The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

Rating: 7/10

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High-Level Thoughts

It’s a great overview of the history of philosophy, told as a story where one set of ideas leads into the next. It’s just a bit dense and hard to get through at times.

Summary Notes

These book notes are mostly excerpts of interesting thoughts, they’re all direct quotations from the book.

Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement.

Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.

Specifically, philosophy means and includes five fields of study and discourse: logic, esthetics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics.

“Do you know,” asks Emerson, “the secret of the true scholar? In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him; and In that I am his pupil.”

Why did his pupils reverence him so? Perhaps because he was a man as well as a philosopher: he had at great risk saved the life of Alcibiades in battle; and he could drink like a gentleman—without fear and without excess.

One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt—particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms.

Twelve years he wandered, imbibing wisdom from every source, sitting at every shrine, tasting every creed. Some would have it that he went to Judea and was moulded for a while by the tradition of the almost socialistic prophets; and even that he found his way to the banks of the Ganges, and learned the mystic meditations of the Hindus. We do not know.

He answers, because of greed and luxury. Men are not content with a simple life: they are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they soon tire of what they have, and pine for what they have not; and they seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others.

Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle.

But even democracy ruins itself by excess—of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses

Plato complains that whereas in simpler matters—like shoe-making—we think only a specially-trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state.

Human behavior, says Plato, flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge. Desire, appetite, impulse, instinct—these are one; emotion, spirit, ambition, courage—these are one; knowledge, thought, intellect, reason—these are one.

“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and wisdom and political leadership meet in the same man, . . . cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race”

For the first ten years of life, education shall be predominantly physical; every school is to have a gymnasium and a playground; play and sport are to be the entire curriculum; and in this first decade such health will be stored up as will make all medicine unnecessary.

“To require the help of medicine because by lives of indolence and luxury men have filled themselves like pools with waters and winds, . . . flatulence and catarrh—is not this a disgrace? . . . Our present system of medicine may be said to educate diseases,”

he resumes his customary diet, and either gets well and lives and does his business, or, if his constitution fails, he dies and has done with it”

“How shall we find a gentle nature which has also great courage?—for they seem to be inconsistent with each other”

Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore do not use compulsion, but let early education be rather a sort of amusement; this will better enable you to find out the natural bent of the child (536).

Plato believes that a nation cannot be strong unless it believes in God.

division of labor must be by aptitude and ability, not by sex; if a woman shows herself capable of political administration, let her rule; if a man shows himself to be capable only of washing dishes, let him fulfil the function to which Providence has assigned him.

“We grant this permission with strict orders to the parties to do all in their power to prevent any embryo from seeing the light; and if any should force its way to birth, they must understand that the offspring of such a union cannot be maintained, and they must make their arrangements accordingly”

Morality, said Jesus, is kindness to the weak; morality, said Nietzsche, is the bravery of the strong; morality, says Plato, is the effective harmony of the whole.

Thales (640–550 B.C.), the “Father of Philosophy,” was primarily an astronomer, who astonished the natives of Miletus by informing them that the sun and stars (which they were wont to worship as gods) were merely balls of fire.

Where there is no strife there is decay: “the mixture which is not shaken decomposes.”

Spencer’s generalization that individuation varies inversely as genesis—that is, that the more highly developed and specialized a species or an individual happens to be, the smaller will be the number of its offspring.

we can choose what we shall be, by choosing now the environment that shall mould us; so we are free in the sense that we mould our own characters by our choice of friends, books, occupations, and amusements.

“For we choose happiness for itself, and never with a view to anything further; whereas we choose honor, pleasure, intellect . . . because we believe that through them we shall be made happy.”

Now the peculiar excellence of man is his power of thought; it is by this that he surpasses and rules all other forms of life; and as the growth of this faculty has given him his supremacy, so, we may presume, its development will give him fulfilment and happiness.

Virtue, or rather excellence,48 will depend on clear judgment, self-control, symmetry of desire, artistry of means; it is not the possession of the simple man, nor the gift of innocent intent, but the achievement of experience in the fully developed man.

Yet there is a road to it, a guide to excellence, which may save many detours and delays: it is the middle way, the golden

“the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life; . . . for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

as Socrates phrased the coarser Epicurean idea, we scratch that we may itch, and itch that we may scratch.

He is open in his dislikes and preferences; he talks and acts frankly, because of his contempt for men and things

He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.

“If what you have seems insufficient to you,” said the Roman Stoic Seneca (d. 65 A.D.), “then, though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.”

In Epictetus the Greco-Roman soul has lost its paganism, and is ready for a new faith. His book had the distinction of being adopted as a religious manual by the early Christian Church. From these “Dissertations” and Aurelius’ “Meditations” there is but a step to “The Imitation of Christ.”

“The wit and mind of man,” as Bacon put it, “if it work upon the matter, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and bringeth forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.”

As knowledge grew, fear decreased; men thought less of worshiping the unknown, and more of overcoming

“Some books are to be tasted,” reads a famous passage, “others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed and digested”;

Bacon offers some preliminary hints on how to rise in the world.

but rather . . . at times to dart out some sparks of a free and generous mind, that have no less of the sting than the honey.

“Philosophy directs us first to seek the goods of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied, or not much wanted.”

An idol, as Bacon uses the word (reflecting perhaps the Protestant rejection of image-worship), is a picture taken for a reality, a thought mistaken for a thing.

all the perceptions, both of the senses and the mind, bear reference to man and not to the universe; and the human mind resembles those uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects . . . and distort and disfigure them.”

“the human understanding, from its peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater degree of order and regularity in things than it really finds . . . . Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles.”

although most cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet either does not observe, or despises them, or it gets rid of and rejects them by some distinction, with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions.

All superstition is much the same, whether it be that of astrology, dreams, omens, retributive judgment, or the like, in all of which the deluded believers observe events which are fulfilled, but neglect and pass over their failure, though it be much more common.

“In general let every student of nature take this as a rule—that whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction, is to be held in suspicion; and that so much the more care is to be taken, in dealing with such questions, to keep the understanding even and clear.”

the great continent had not sunk after all, but only men’s courage to navigate the sea.

“On the Improvement of the Intellect”

But the more one possesses of either of them, the more the pleasure is increased, and the more one is in consequence encouraged to increase them; whereas if at any time our hope is frustrated, there arises in us the deepest pain.

Spinoza lays down a simple rule of conduct to which, so far as we know, his actual behavior thoroughly conformed:

First, then, there is hearsay knowledge, by which, for example, I know the day of my birth. Second, vague experience, “empirical” knowledge in the derogatory sense, as when a physician knows a cure not by any scientific formulation of experimental tests, but by a “general impression” that it has “usually” worked. Third, immediate deduction, or knowledge reached by reasoning, as when I conclude to the immensity of the sun from seeing that in the case of other objects distance decreases the apparent size. This kind of knowledge is superior to the other two; but is yet precariously subject to sudden refutation by direct experience; so science for a hundred years reasoned its way to an “ether” which is now in high disfavor with the physicist élite. Hence the highest kind of knowledge is the fourth form, which comes by immediate deduction and direct perception, as when we see at once that 6 is the missing number in the proportion, 2:4::3:x; or as when we perceive that the whole is greater than the part.

I believe that a triangle, if it could speak, would in like manner say that God is eminently triangular, and a circle that the divine nature is eminently circular; and thus would every one ascribe his own attributes to God.

One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy.

Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy.

A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstance, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government.

force. To hate is to acknowledge our inferiority and our fear; we do not hate a foe whom we are confident we can overcome.

“An emotion can neither be hindered nor removed except by a contrary and stronger emotion.”

“Men who are good by reason—i.e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them—desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.”

“Since fear of solitude exists in all men, because no one in solitude is strong enough to defend himself and procure the necessaries of life, it follows that men by nature tend towards social organization.”

Law is necessary because men are subject to passions; if all men were reasonable, law would be superfluous.

these powers were mutually destructive; it would withdraw no liberty except to add a greater one.

The further I advance in age, the more I find work necessary. It becomes in the long run the greatest

every triumph sharpens the sting of later defeats.

“You are right,” he replied. “I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were but as ignorant as my old neighbor; and yet it is a happiness which I do not desire.”

Voltaire refused; and like another Cato, began to end all his letters with “Crush the infamy.”

“If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”

“I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say

After all, when one tries to change institutions without having changed the nature of men, that unchanged nature will soon resurrect those institutions.

Voltaire and the liberals thought that intellect could break the ring by educating and changing men, slowly and peacefully; Rousseau and the radicals felt that the ring could be broken only by instinctive and passionate action that would break down the old institutions and build, at the dictates of the heart, new ones under which liberty, equality and fraternity would reign.

“He gave the human mind a great impetus; he prepared us for freedom.”

To adapt Hegel’s phrase about Spinoza: to be a philosopher, one must first have been a Kantian.

For the mind of man (and here at last is the great thesis of Kant) is not passive wax upon which experience and sensation write their absolute and yet whimsical will; nor is it a mere abstract name for the series or group of mental states; it is an active organ which moulds and coördinates sensations into ideas, an organ which transforms the chaotic multiplicity of experience into the ordered unity of thought.

They are à priori, because all ordered experience involves and presupposes them. Without them, sensations could never grow into perceptions. They are à priori because it is inconceivable that we should ever have any future experience that will not also involve them. And because they are à priori, their laws, which are the laws of mathematics, are à priori, absolute and necessary, world without end. It is not merely probable, it is certain that we shall never find a straight line that is not the shortest distance between two points.

Sensation is unorganized stimulus, perception is organized sensation, conception is organized perception, science is organized knowledge, wisdom is organized life: each is a greater degree of order, and sequence, and unity.

Antinomies are the insoluble dilemmas born of a science that tries to overleap experience. So, for example, when knowledge attempts to decide whether the world is finite or infinite in space, thought rebels against either supposition: beyond any limit, we are driven to conceive something further, endlessly; and yet infinity is itself inconceivable.

It is the categorical imperative in us, the unconditional command of our conscience, to “act as if the maxim of our action were to become by our will a universal law of nature.”

We know, not by reasoning, but by vivid and immediate feelings, that we must avoid behavior which, if adopted by all men, would render social life impossible.

The only thing unqualifiedly good in this world is a good will—the will to follow the moral law, regardless of profit or loss for ourselves.

“so act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of another, in every case as an end, never only as a means”:

they could then be as polite to each other as strangers, instead of hating each other like relatives.

Many years later Schopenhauer was so sure of having solved the chief problems of philosophy that he thought of having his signet ring carved with an image of the Sphinx throwing herself down the abyss, as she had promised to do on having her riddles answered.

Like a sensible pessimist, he had avoided that pitfall of optimists—the attempt to make a living with the pen.

He called the little poodle Atma (the Brahmins’ term for the World-Soul), but the wags of the town called it “Young Schopenhauer.”

The universities ignored him and his books, as if to substantiate his claim that all advances in philosophy are made outside of academic walls.

Life is short, but truth works far and lives long; let us speak the truth.

Fatigue, like pain, has its seat in the brain; muscles not connected with the cerebrum (like the heart) never tire.

“must not mislead us into extending sleep unduly; for then it loses in intensity . . . and becomes mere loss of time.”)

for thousands of years.53

The will is a will to live; and its eternal enemy is death.

while on the other hand, temperance in this respect increases all the powers, and especially the muscular powers, on which account it was part of the training of the Greek athletes;

To have read Herodotus is, from a philosophical point of view, to have studied enough history

“In general, the wise in all ages have always said the same things, and the fools, who at all times form the immense majority, have in their way too acted alike, and done the opposite; and so it will continue. For, as Voltaire says, we shall leave the world as foolish and wicked as we found it.”

As long as our consciousness is filled by our will, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with their constant hopes and fears, so long as we are subject to willing, we can never have lasting happiness or peace.”

“The satisfied passion oftener leads to unhappiness than to happiness. For its demands often conflict so much with the personal welfare of him who is concerned that they undermine it.”

We are not properly conscious of the blessings and advantages we actually possess, nor do we prize them, but think of them merely as a matter of course, for they gratify us only negatively, by restraining suffering.

“as soon as want and suffering permit rest to a man, ennui is at once so near that he

“life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and ennui. . . . After man had transformed all pains and torments into the conception of hell, there remained nothing for heaven except ennui.”74 The more successful we become, the more we

“As want is the constant scourge of the people, so ennui is the scourge of the fashionable world. In middle class the ennui is represented by the Sundays and want by the weekdays.”

Every epic and dramatic poem can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself.

It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal; as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtain fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.

“Suicide, the wilful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act, for the thing-in-itself—the species, and life, and will in general—remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may chance to fall.”

“People are often reproached for wishing for money above all things, and for loving it more than anything else; but it is natural and even inevitable for people to love that which, like an unwearied Proteus, is always ready to turn itself into whatever object their wandering wishes or their manifold desires may fix upon. Everything else can satisfy only one wish; money alone is absolutely good, . . . because it is the abstract satisfaction of every wish.”

“Men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is contributes more to his happiness than what he

he searches greedily from place to place for new sensations; and at last he is conquered by that nemesis of the idle rich or the reckless voluptuary—ennui.

“nothing will protect us from external compulsion so much as the control of ourselves.

“Only from the authors themselves can we receive philosophic thoughts: therefore whoever feels himself drawn to philosophy must seek out its immortal teachers in the still sanctuary of their own works.”

“other people’s heads are a wretched place to be the home of a man’s true happiness.”

When some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, and delivers knowledge out of the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively,—gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives.

Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with

“Genius consists in this, that the knowing faculty has received a considerably greater development than the service of the will demands.”

Philosophy was not something different from science; it was the coördination of all the sciences with a view to the improvement of human life.

And in the individual too, integration will give way to disruption; and that coördination which is life will pass into that diffuse disorder which is death.

The highest truth he sees he will fearlessly utter; knowing that, let what may come of it, he is thus playing his right part in the world—knowing that if he can effect the change he aims at—well; if not—well also; though not so well.

“Life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.”

“There is a story of a Frenchman who, having been three weeks here, proposed to write a book on England; who, after three months, found that he was not quite ready; and who, after three years, concluded that he knew nothing about it.”

Men prepare themselves with life-long study before becoming authorities in physics or chemistry or biology; but in the field of social and political affairs every grocer’s boy is an expert, knows the solution, and demands to be heard.

The noblest Greek art was a union of the two ideals,—the restless masculine power of Dionysus and the quiet feminine beauty of Apollo.

“My formula for greatness is Amor fati: . . . not only to bear up under every necessity, but to love it.”

“Will nothing beyond your capacity . . . . Be not virtuous beyond your ability; and demand nothing of yourselves contrary to probability.”

Varying foods have varying mental effects: rice makes for Buddhism, and German metaphysics is the result of beer.

“The man who does not wish to be merely one of the mass only needs to cease to be easy on himself.”

Man has come to control all other forms of life because he has taken more time in which to grow up; when he takes still more time, and spends that time more wisely, he may learn even to control and remake himself. Our schools are the open sesame to Utopia.

he thinks the first philosophers were the best; and of them all he ranks highest Democritus11 and Aristotle;

Or is it not much rather an automatic inward machinery that executes the marvelous work, while the mind catches here and there some glimpse of the operation, now with delight and adhesion, now with impotent rebellion?

He dislikes the ideal of equality, and argues with Plato that the equality of unequals is inequality.

Men accept or reject philosophies, then, according to their needs and their temperaments, not according to “objective truth”; they do not ask, Is this logical?—they ask, What will the actual practice of this philosophy mean for our lives and our interests? Arguments for and against may serve to illuminate, but they never prove.

They are merely tangent to curves of history,

Dewey added that even the science should not be book-learning, but should come to the pupil from the actual practice of useful occupations.

Real education comes after we leave school; and there is no reason why it should stop before our death.

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