, especially as I continue my exploration. My next big read will be Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, which I suspect might supplement nicely. In the meanwhile, I’ve laid my hands on The Greek Philosophers by Rex Warner.

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