Will Durant: The Story of Philosophy

My original plan for June was to review A New Song For the Lord by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. However, I decided I needed a little bit more time. Its conclusions are just too radical. We are in an odd situation: The head of a key Roman Congregation proposing changes which many would consider shocking, even subversive.

So I decided to give A New Song for the Lord another month to percolate and tackle an easier book: The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. It had been a few years since I last read Durant's delightful work. When I came across the unabridged audio tapes in the Seattle Public Library, I couldn't resist.

"The Story of Philosophy" was first published in 1926. It was an instant success because it responded to the average person's desire to know what the greatest thinkers have said on the most important questions. Their views are presented in such a clear and colorful manner, it is easy to overlook the shortcomings. I won't complain about the fact he omits all philosophers from Augustine to Aquinas. I do not write this review to defend the scholastics or even other Catholic philosophers like Blase Pascal or John Henry Newman. They can speak for themselves.

However, I do question two of Durant's assumptions. They run through his work and underlie much of his criticism of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact they are the great uncritical assumptions of our modern age and often cause an unthinking rejection of faith.

First, Durant assumes that the moral law is a product of evolution. What we call "conscience" is simply one more mechanism for survival. Natural selection favored people who did not steal, told the truth and honored their parents. While such an inner voice may not have been to each individual's advantage, it favored the continuance of the human species.

Durant uses this viewpoint to dismiss Immanuel Kant's argument for the existence of God. If the great German philosopher knew what we know about the evolutionary basis for morality, he would not have been so confident that the existence of the moral law points to a Lawgiver. Furthermore if he traveled beyond Konigsberg he would have known how culture-bound that law really is.

But Kant is not so easily dismissed. I won't repeat the arguments here; in a separate article I show that the moral law is deep, persistent and universal. It can be found in each one of us though we often disobey it. But even when we do, we passionately appeal to it and use it to judge others. The same person who says "do not impose your morals on me" will himself call upon its basic precepts.

Much better minds than my own have explained what the essential moral law is and why it has such power within us all. My own favorite is C.S. Lewis. His book "The Abolition of Man" is the most concise refutation of moral relativism. And of course the Holy Father devotes his great encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" to a philosophical and theological exposition of what he calls "the most democratic" law because it applies to rich and poor, young and old, and to people of every culture and time.

If Durant too uncritically accepts a relativism about the moral law, there is another area where he makes a much more uncalled-for assumption. He presumes that belief in God and more specifically belief in the after-life is mainly a product of wishful thinking.

In explaining the popularity of Bergson, he tells how middle age women would flock to his lectures. According to Durant, they did so because the French philosopher gave some support to their belief in a spiritual world. Now, this is certainly a cut on women, particularly ones who have a long life to their credit. (My own experience of middle aged women is that they are shrewder and less gullible than many "intellectuals" I have known, but that is another story.) What matters here is that the evidence does not warrant the "wishful thinking" theory.

The flaw in the argument can be shown by a simple analogy. Which would you prefer this afternoon: a peaceful nap or an IRS audit? This answer indicates who the real wishful thinkers might be. C.S. Lewis argued that the materialist philosophy of many can be explained by the fear of what would otherwise be a most uncanny world. That is, a world with spiritual beings, particularly one Spiritual Being. And they and/or He might impinge on our lives in ways that are inconvenient, if not downright scary.

Well, you get my drift. At the very least, the charge of "wishful thinking" can be applied just as well to belief in materialism as to belief in God. In the Story of Philosophy, Durant recognizes it as a kind of creed, a world view which explains much, but involves some huge assumptions. Believing in inviolable natural laws leads inescapably to determinism. Durant quotes Spinoza (who seems to be his hero) "a stone flying through the air, if it had consciousness, might think itself free, but it really is not." A thorough-going materialist would have to believe that every line of Hamlet was contained in the primordial nebula. The moral law would have no stronger claim than a belch. What business does anyone have to complain about being deceived or betrayed? It was all right there in the first nano-second of the Big Bang. That joy, that deep longing you sometimes feel, is just one more pre-determined molecular reaction. All this puts some pretty heavy traffic on the materialist bridge. Is it being held up by reason or its own blind faith? And might this faith involve its own wishful thinking? Is the materialist like some wide-eyed commentator on Deep Blue? So dazzled by the marvelous machine that he fails to recognize the Mind behind it?

And is there some middle ground between materialism and belief in God--a compromise solution which would give the "best of both worlds"? Is the sanest approach "agnosticism," what we in our culture sometimes call "secular humanism"?

If you are drawn to ask those kinds of questions, The Story of Philosophy is worth reading. But be alert to Durant's own uncritical assumptions.


Footnote: In comparing the particular judgement after death to an IRS audit, I am not invoking the old image of God as "scorekeeper." He will not put our bad deeds on one side and good deeds on the other, then see which way the balance goes. In fact, according to Jesus and Paul, our good deeds will mean nothing. Only humble confession and repentance will count in that crucial instance. To enter an eternal relation with God the last shred of pride will have to be burned away (Purgatory). At the same time every thought, word, deed and omission of our lives will be laid bare before Him--and we ourselves will finally be confronted with their consequences. If we approach that like an IRS audit--trying to defend ourselves--we will be doomed. But if we appeal to Jesus--to His Blood--our accounts will be cleared.

Path to Salvation.

The Challenge of Secular Humanism.

The Moral Law: A Response to Carl Sagan.

Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History