Will Durant

Fallen Leaves

Fallen Leaves is a series of essays on, as the subtitle suggests, life, love, war and god. Though it delves much deeper into morals, sex, politics, education and art. The essays were written during the later years of Will Durant’s life and were published posthumously.

It is a book that very few knew to exist at the time of his death in 1981. Published over thirty years after his passing, this final manuscript set free the suppression of his opinions that may have existed in his other work. It is intimate and personal, traversing a mind that has ventured through more than we can ever know.

The essays amalgamate Durant’s philosophy of life into an honest portrait of all that he has learned and experienced. The prose is succinct and concise, endowing a comforting certainty to the reader.

Durant’s ideas span out from singular points into overarching concepts. There is a sense of timelessness to much of his perspective, shaping our continuity of existence as something connects us to the past in a very distinct way.

The human condition is complex and Durant is able to articulate these complexities in a seemingly revelatory way. He highlights tensions that exist as part of our condition, such as the contradictory principles between family and society.

The principal of family is one of mutual aid which tends to eternally conflict with society’s emphasis on competition. There has always been a struggle for existence in society, an underlying elimination of the weak and survival of the strong. Its essence is embodied in every walk of life, apart from where the concept of family most strongly opposes it.

Youth can often call upon the world to make itself a family, to give the welcome and protectionship of the home. Though slowly it is drawn into the gamble of this individualistic life. The zest of the game creeps into the blood, as acquisition is aroused and stretches out both hands for gold and power.

There is a battle between the many dualities of life, of course there is one that is inescapable, death. We feel sometimes abandoned by life and it is in those times we feel that it is hard to praise. But we always hope to find it again. The world is separate from us, it is not our idea, however we can feel grounded and connected by that.

‘The trees will grow and wither whether I perceive them or not; seasons will succeed one another whether or not there is an eye to watch their procession; dying trees may fall even if no ear is near to hear their crash.’

We live in the flames of our own desire, we all know this, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. Some flames burn higher and longer than others, however there is always a final defeat. Will is desire expressed in ideas that become actions unless impeded. Our character is the sum of our desires, fears, propensities, habits, abilities and ideas.

We are surrounded by these constantly as they whirl closer to a place of hope rather than oblivion. As Spinoza said:

‘desiderium ipsa essentia hominis - desire is the very essence of man’

I really love Durant’s essay on education. He defines three basic goods that determine education and define its goals. There is the control of life, through our health, character, intelligence and technology. Our enjoyment of life through friendship, nature, literature and art. And finally our understanding of life, through history, science, religion and philosophy.

I like the idea of education as something that is all encompassing, though it is that nature of the idea that is hard to escape. However, in our own society it tends to be constricted to be something much more shallow. Sometimes rejecting the influence of the external is to exist in a mind that you were always meant to be.

Durant views history as the master of almost everything in this world. We can often be told how we might behave, or how we should behave, however history tells us how we have behaved, which is something that should never be dismissed.

History is often a series of full circles. If anything is clear in the experience of mankind, it is that successful revolutionists soon behave like the men they have overthrown. History smiles at revolutions as understandable reactions but unprofitable and transient. Though they may give vent to just resentment, surface change often occurs, and under new names and phrases old realities survive.

‘The rebellion ends; the game goes on.’

This applies on a macro scale but is also the human condition itself. You are your past, your face is your autobiography. You are what you are because of what you have been and because of every element of environment that has affected you. Every person you have met, every book you have read, every experience you have had; all these accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul.

‘The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in the second of time.’

Love is the one thing that outweighs everything. It is all consuming and always will be. Maybe it’s something that people only realise too late. Durant felt that we may be selling the most precious thing in our civilization, for the sake of the desolate security that cowards find in gold. This is something that is so deeply resonant that it feels like it always exists both on the surface and far below. The duality of love and its all encompassing singularity.

‘How can it matter what price we pay for love?’