Will Durant: Man and the State

Liberty is the luxury of security; the free individual is a product and a mark of civilization.—Will Durant

There was a time when Will Durant’s multivolume Story of Civiliation was as ubiquitous as the Encyclopedia Britannica—an impressive bookshelf display of intellectual respectability—even if, as I suspect, it gathered more dust than actual readers. Most libraries still retain these tomes in a kind of decrepit splendor. I doubt Durant has many fans today, and this is unfortunate.

I admire Durant’s impeccable yet popular style. There is also the lucidity of his thinking. He was one of those mid-twentieth century secular savants whose skepticism cut both ways. While his assumptions were sometimes untraditional, he was too honest an observer to accept all the new dogmas of progressivism. A case in point is his treatment of man and the state.

Durant begins his first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, with an account of primitive humanity and a meditation on the role of economic and political factors in the emergence of organized society. He begins thus:

Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation…. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishments of life.

What interests me is the subject of savage versus settled society. Durant offers extensive anecdotes about contemporary and recently defunct tribal cultures. Firsthand observers apparently found much to admire in these primitive lifestyles; and it impossible not to compare societies without finding good (and bad) on both sides. Durant points out, however, that many of these descriptions are not only ideal but likely “idealized.”

The “Golden Age” of uncivilized humanity is a durable myth. The greatest Greek and Roman philosophers spoke of it, as a kind of persistent racial memory, and today we find leftists and rightists alike espousing variations on the same theme. It may be appealing. But it remains a manifestation of selective reasoning and sentimentality. As for liberty and society, it is not simply a case of “too much government and too little freedom.” Although a surplus of political oversight is oppressive and stifling, anarchy and tribalism have their drawbacks as well.

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