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THE SUNDAY STAR, Washington DC, October 15, 1967


BOOKS: Final Volumes in Two History Series




THE STORY, OF CIVILIZATION. Part X: Rousseau and Revolution. By Will and Ariel Durant.. Simon & Schuster. 1,091 pages. $15.

HISTORY OF MANKIND: Culture and Scientific Development, Volume VI: The Twentieth Century. By Caroline F. Ware, K. M. Panikkar, and J. M. Romein. Harper & Row, 1,387 pages. $18.50.



   The varied nature of historical writing is evident in the contrast between these two huge volumes. The Durant book could be read as a novel and is indeed, closer to the techniques of the novelist than it is to those of the professional historian. 

   The second volume, on the other hand, is sponsored by UNESCO and written by three well-known academic figures (of which the first only is yet alive); it would never be read for pleasure and largely lacks the qualities of "unity, coherence and emphasis" which my teacher told me were the basic essentials of good writing. Especially it lacks emphasis, since it largely consists of a series of well-informed essays on a variety of aspects of life in the 20th century, including some which might not be expected in a history book, such as recent advances in our knowledge of cell biology, or changes in domestic life, child-rearing, educational administration, and medical care. Many of these sections are so brief as to be little more than names with identifying phrases. All of them have undergone the criticism of "experts" from dozens of nations contributing to UNESCO, and the text was modified, to some extent, in answer to these criticisms, until the deaths of Romein and Panikkar in 1962-63 closed the door to textual changes, and reduced the "experts'" objections to lengthy notes, with explanations from the surviving author, at the end of each chapter. The majority of these objections are from countries of the Communist bloc and are generally of such a doctrinaire tone as to raise questions about the quality of social studies in their respective countries. As a consequence of this lengthy process, the text, which was finished by April 1960, is now published more than seven years later and does not take account of these last significant years. On the whole, the volume does not suffer unduly from this long delay.

   Each of these books forms the final volume of a series, and each marks a distinct improvement over the early volumes of its series. "Rousseau and Revolution," covering the years 1756-1789, is the tenth and last volume in the Durant series, because Will Durant, at the age of 82, does not want to tackle the complex problems of the next historic period concerned with the French Revolution and Napoleon. The series began 32 years ago and has improved steadily as it moved along. The basic Durant point of view that history is largely biography is a 19th century attitude which does not provide very sophisticated history, but in the hands of a man like Durant, who is a diligent student, an avid gossip, and a facile writer, it produces an interesting and readable book.

Balanced Judgments

   However unsatisfactory "Rousseau and Revolution" may be as history, in the sense that institutional arrangements are largely ignored, it will provide any non-historian with an entertaining and instructive account of a crucial period in Europe's past and will leave him, on the whole, with a vivid and sufficiently accurate impression of what it was like to live in that period just before and after our own American Revolution. The Durants have read widely, mostly in old books and especially memoirs, in the period. They provide a 15-page bibliography of these books and 38 pages of notes as references to specific points. Their judgments are balanced on the men and issues of the day and are probably as valid as those of most experts on the period. For the Durants know human nature, are interested in it, have examined much of the evidence, and are fully capable of making the subject interesting to others.

Authors: Will and Ariel Durant

   Although Rousseau's life forms the central framework of this volume, there are good chapters on other figures of the period: Voltaire in his old age, Mozart, Catherine the Great, Kant, Goethe, and Samuel Johnson. A major portion of the volume is concerned with culture (in the narrow sense): music, painting, literature, social life, philosophy, and the tastes of the day, almost all of it presented in biographical terms as the aspirations and efforts of particular persons in a particular historical context. Most of this strikes me as knowledgeable, fairly appraised and well-presented. To be sure, much of what I would regard as history is lacking — that is, the organizational and institutional patterns within which these people led their lives, including the economic system, the legal and constitutional systems, and the basic assumptions of the period which make its outlook distinctive, but just as a European of 1760 would live his life without being aware of these patterns in any explicit way so a reader of this volume can read it and live vicariously in the period without being aware of these institutional frameworks.

   This is a book to be read by non-historians, for its vicarious experience, just as such persons have been reading long modern novels like Uris' "Exodus" or Michener's "Hawaii."


   From the vivid and biographical approach of the Durants, we turn to the impersonal, institutional, and statistical approach of the UNESCO volume.  This is also the final volume of a series, in which the middle three volumes are still unpublished.  It is far better than the first two volumes, especially volume II, which may well have been the worst history book to appear in a decade, a mélange of gross factual errors, omissions, and misinterpretations.  But this volume, after a weak start, does a fairly good job on a very difficult task and under very adverse conditions.

   Although the contributions of the three authors are not distinguished, I can see the influence of Caroline Ware (and of her husband, the well-known economist, Gardner Meer of Vienna, Va., in the second, and best, of the book's four parts.

   Unfortunately, the Introduction and Part 1, which cover 19 chapters and 646 pages, start on a low level of quality and do not reach an acceptable level for three-quarters of their length. Much of this early portion is a World Almanac of facts rather than a history, since it merely enumerates events of the 20th century without making any effort to go into their relationships, causes, and significance.

   Chapter I, as a historical introduction, tells us that there were two World Wars, with an economic depression between them, followed by a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union after the second war. To this is added a mention of the decline of European hegemony and the rising tide of nationalism and anti-colonialism in this century. Few readers will obtain any increase of either knowledge or understanding from that chapter.

   Part I concerned with "The Development and Application of Scientific Knowledge" is only slightly better. For example, Chapter X, "Transport," has eight sections on motor transport, air transport, pipelines, railways, the bicycle, etc. It adds to our knowledge a few lines on traffic congestion and pollution from exhaust fumes, tells us such things as that the London Underground opened in 1863 and the Budapest subway in 1896, but it has almost nothing to say on the social consequences of increased mobility. Such mobility, along with the influence of war, has had profound influence on the relations of the sexes, but all that we find here (p. 296) is the statement, "The automobile could affect patterns of courtship.

Social Sciences

   The final section of Part I, concerned with advances in the social sciences (Pages 527- 646) shows a marked improvement. Its four chapters provide a good sketch of the growth of social theories, changes in the home, an excellent section on the changing environment of the city, and an interesting description of the growth of the social services and social welfare.

   Part II, “The Transformation of Society," covers 330 pages and, except for one section, is excellent. It covers changes in ideas, economics, social institutions, political institutions, military, religion, education and leisure. Of these the section on economic changes is outstanding, although it does not go quite far enough in its analyses to explain why the money flows of our society today can provide so many billions for equipment and capital construction but cannot find anything substantial for men or for amenities.

   The section on military changes, here and elsewhere in this volume is poor, which is doubly unfortunate in view of the increasing importance of the topic. It sees the subject only in terms of weapons and technology, increased speed and fire-power, when the most significant changes of the century have been in ideas and in the ways in which weapons are used. The most important change in ground warfare in the century, the German shift from attack in lines with reserves thrown against the enemy strong points to attack in columns with reserves thrown against enemy weak points and ignoring the old bogey of avoidance of the dangers of crossfire (1917) is not mentioned. Similarly, the most significant event in the utilization of air power, that is the obsession of airmen with strategic bombing, in spite of its failure to produce results, and their constant reluctance to get involved in the much more productive activity of tactical bombing (at least in English-speaking countries) also goes unmentioned.

Doomed to Failure

   Parts III (on "The Self-Image and Aspirations of the Peoples of the World") and IV (on literature and the arts) are adequate but episodic, and fall again below the high level of Part II. As a result, it can hardly be said that the volume as a whole stands as a satisfactory fulfillment of "the pioneer effort of UNESCO to bring an international view to the writing of world history."

   Perhaps, in the absence of any such as international point of view, the effort was doomed to failure. The preface admits that the "general approach" was criticized from three groups and three points of view: From traditional western liberalism; from the Marxist Communist camp, and from the Roman Catholic unchanging spiritual values.

   I might add that many historians who owe allegiance to none of these three might also criticize the work as a whole on the grounds that its whole point of view is too strongly under the influence of 19th century positivism, materialism, and objectivism. But Part II, the core of the book, offers a brief and outstanding exposition of a very complex subject, the transformation of human institutions in the 20th century, and as such is worth the attention of any historian interested in the period.


Scans of original review

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