Will Durant

On this date in 1885, William James "Will" Durant was born in North Adams, Mass., one of 11 children born to French-Canadian parents. Durant earned his B.A. from St. Peter’s College in New Jersey in 1907 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1917. He was an accomplished historian and philosopher who wrote numerous books, including The Story of Philosophy (1926), but his fame was achieved mainly through the comprehensive 11-volume The Story of Civilization (1927–75), co-written with his wife, Ariel Durant.

The books document the entire history of Western civilization. The Durants were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968 for Rosseau and Revolution (volume 10 of The Story of Civilization) and the 1963 Huntington Hartford Foundation Award for Literature for The Age of Louis XIV.  Durant wrote numerous other historical and analytical works and three were published posthumously, including Heroes of History (2001) and Fallen Leaves (2014).

Durant was born into a Catholic family and spent seven years at Jesuit schools, including St. Peter’s College and Seminary. Then he lost his faith to the point that he could “no longer think of becoming a priest.” (Quoted in A Dual Autobiography, 1977.) Durant wrote: “By the end of my sophomore year, I had discovered, through Darwin and other infidels, that the difference between man and the gorilla is largely a matter of trousers and words; that Christianity was only one of a hundred religions claiming special access to truth and salvation; and that myths of virgin births, mother goddesses, dying and resurrected deities, had appeared in many pre-Christian faiths, and had helped to transform a lovable Hebrew mystic into the Son of God.”

Before getting his doctorate, he taught at Seton Hall University and at the Ferrer Modern School, where one of his pupils was Chaya (Ida) Kaufman. They married in 1913 when she was 15 and he was 28. He nicknamed her Ariel after the imp in Shakepeare's "The Tempest" and she later legally changed her name. They had a daughter, Ethel, and raised a foster son, Louis, whose mother was Flora — Ariel's sister.

The Durants died within two weeks of each other in 1981 and are buried in Los Angeles.

“Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative.”

—Will and Ariel Durant, "The Lessons of History" (1968)

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor and Eleanor Wroblewski

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