Will Durant was a remarkable historian and phenomenal writer. In “The Story of Philosophy”, he selected a number of great philosophers from Plato to William James and was able to cover the gamut of thought. Durant brought to the reader, through the great feat of paraphrasing, the essence of each great mind. Remarkably, in this work, Durant was able to completely mask his own ideas and theories with those of his subjects: Plato, Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, James, and others. By doing so, it’s impossible to tell what Durant’s view is on anything except for his love and respect for philosophy. Reading this monumental work will undoubtedly lead to a greater respect for writer of the book as much as it leads to a greater respect for the philosophers described in its pages. Durant is concise, thoughtful, and often humorous in this epic tale of human cognition.
For each philosopher, written about roughly in chronological order, the author gives a biographical account of his life, complete with upbringing, relationships, and major events before he delves into the philosophical journey that each of his subjects underwent, followed by their impact on society. As one reads “Story” it is fascinating to note the progression of the “study of the causes of things” and how each new thought was introduced by its thinker. If one doesn’t have time to read each philosopher, this survey of history’s best is a great–possibly a better–way to get to know them.
This is certainly, though not clearly stated, a story of Western philosophy, but that shouldn’t detract from its excellence. There are no Taoists, Buddhists, or Eastern thinkers included. Roman and Medieval thinkers are also conspicuously absent, but that says more about those ages philosophical content than the author’s editing ability. Don’t expect to find strictly religious philosophers either. Jesus is mentioned as an influence for or opposed to the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers, especially, and on, but the ancient theologist’s ideas themselves are missing.
Durant concedes that his work is not an equal opportunity survey–he focuses on the most important philosophers in order to give them their due diligence and the result is something that should be admired for its content, not its holes.
The resultant impression, after reading “Story” multiple times, is that of awe. If ever there’s a need for inspiration, enlightenment, or entertainment, Durant’s masterpiece should provide nicely.
– JSB Morse