Notes & Quotes: Fallen Leaves by Will Durant

Only one thing is certain in history, and that is decadence; only one thing is certain in life, and that is death.

Fallen Leaves by Will Durant gives the reader a peak into the mind of one of the greatest historians of the 20th century.

Durant writes a series of essays on topics about life, aging, relationships, religion, morality, history, and more. He provides his opinions and perspective on these topics through his wonderful writing.

Durant’s best known for writing massive histories of Western Civilization, but Fallen Leaves reading will give the reader insight into his personal philosophy. He writes some of the most readable, and relatable, essays on the human experience.

The first several essays comprise the circle of life: birth, youth, middle age, old age, death. Each essay moves the reader on a deep, emotional level as you can see yourself, your family, and the people you’ve lost in his writing.

As the book goes on, he reflects on morality, on the changing times, on religion, on capitalism and communism, on war, on education, on politics, and more.

You will learn about his philosophy, his political leanings, and his thoughts on the changing world of the 1960s & 70s, the time during which he wrote these essays.

What follows are some of my favorite passages from the various essays. Take your time with each passage and reflect upon the wisdom from one of the 20th centuries greatest minds.


OUR LIFE BEGINS

Childhood may be defined as the age of play; therefore some children are never young, and some adults are never old.

ON YOUTH

It is never tired; it lives in the present, regrets no yesterdays, and dreads no morrows; it climbs buoyantly a hill whose summit conceals the other side. It is the age of sharp sensation and uncoiled desire; experience is not soured yet with repetition and disillusionment; to have sensation at all is then a sweet and glorious thing. Every moment is loved for itself, and the world is accepted as an esthetic spectacle, something to be absorbed and enjoyed, something of which one may write verses, and for which one may thank the stars.

Meanwhile youth is learning to read (which is all that one learns in school), and is learning where and how to find what he may later need to know (which is the best of the arts that he acquires in college).

Nothing learned from a book is worth anything until it is used and verified in life; only then does it begin to affect behavior and desire.

It is Life that educates, and perhaps love more than anything else in life.

ON MIDDLE AGE

At thirty-five a man is at the height of his curve, retaining enough of the passion of younger years, and tempering it with the perspective of widened experience and a more mature understandings

The commuter is the picture of middle age.

He breakfasts between headline, and kisses his wife and children a hurried good-bye; he rushes to the station, exchanges meteorological platitudes with his duplicates along the platform, reads his paper, walks precariously through Lower Manhattan’s fruit and filth, and clings like a drowning man to a subterranean strap while he is whirled with seismic discomfort to his toil.

Arrived, his importance subsides; instead of great decisions to be made he finds, for the most part, a soporific routine of repetitious details.

He plods through them loyally, looks longingly at the clock that keeps him from his home, and thinks how pleasant it will be to spend the evening with his family.

At five he rides again in suspended animation to his train, exchanges alcoholic audacities with this duplicates, and assumes a philosophical dignity as he contemplates the daily tragedies of the national game.

At six he is home, and at eight he wonders why he hurried so.

ON OLD AGE

As sensations diminish in intensity, the sense of vitality fades; the desire for life gives way to indifference and patient waiting; the fear of death is strangely mingled with the longing for repose.

ON DEATH

Life is that which can hold a purpose for three thousand years and never yield. The individual fails, but life succeeds. The individual is foolish, but life holds in its blood and seed the wisdom of generations. The individual dies, but life, tireless and undiscourageable, goes on, wondering, longing, planning, trying, mounting, longing.

OUR SOULS

On rejecting determinism:

I incline to trust my immediate internal perception beyond any parade of syllogisms.

How many things have been “proved” by “logic” and then discarded by later logicians—Euclidian propositions by Gauss and Riemann, Newtonian physics by Einstein.

Logic itself is a human creation, and may be ignored by the universe.

OUR GODS

Durant’s moral and religious philosophy summed up:

If I could live another life, endowed with my present mind and mood, I would not write history or philosophy, but would devote myself to establishing an association of men and women free to have any tolerant theology or no theology at all, but pledged to follow as far as possible the ethics of Christ, including chastity before marriage, fidelity within it, extensive charity, and peaceful opposition to any but the most clearly defensive war.

OUR RELIGION

To me the “death of God” and the slow decay of Christianity in the educational classes of Christendom constitute the profoundest tragedy in modern Western history, of far deeper moment than the great wars or the competition between capitalism and communism.

ON A DIFFERENT SECOND ADVENT

Religions are not made by the intellect, else they would never touch the soul or reach the masses, or achieve longevity.

A successful religion without incredible elements would be incredible; the imagination must be stirred, some vision or poem must be superimposed by a creative faith upon an existences so dulled with drudgery and prose, so weighted with suffering and defeat.

We cannot expect a religion to be a body of scientific propositions.

ON RELIGION AND MORALS

They will never satisfy the moralist, for morality is unnatural, goes against the grain; we are equipped by nature for a hunting life in the woods and fields, rather than a mechanical life in cities, offices, and factories.

But the problem of moral degeneration must be solved, for in the last analysis morality and civilization are one.

ON SEX

I am not sure I would want our sexual sensitivity to be reduced, for it is half the zest of life.

Probably our sense of beauty is an offshoot of that sensibility; all other forms of beauty seem to be derived from the beauty of woman as the object of male desire and female envy; and perhaps the sense of sublimity has its primary source in female and male admiration of virile strength.

To condemn sexual sensitivity would be to outlaw the esthetic feeling and response, and so to cut the richest roots of art.

ON WAR

Strife is dramatic, and (to most of our historians) peaceful generations appear to have no history.

So our chroniclers leap from battle to battle, and unwittingly deform the past into a shambles.

In our saner moments we know that it is not so; that lucid intervals of peace far outweigh, in any nation’s story, the mad seizures of war; that the history of civilization—of law and morals, science and invention, religion and philosophy, letters and art— runs like hidden gold in the rivers of time.

The causes of war are psychological, biological, economic, and political—that is, they lie in the natural impulses of men, in the competitions of groups, in the material needs of societies, and in the fluctuations of national ambition and power.

ON CAPITALISM AND COMMUNISM

In both systems the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things.

Prescient passage on the conflict between security and liberty:

Usually internal freedom varies inversely with external danger: the greater the danger the less the freedom.

Liberty has diminished in the United States because airplanes and missiles have reduced the power of the oceans to protect us from external attack.

As improved communications and transport override frontiers, all major states are caught in a web of perils that erode liberty and make for compulsory order.

In the next world war all participating governments will be dictatorships, and all involved economies will be socialist.

ON ART

Art without science is poverty, and science without art is barbarism.

Let every science strive to fulfill itself in beauty or wisdom, and let us rejoice when a science becomes an art.

ON EDUCATION

Three basic goods should determine education and define its goals: First, the control of life, through health, character, intelligence, and technology; second, the enjoyment of life, through friendship, nature, literature, and art; and, third, the understanding of life, through history, science, religion, and philosophy.

Education is the perfecting of life—the enrichment of the individual by the heritage of the race.

On the Insights of History

And so it is with a city, a country, a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it.

It is the present, not the past, that dies; this present moment, to which we give so much attention, is forever flitting from our eyes and fingers into that pedestal and matrix of our lives which we call the past.

It is only the past that lives. Therefore I feel that we of this generation give too much time to news about the transient present, too little to the living past.

We are choked with news, and starved of history.

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