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A Response to Heroes of History

Heroes of History, by Will Durant, is an overview of the turning points of civilization and also an abbreviated version of his larger work The Story of Civilization and was a very helpful book to read for numerous reasons.

Will Durant sees himself as a philosopher–historian meaning that instead of just presenting human history as a dry collection of facts, he tries to see the meaning and capture the essence in them. He puts many important events and representative people into perspective and invites the reader to look deeply into history. When reading this small overview of the history of humanity (in comparison to how much history there actually is), I really started to get the sense of how wild and weird the story of humanity is. I could begin to see how different periods in time transitioned and made possible the next periods. The book illustrates how much flow there is in history and the patterns we repeat and sometimes move out of for a time. Durant gives a helpful introduction explaining what civilization is in the first place; explaining patterns such as how periods of moral slippage and decay are often followed by a chapter in history where a puritan–like morality comes into play and vice versa. It also explains how men were domesticated when they moved from being hunter–gatherers and turned into town–dwelling farmers who needed to learn manners and etiquette as a survival technique.

The book helped me to learn a bit about the past and the large story of how we all came to be to some extent. While looking at history from such a broad perspective it is a bit easier to see the ups and downs of humanity and see how God is working in history and Satan as well. It also helps by showing how similar all the generations of humanity are to some extent. Some of the parts were hard to read because of how rotten they seemed to be but others were just the opposite.

Some particularly miserable periods, events and organizations in history presented by the book include things like the Catholic church and the Peasant Wars of the 1300s. It’s helpful to see both of these with ambiguity though because in the case of the Catholic church, many people came out of it and with the Peasant Wars of the 1300s, I’m sure there was ambiguity there too. The reason why the Catholic church in history seems so out of sorts is because over time the desire for power overwhelmed the followers of Christ and more or less the Catholic church became more of a political and human power rather than a God–inspired one. In one council meeting, the prelates/clergy met together to determine how to re–center Catholicism to combat against fragmentation within the church. These decisions included the execution of the "heretic" (or actually a follower of Christ) John Wyclif and the condemnation of Desiderius Erasmus’ writings. Almost consistently throughout history the Catholic church worked hard to suppress actual Christianity and condemned actual manifestations of Christ, essentially becoming just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time: stuck in their ways, worldly and addicted to their own ideas such as the sale of indulgences and the authority of the papacy.

Some good did come out of the Catholic tradition though in the form of people such as St. Theresa and Ignatius of Loyola. St. Theresa founded an order of nuns who practiced extreme denial of worldly pleasures and temptations and also taught people. Ignatius of Loyola actually started out as a relatively worldly army member. He was with some people one day and asked if they had any books to read and as it turns out, the only books they had were two concerning Christianity. This turned him over to Christ and brought him into a cave to practice rigorous asceticism for a while.

The Peasant Revolts of the 1300s were also particularly bad examples of humanity. The peasants were spurred on by Martin Luther’s 97 Theses, particularly the parts which asked for an equality between the upper classes and peasants. They didn’t really take in Martin Luther’s whole message but just used it as an excuse to turn their situations into total anarchy, raiding villages, drinking all the wine, destroying churches and basically turning into animals in the name of Christian revolution.

Some more good examples of humanity that I read about included people such as the Chinese philosopher; Confucius, the philosophers of Greece and Rome (like Plato, Aristotle etc.), Francis Bacon and Martin Luther. The Golden Age of Athens was also fun to read about. Here is a quote from Francis Bacon about atheism that stuck out for me:

"The causes of atheism are: divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division, addeth zeal to both sides; but many divisions introduce atheism. Another is, scandal of priests; when it is come to that which St. Bernard saith, non est jam dicere, ut populus sic sacerdos; quia nec sic populus ut sacerdos. A third is, custom of profane scoffing in holy matters; which doth, by little and little, deface the reverence of religion. And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion."

And here is a quote from Will Durant talking about part of the book of Job:

"It is a happy ending, but tame and joyless and yet again the bet that we can make. Who are we — mites in a moment’s mist — that we should understand the universe? Philosophy is a study of the part in the light of the whole; and its first lesson is that we are very small parts of a very large whole. The harmony of the part with the whole may be the best definition of beauty, truth, wisdom, morality and happiness."

Overall, I’m glad I read Heroes of History. It was a good introduction to the story of humanity and I hope to learn more about it in my life. It served as a good starting point even though Will Durant never finished it because of his death. He actually wrote the book when he was 97! Talk about an active and lively mind! This book is packed with locations, people, years and events. I’m hoping to listen to or read the Durant’s (Will and his wife Ariel) enormously large The Story of Civilization to get an in–depth picture of humanity. It’s good to remember the past to have some sort of idea of how and why we’ve come to be what we are, what caused it all and of course so that we can try not to repeat the past, at least on a personal level.

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