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Book Reviews - Note de lecture


Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization

Here's a quote taken from a series of books which have fascinated me ever since I saw them, years ago, in my father's library but mainly on his working desk every time I was allowed to see him writing. And regularly opened on specific pages, at that :

"It was part of the struggle between religion and science that the study of astronomy was forbidden by Athenian law at the height of the Periclean age. At Acragas Empedocles suggested that light takes time to pass from one point to another. At Elea, Parmenides announced the sphericity of the earth, divided the planet into five zones, and observed that the moon always has its bright portion turned toward the sun. At Thebes, Philolaus the Pythagorean deposed the earth from the center of the universe, and reduced it to the status of one among many planets revolving about a "central fire." Leucippus, pupil of Philolaus, attributed the origin of the stars to the incandescent combustion and concentration of material "drawn onward in the universal movement of the circular vortex." At Abdera, Democritus, pupil of Leucippus and student of Babylonian lore, described the Milky Way as a multitude of small stars, and summarized astronomic history as the periodical collision and destruction of an infinite number of worlds. At Chios Oenopides discovered the obliquity of the ecliptic. Nearly everywhere among the Greek colonies the fifth century saw scientific developments remarkable in a period almost devoid of scientific instruments."

Which series of books I am talking about ? - Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization published between 1935 and 1975 (New York, Simon & Shuster). Could have been sub-titled "Everything you want to know about civilization and then some". Eleven volumes totally 10.000 pages, and... then some :

    1. Our Oriental Heritage (1935) - Being a history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, and in India, China and Japan from the beginning to our own days. - With an introduction, on the nature and foundations of civilization.

    2. The Life of Greece (1939) - Being 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.

    3. Caesar and Christ (1944) - A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their Beginnings to A. D. 325.

    4. The Age of Faith (1950) - A History of Medietval Civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325 -1300.

    5. The Renaissance (1953) - A History of Civilization in Italy from I304-I576 A.D.

    6. The Reformation (1957) - A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300 -1564.

    7. The Age of Reason Begins (1961) - A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558-1648.

    8. The Age of Louis XIV (1963)  - A History of European Civilization in the Period of Pascal, Moliere, Cromwell, Milton, Peter the Great, Newton, and Spinoza: 1648-1715.

    9. The Age of Voltaire (1965) - A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756, with Special Emphasis on the Conflict between Religion and Philosophy.

    10. Rousseau and Revolution (1967) - A History of Civilization in France, England, and Germany from 1756, and in the Remainder of Europe from 1715 to 1789.

    11. The Age of Napoleon (1975) - A History of European Civilization from 1789 to 1815

A twefth and a thirteenth volume were to follow : 12 - The Age of Darwin and 13 -  The Age of Einstein, which would have taken The Story of Civilization through to 1945. - But  Ariel and Will did get old and...

Reminds me of something my father once said at the end of one of his conferences on God-knows-what when someone asked him about an obscure book he had just quoted : "Professor, when do you find time to read ?" - "Read ? You mean the book I just mentioned ? - Oh, that one, I wrote" was his reply.

It is true though : endeavouring to read The Story of Civilization entails a lot of courage and, let's face it : a lot of time. At 5 to 10 - condensed, mind you - pages a day, it'll take you between two and a half and five years to reach the end of this monumental achievement at which time most of what you will have read to begin with will be long gone... - Consider it as a series of reference manuals. Which is what I did when I found the above quote in the second volume, page 339, looking up Anaxagore for something else.

Like reading Proust's À la recherche du Temps perdu in French, then in English, then in French again which, I understand, Simon did. - No wonder he's so conceited... something he forgot to mention the last time he spoke about himself... or, at the very least, grouchy.

To come back to my quotation, considering that it took the Roman Caholic Church 350 years to admit that its XVIIth century philosophers, astronomers and theologians might have erred concerning Galileo (who had had the gall to confirm what the Greeks had speculated two thousands years before), I think that what Will and Ariel Durant said in the above paragraph should be printed out and sent to every parish throughout the world. Particularly in the Southern part of the USA where over half of the population still thinks that the universe was created in six days.

On the other hand, it could be accompanied by another quote, this time by James Burke, in the introduction to his magnificent "The Day the Universe changed" (Little, Brown & Company, 1985) :

"Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied: 'I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth.'--- The point is that it would look exactly the same. - When we observe nature we see what we want to see..."

Copoernique Marshall

Reference and additional notes :

The Story of Civilization - Kindle format - is available on Amazon for 99,99 $ - Also available on Hard Cover and Paperback editions in both used and new editions at various prices. - Watch out for the low prices : the handling and shipping costs will double if not triple the offered price.

The Day the Universe changed was a companion book to a 10 one-hour series or documentary that were broadcasted in 1985 on the BBC network (and subsequently on PBS and then again on The Learning Channel) which you can find, with a little patience, on YouTube. - The book itself is also worth reading.

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