Mansions of Philosophy by Will Durant
I don’t really remember when I was first introduced to Will Durant’s Mansions of Philosophy, but I do remember the exhilaration I felt as I turned every page for the first time. By the time I got to page 264, I was fully captivated by this Jesuit educated philosopher. I can unabashedly say that no three pages of anything I have ever read before or since have had the abiding impact on my life that Will Durant’s passage on the Positive Character [pages 264-266] has had.
“What he has above all is will.” This still jumps off page 266 like a bolt of lightning every time I turn to it.
He ends this remarkable passage with “He dies never doubting that life was a boon, and only sorry that he must leave the game to younger players.” And, for me, life has certainly been a boon.
For over 40 years, I still roam the Mansion chapters at random – never once leaving unmoved. I could site a hundred passages or more that have lifted my spirit, challenged my perspective, or honed my character. Although written in 1929, it remains as relevant as ever, while proving time and again that its impact on me is as enduring as it is relentless. Like 50 years of Fr. Sturm, it gives me no respite. It pushes me to reevaluate everything, never pausing to be complacent with the man I am. Yet, like Fr. Sturm, always providing me with the comfort of an appreciation for the gift of life and the man I might yet be. Yes, life is a dance, not a dress rehearsal; and it’s up to us to make the most of it.
Will Durant’s timeless perspective comes from his belief that “Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years.” Fortunately, this is balanced by his constant urging to live life in the present with a confident zeal for all that life is meant to be. I’m in it every minute.
Pick up a copy of the revised edition, The Pleasures of Philosophy, and I am certain that you will not be the lesser for it. It just might become one of your favorites.
The Third Factor: Genetics. Environment. Will.
Will Durant finds his way into the Advantage Co handbook directly and indirectly on every page. His influence on my business philosophy is as conspicuous as it is on my aesthetics.
37. Will Durant’s The Mansions of Philosophy. ‘We may take the same attitude to pugnacity and its advance agent, pride; these are virtues, not vices; and though we shall prune them, it is only to make them grow. Not quarrelsomeness, and not conceit: conceit is the imagination of victories to come, pride is the remembrance of victories achieved, and quarrelsomeness is the pugnacity of the weak. To fight does not mean of necessity to shout and strike; it may mean to persist quietly and politely to one’s goal.’
‘To be ambitious need not mean to be cruel and greedy; the strong man gives as readily as he earns, and finds his joy in building rather than in owning; he makes houses for others to live in, and money for others spend.’
‘Character does not come from conspicuous consumptions, it comes from construction and creation.’
57. The Mansions of Philosophy. In 1929, Will Durant wrote The Mansions of Philosophy, a story of human life and destiny, or, as the subtitle promises, an attempt at a consistent philosophy of life. It has been a chisel on my life. One of the most revealing chapters concerns itself with character. Character, in Durant’s view, is a sum of inherent dispositions and desires; it is a mosaic of instincts colored and rearranged by environment, occupation, and experience. Below he formulates the extremes: the negative and the positive character.
58. Here is his negative character: …If he meets a man he observes him unobserved, looking at everything but the eyes, and measuring the other’s power and intentions. If danger comes, he trembles with surprise and fear; he does not feel active anger, but is consumed with a fretful resentment; his violence is the mask of one who knows that he will submit. He shrinks from responsibility and trial. He believes that the world would entrust him with leadership if it had intelligence. If he succeeds in anything, he credits himself; if he fails, he is “not guilty”; it is the environment [i.e., other people] that is at fault, or the government, or the arrangement of the stars. He is a pessimist about the world, and an optimist about himself. Rest and inaction, being his essence, causes him to shun the sharper realities and tasks of life, and shrinks into a world of reverie, in which he wins many victories. These being his impulses, he is weak above all because his impulses are not coordinated by some purpose that dominates and unifies his life. He is restless though always seeking rest; he passes discontent from project to project and from place to place; he is a ship that never makes a port, while all its cargo rots. He is incapable of regularity or industry; and though he seems at times nervously busy, he finds himself unable to persist in a definite purpose. He is intense in intention and lax in application; he is given to bursts of passion that simulate strength, but they end in quick exhaustion and accepted chaos. He has a thousand wishes, but no will.
59. Here is the positive character: …If he looks at you it is face to face; but he does not look at you; he is absorbed in his enterprise, intent on his goal. His motto is ‘to have and to hold.’ It is his pugnacity that gives power to his purposes; in him desires are not timid aspirations, they are unavoidable impulsions; for their sake he will accept responsibilities, dangers, and wearing toil. He has more courage than virtue, and less conscience than pride. He has powerful ambitions; he despises limits, and suspects humility. If he meets a man stronger than himself, his impulse is not to bow down before him, but to honor him with emulation and rivalry. When he is defeated, it is after a struggle to exhaustion. He is curious; all processes lure him, and his mind plays actively about. He believes in action rather than thought, and like Caesar he thinks nothing finished if anything remains undone. He is domineering, and likes to think that men are bricks to his trowel, to build with them what he likes; and they find a secret zest in being led by him, he is so certain, so confident, and so cheerful. He has a hundred lives of action for one life of thought. What he has above all is will. A unity of aim, an order and perspective and hierarchy of purposes, molded in his character by some persisting and dominating design. He dies never doubting that life was a boon, and only sorry that he must leave the game to younger players.
Will Durant Musings
Truth always originates in a minority of one, and every custom begins as a broken precedent.
If man asks for many laws it is only because he is sure that his neighbor needs them; privately he is an unphilosophical anarchist, and thinks laws in his own case superfluous.
In my youth I stressed freedom, and in my old age I stress order.
Nothing is often a good thing to say, and always a clever thing to say.
The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.
Nature has never read the Declaration of Independence. It continues to make us unequal.
To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.
Every vice was once a virtue, and may become respectable again, just as hatred becomes respectable in wartime.
History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.