The Story of Civilization

Will Durant

Our Oriental Heritage

The Life of Greece

A history of Greek civilization from the beginnings, and of civilization in the Near East from the death of Alexander, to the Roman conquest; with an introduction on the prehistoric culture of Crete.

Since the organization of a religious group presumes a common and stable creed, every religion sooner or later comes into opposition with that fluent and changeful current of secular thought that we confidently call the progress of knowledge.

There were, of course, many quacks and, as always, an inexhaustible supply of omniscient amateurs. The profession, as in all generations, suffered from its dishonest or incompetent minority; and like other peoples the Greeks revenged themselves upon the uncertainties of medicine by jokes almost as endless as those that wreak their vengeance upon marriage.

Many cities—above all, Sparta—forbade the public consideration of philosophical problems, "on account of the jealousy and strife and profitless discussions" (says Athenaeus) "to which they give rise."

No age has ever rivaled that of Pericles in the number and grandeur of its philosophical ideas, or in the vigor and exuberance with which they were debated.

The discussion of [Zeno's] paradoxes has gone on from Plato to Bertrand Russell, and may continue as long as words are mistaken for things.

Idealism offends the senses, materialism offends the soul; the one explains everything but the world, the other everything but life.

With the wisdom of Buddha, Pythagoras, and Schopenhauer [Empedocles] warned the human race to abstain from marriage, procreation, and beans.

To define morality or human worth in terms of knowledge, as Protagoras did a generation before Socrates, was a heady stimulus to thought, but an unsteadying blow to character; the emphasis on knowledge raised the educational level of the Greeks, but it did not develop intelligence as rapidly as it liberated intellect.

The announcement of the relativity of knowledge did not make men modest, as it should, but disposed every man to consider himself the measure of all things.

Wealth itself, without the aid of philosophy, puts an end to puritanism and stoicism.

If the Sophists criticized traditions and morals it was, of course, with no evil intent; they thought that they were liberating slaves. They were the intellectual representatives of their time, sharing its passion for the free intellect; like the Encyclopedists of Enlightenment France they swept away the dying past with magnificent élan, and did not live long enough, or think far enough, to establish new institutions in place of those that loosened reason would destroy.

In every civilization the time comes when old ways must be re-examined if the society is to readjust itself to irresistible economic change.

[Socrates] went prowling among men's beliefs, prodding them with questions, demanding precise answers and consistent views, and making himself a terror to all who could not think clearly.

[Socrates] protected himself from a similar cross-examination by announcing that he knew nothing; he knew all the questions, but none of the answers; he modestly called himself an "amateur in philosophy." What he meant, presumably, was that he was certain of nothing except man's fallibility, and had no hard and fast system of dogmas and principles.

The most powerful element in [Socrates'] influence was the example of his life and character. He became for Greek history a martyr and a saint; and every generation that sought an exemplar of simple living and brave thinking turned back to nourish its ideals with his memory.

The dialectic [Socrates] had received from Zeno was passed down through Plato to Aristotle, who turned it into a system of logic so complete that it remained unaltered for nineteen hundred years.

Pindar was not popular in his lifetime, and for some centuries yet he will continue to enjoy the lifeless immortality of those writers whom all men praise and no one reads.

In every age some men acquire more wealth than befits a man, and use it to spoil their children.

Every romantic becomes a pessimist when reality impinges upon romance.

Though myths may differ, reason remains the same, and the life of reason makes brothers of its lovers in all times, and everywhere.

The law of every being is self-development; no ambition, no empire, is ever content.

The most important weapon for an army is food, and the skill of a commander lies as much in finding supplies as in organizing victory.

Silver was mined in such abundance that the supply of the metal outran the production of goods, prices rose faster than wages, and the poor bore the burden of the change.

In the midst of this wealth poverty increased, for the same variety and freedom of exchange that enabled the clever to make money allowed the simple to lose it faster than before.

The middle classes, as well as the rich, began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor began to distrust it as a sham equality of votes stultified by a gaping inequality of wealth.

As the state religion lost its hold upon the educated classes, the individual freed himself more and more from the old moral restraints—the son from parental authority, the male from marriage, the woman from motherhood, the citizen from political responsibility.

The rhetors divided into parties, and tore the air with their campaigns. Each party organized committees, invented catchwords, appointed agents, and raised funds; those who paid the expenses of all this frankly confessed that they expected to "reimburse themselves doubly." As politics grew more intense, patriotism waned; the bitterness of faction absorbed public energy and devotion, and left little for the city. The constitution of Cleisthenes and the individualism of commerce and philosophy had weakened the family and liberated the individual; now the free individual, as if to avenge the family, turned around and destroyed the state.

Isocrates thought that the Assembly should be paid by Athens' enemies to meet frequently, since it made so many mistakes.

The life of thought endangers every civilization that it adorns.

Dionysius announced that Demeter had appeared to him in a dream and bidden him order all feminine jewelry to be deposited in her temple. He obeyed the goddess, and the women for the most part obeyed him. Soon afterward he "borrowed" the jewelry from Demeter to finance his campaigns.

The first principle of government is good example, to improve his people [the ruler] must make himself a model of intelligence and good will.

Undeserved fates come sometimes to individuals, but rarely to nations.

Plato, who hated oratory as the poison that was killing democracy, defined rhetoric as the art of governing men by addressing their feelings and passions.

Imperialism, [Isocrates] said, had ruined democracy by teaching Athenians to live on foreign tribute; losing that, they now wished to live on state contributions, and exalted to the highest offices those who promised them most.

Those who omit philosophy from their education, said Aristippus, "are like the suitors of Penelope; they… find it easier to win over the maidservants than to marry the mistress."

When a friend reproached [Aristippus] for kneeling before Dionysius he answered that it was not his fault if the King "had his ears in his feet."

When Dionysius asked [Aristippus] why philosophers haunt the doors of the rich, but the rich do not frequent the presence of philosophers, he replied: "Because the first know what they want but the second do not."

When a priest explained to Antisthenes how many good things the virtuous will enjoy after death, he asked, "Why, then, do you not die?"

Everything in religion but the practice of virtue seemed to the Cynics superstition. Virtue must be accepted as its own reward and should not depend on the existence of justice of the gods. Virtue consists in eating, possessing, and desiring as little as possible, drinking only water, and injuring no one.

Plato himself was too intense a poet to shackle his thought in a frame.

When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near. The rich, afraid that democracy will bleed them, conspire to overthrow it; or some enterprising individual seizes power, promises everything to the poor, surrounds himself with a personal army, kills first his enemies and then his friends "until he has made a purgation of the state," and establishes a dictatorship.

[Plato] felt, like Voltaire, that monarchy has this advantage over democracy, that in a monarchy the reformer has only to convince one man.

We are surprised to see how fully Plato anticipated the philosophy, the theology, and the organization of medieval Christianity, and how much of the modern Fascist state.

[Plato] concluded to a suppression of all free reasoning, a conviction that philosophy must be destroyed in order that man may live. He himself would have been the first victim of his Utopias.

It is unnecessary to sit in judgement on Aristotle's work. Never before, so far as we know, had anyone reared so impressive an edifice of thought. When a man covers a vast field many errors may be forgiven him if the result adds to our comprehension of life.

When all deductions have been made [Aristotle] still remains "the master of those who know," an encouraging testimony to the elastic range of the human intellect, and a comforting inspiration to those who labor to bring man's scattered knowledge together into perspective and understanding.

Like so many men of action, [Alexander] mourned that he could not be also a thinker.

Religion is stronger than politics.

Energy is only half of genius; the other half is harness.

Individualism in the end destroys the group, but in the interim it stimulates personality, mental exploration, and artistic creation.

History, like nature, knows only continuity amid change... history makes no leaps.

The basic principle of democracy is freedom inviting chaos; the basic principle of monarchy is power inviting tyranny, revolution, and war.

Skepticism is uncomfortable; it leaves the common heart and imagination empty, and the vacuum soon draws in some new and encouraging creed.

In all intellectual ages [education] [stresses] knowledge more than character, and [produces] masses of half-educated people who, uprooted from labor and the land, [move] about in unplaced discontent like loosened cargo in the ship of state.

The Greeks offered the East philosophy, the East offered Greece religion; religion won because philosophy was a luxury for the few, religion was a consolation for the many.

There is always, in any society, a minority whose instincts rejoice in the permission to persecture; it is a release from civilization.

Though there is drama in the details of strife, there is a dreary eternity in its causes and results; such history becomes a mental attendance upon the vicissitudes of power, in which victories and defeats cancel one another into a resounding zero.

Periodically, the concentration of wealth becomes extreme, and gets righted by taxation or by revolution.

Poets began to write for poets, and became artificial; scholars began to write for scholars, and became dull.

"A big book is a big evil"—of whose truth the reader may find an instance at close hand.

One can never tell in what tense man's gratitude is felt.

Mere facts are worthless except through their interpretation, and the past has no value except as our roots and our illumination.

Youth cannot last forever, nor are its charms supreme.

To add one significant proposition to geometry is of greater value to humanity than to besiege or defend a city.

But for the abundance and cheapness of slaves Archimedes might have been the head of a veritable Industrial Revolution.

Determinism does not imply indulgence; we must hold ourselves, and others, morally responsible for every action. When Zeno beat his slave for stealing, and the slave, having a little learning, said "But it was fated that I should steal," Zeno answered, "And that I should beat you."

Epicurus won the Greeks, Zeno won the aristocracy of Rome; and to the end of pagan history the Stoics ruled the Epicureans, as they always will.

No nation is ever conquered until it has destroyed itself.

Civilization does not die, it migrates; it changes its habitat and its dress, but it lives on. The decay of one civilization, as of one individual, makes room for the growth of another; life sheds the old skin, and surprises death with fresh youth.

Caesar and Christ

A history of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Philosophy is the quest for understanding through perspective.

The study of antiquity is properly accounted worthless except as it may be made living drama, or illuminate our contemporary life.

Pedants love to disprove the accepted, which mischievously survives.

The Etruscans, like the Romans, thought it dangerous to let civilization get too far from the brute.

The robbers were justified who, when they rifled Etruscan tombs, left so much of the pottery.

Liberty, in the slogans of the strong, means freedom from restraint in the exploitation of the weak.

Early civilizations thought of virtue in terms of rank, ability, and power.

Modern theory lives by nibbling at tradition.

Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects.

The Romans thought it just that the right to vote should be proportioned to taxes paid and military duties required.

The Roman army conquered the world on a vegetarian diet.

Rome remained great as long as she had enemies who forced her to unity, vision, and heroism. When she had overcome them all she flourished for a moment and then began to die.

No nation is ever defeated in its textbooks.

We have no native account of Carthage's history. Of its architecture the Romans left not a stone upon a stone.

A popular assembly cannot wisely choose generals or direct a war.

The greater urgency of the male supplies woman with charms more potent than any law.

What increases with civilization is not so much immorality of intent as opportunity of expression.

The older Romans used temples as their banks, as we use banks as our temples.

Man's vanity yields only to hunger and love.

Opponents of war are easily silenced by charges of cowardice and lack of patriotism.

Usually the power of woman rises with the wealth of a society, for when the stomach is satisfied hunger leaves the field to love.

(if we may believe the historians—and we must not)

The principle of democracy is freedom, the principle of war is discipline; each requires the absence of the other.

Men in their migrations carry along their gods.

The Roman government was never displeased by the ignorance of the multitude.

There was no treaty of peace, for the Carthaginian state no longer existed.

In the city the lot of the slave was mitigated by humanizing contacts with his master and by hope of emancipation; but on the large farms no human relation interfered with exploitation.

No reform can endure which is opposed by the balance of economic or political power in the state.

A friend cut of Caius' head, filled it with molten lead, and brought it to the Senate, which had offered a reward of its weight in gold.

[Sulla] restored the old when he should have created the new.

Men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal.

Men begin by seeking happiness and are content at last with peace.

The constitution of man always rewrites the constitutions of states.

It was not quite hypocrisy; he would have called it statesmanship.

The world honors form as well as substance, art as well as knowledge and power.

[Caesar] accepted a large bribe from the king of Egypt to come and quell a revolt there, and then refrained from carrying out the compact on the ground that it was illegal.

By diverse means men come to the same end.

Soldiers depend upon money, money upon power, and power upon soldiers.

Men who have been deprived of wonted power cannot be mollified by pardoning their resistance; it is as difficult to forgive forgiveness as it is to forgive those whom we have injured.

Rome had completed the fatal cycle known to Plato and to us: monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchic exploitation, democracy, revolutionary chaos, dictatorship. Once more, in the great systole and diastole of history, an age of freedom ended and an age of discipline began.

Morals, which had been loosened by riches and luxury, had not been improved by destitution and chaos, for few conditions are more demoralizing than poverty that comes after wealth.

Childlessness was spreading as the ideal of a declining vitality; and a shallow sophistication prided itself upon its pessimism and cynicism.

The difficulties of freedom multiply with the area it embraces.

[Augustus'] powers were not much greater than those of Pericles or Pompey, or any energetic American president; the difference lay in their permanence.

Octavian was one of those cautious men who believe that honesty is the best policy, but that it must be practiced with discrimination.

The power of wealth checked the pride and privilege of birth, and a hereditary aristocracy checked the abuses and irresponsibility of wealth.

At [Augustus'] death the Empire covered 3,340,000 square miles, more than the mainland of the United States, and over a hundred times the area of Rome before the Punic Wars.

Augustus was convinced, as became the grandson of a banker, that the best economy was one that united freedom with security. He protected all classes with well-administered laws, guarded the highways of trade, lent money without interest to responsible land-owners, and mollified the poor with state grain, lotteries, and occasional gifts; for the rest he left enterprises, production, and exchange freer than before.

[Augustus] destroyed his own happiness by trying to make people good as well as happy; it was an imposition that Rome never forgave him. Moral reform is the most difficult and delicate branch of statesmanship; few rulers have dared to attempt it; most rulers have left it to hypocrites and saints.

Antiquity took slavery for granted, and would have contemplated with horror the economic and social effects of a wholesale emancipation, just as the employers of our time fear the sloth that might come from security.

It was not good, [Augustus] felt, for the present to break too sharply with the past; a nation must have a continuity of traditions to be sane, as a man must have memory.

A large number of native-stock Romans avoided wedlock altogether, preferring prostitutes or concubines even to a varied succession of wives. Of those who married, a majority appear to have limited their families by abortion, infanticide, coitus interruptus, and contraception.

The decay of the ancient faith among the upper classes had washed away the supernatural supports of marriage, fidelity, and parentage; the passage from farm to city had made children less of an asset, more of a liability and a toy; women wished to be sexually rather than maternally beautiful; in general the desire for individual freedom seemed to be running counter to the needs of the race.

Laws are vain when hearts are unchanged.

[Augustus] advised young men to enter soon upon an active career, so that the ideas they had learned from books might be tempered by the experience and necessities of life.

Life's final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one's self and be forbidden to die.

All these things the old Emperor keenly saw and felt. No one then could tell him that despite a hundred defects and half a dozen idiots on the throne, the strange and subtle principate that he had established would give the Empire the longest period of prosperity ever known to mankind; and that the Pax Romana, which had begun as the Pax Augusta, would in the perspective of time be accounted the supreme achievement in the history of statesmanship. Like Leonardo, [Augustus] thought that he had failed.

If peace and security are more favorable than war to the production of literature and art, yet war and profound social disturbances turn up the earth about the plants of thought and nourish the seeds that mature in peace. A quiet life does not make great ideas or great men; but the compulsions of crisis, the imperatives of survival, weed out dead things by the roots and quicken the growth of new ideas and ways.

Writers ceased to mingle with the people, ceased therefore to describe their ways or speak their language; a divorce set in between literature and life that finally sucked the sap and spirit out of Latin letters.

Marriage was to the ancients a union of families rather than of bodies or souls; and the demands of religion or fatherland were placed above the rights or whim of the individual.

We do not enjoy the windy speeches with which [Aeneas] kills good men, adding a rhetorical boredom to that competitive perforation which is humanity's final test of truth.

The real religion of the Aeneid is patriotism, and its greatest god is Rome.

Only the reader who has tried to write can guess the toil that made [the Aeneid] so smooth and adorned it with so many passages of sonorous melody that every second page cries out for quotation, and tempts the tongue.

Even beauty palls upon us if its eloquence is prolonged.

The chief charm of the past is that we know we need not live it again.

Authors dream of writing with lazy leisure and laborious care.

A philosopher is a dead poet and a dying theologian.

Oratory subsided as the making of laws and decisions passed in reality if not in form from Senate and assemblies to the secret chambers of the prince.

Only supreme artists like Virgil or Horace can produce good verse to governmental specifications; greater men would refuse, lesser men are unable to comply.

Repetition can make even love a bore.

When great men stoop to sentiment the world grows fonder of them; but when sentiment governs policy empires totter.

Sanity, like government, needs checks and balances; no moral can be omnipotent and sane.

A woman need not be beautiful to commit adultery.

Nor could religious belief encourage Nero to morality; a smattering of philosophy had liberated his intellect without maturing his judgement.

Only misers, [Nero] said, counted what they spent.

When an inventor showed him plans for a hoisting machine that would greatly reduce the need for human labor in these enterprises of removal and construction, he refused to use it, saying, "I must feed my poor." In this moratorium on invention Vespasian recognized the problem of technological unemployment, and decided against an industrial revolution.

Feeling the hand of death upon him [Vespasian] nevertheless kept his bluff humor. Vae! puto deus fio, he remarked—"Alas, I think I am becoming a god."

Only the noblest spirits can bear with equanimity the success of their friends.

All Latin historiography is present politics, a partisan blow struck for contemporary ends.

Vanity flourishes even in the humble.

[Domitian] complained that the lot of rulers was miserable since no man believed them when they alleged conspiracy, unless the conspiracy succeeded.

Tradition is the voice of time, and time is the medium of selection; a cautious mind will respect their verdict, for only youth knows better than twenty centuries.

Without eloquence only generals could rise in Rome; and even generals had to be orators.

In every epoch something is decaying and something is growing.

In truth [Seneca] never made up his mind which he loved better—philosophy or power, wisdom or pleasure; and he was never convinced of their incompatibility.

The first lesson of philosophy is that we cannot be wise about everything. We are fragments in infinity and moments in eternity; for such forked atoms to describe the universe, or the Supreme Being, must make the planets tremble with mirth.

Philosophy is the science of wisdom, and wisdom is the art of living. Happiness is the goal, but virtue, not pleasure, is the road. The old ridiculed maxims are correct and are perpetually verified by experience; in the long run honesty, justice, forbearance, kindliness, bring us more happiness than ever comes from the pursuit of pleasure.

Like all Stoics [Seneca] underestimated the power and value of feeling and passion, exaggerated the worth and reliability of reason, and trusted too much to a nature in whose soil grow all the flowers of evil as well as of good.

In philosophy all truth is old, and only error is original.

Despite all difficulties, there was probably more traveling in Nero's day than at any time before our birth.

Exploitation of the weak by the strong is as natural as eating and differs from it only in rapidity; we must expect to find it in every age and under every form of society and government.

We are in danger of exaggerating the cruelty of the past for the same reason that we magnify the crime and immorality of the present—because cruelty is interesting by its very rarity.

A proposal that slaves be required to wear a distinctive dress was voted down in the [Roman] Senate lest they should realize their numerical strength.

The Roman economy was a system of laissez faire tempered with state ownership of natural resources—mines, quarries, fisheries, salt deposits, and considerable tracts of cultivated land.

Like most nouveaux riches, [the Romans] tended to value objects according to cost and rarity rather than by beauty and use.

Art was to antiquity what industry is to modernity. Men could not then enjoy the lavish abundance of useful products now poured forth by our machines; but they could, if they cared enough, gradually surround themselves with objects whose zealously finished form gave to all who lived with them the subtle and quiet happiness of beautiful things.

No mind is broad enough to understand, much less to rule, the world.

Originality is not parthenogenesis; it is, like parentage, a novel combination of pre-existing elements.

All cultures are eclectic in their youth, as education begins with imitation; but when the soul or nation comes of age it stamps its character, if it has any, upon all its works and words.

Self-respect is the backbone of upright conduct.

History, like the press, misrepresents life because it loves the exceptional and shuns the newsless career of an honest man or the quiet routine of a normal day.

Doubt, however honest, cannot take the place of belief.

The Principate established itself first by the use of force and then by the force of use.

Law tends to lag behind moral development, not because law cannot learn, but because experience has shown the wisdom of testing new ways in practice before congealing them into law.

Corruption has an ancient pedigree and a probable future.

The older the civilization, the longer the lawsuits.

Since the victor must rule, it is a boon that the rules of his mastery should be clearly expressed; in this sense law is the consistency of power.

Radicals do not grow up in palaces.

It is easy for indignation to be elegant but hard for it to be fair; no moralist should write history.

It is pleasant to contemplate the imperfections of our neighbors and the despicable inferiority of the world as compared with our dreams.

Around the immoral hub of any society is a spreading wheel of wholesome life, in which the threads of tradition, the moral imperatives of religion, the watchfulness of women and policemen, suffice to keep us publicly decent and moderately sane.

Youth does not come twice to a man, a nation, a literature, or a language.

Nothing reaches maturity except through the fulfillment of its own nature.

Even saints are vain, and the greatest man of action has moments of weakness in which he aspires to write a book.

Whatever power establishes security and order will send taxgatherers to collect something more than the cost.

It is not always a boon that our enemies should write a book.

The egocentric foreshortening of history telescopes eventful centuries, and erases vital generations from a crowded memory.

It is refreshing to find a philosopher who is wise enough to be happy.

There is no telling what some future Copernicus will do to our present Ptolemies.

Men will accept the rational only in the form of the mystical.

Experience suggests that an old tradition must not be too quickly rejected; our ancestors were not all fools.

Nothing is new except arrangement.

Protestantism was the triumph of Paul over Peter; Fundamentalism is the triumph of Paul over Christ.

Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world.

Historically the belief in heaven and the belief in utopia are like compensatory buckets in a well: when one goes down the other comes up.

The function of history is to illuminate the present through the past.

Rome died in giving birth to the Church; the Church matured by inheriting and accepting the responsibilities of Rome.

A man's quota of energy seldom allows him to be great in both his life and his seed.

A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.

The Age of Faith

A History of Medieval Civilization—Christian, Islamic, and Judaic—from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325–1300

No religion can hope to win and move the common soul unless it clothes its moral doctrine in a splendor of marvel, legend, and ritual.

Eloquence is seldom accurate.

Institutions and beliefs are the offspring of human needs, and understanding must be in terms of these necessities.

We can only mourn over the absurdities for which men have died, and will.

Congregations like to be scolded, but not to be reformed.

The soul of the simple man can be moved only through the senses and the imagination, by ceremony and miracle, by myth and fear and hope; he will reject or transform any religion that does not give him these.

Eminence makes enemies.

The lives of great men all remind us how brief is immortality.

Justinian can be forgiven his passion for unity; it is the eternal temptation of philosophers as well as of statesmen, and generalizations have sometimes cost more than war.

Thrift is a virtue which, like most others, must be practiced with discrimination.

Any historian who strains his pen to prove a thesis may be trusted to distort the truth.

There is something unpleasant in literary attacks upon persons who can no longer speak in their own defense.

It is discouraging to note how many things were known to the youth of our civilization, which are unknown to us today.

Every influence was used to stimulate marriage and the birth rate, in order that manpower should suffice in war; in this aspect Mars, not Venus, is the god of love.

Modern improvements in transport and communication have permitted greater wars.

We cannot judge past beauty by present ruins.

Nothing is lost in history: sooner or later every creative idea finds opportunity and development, and adds its color to the flame of life.

The populace is always more royalist than the king.

New ideas are welcomed only if promising early material advantage.

The Koran, which excoriates the Jews, is the sincerest flattery they have ever received.