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Book Title: The Age of Faith|
The author of the book: Will Durant
Edition: Simon & Schuster
Date of issue: 1980
ISBN 13: 9780671012007
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 333 KB
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Reader ratings: 4.7
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Several months ago, I had a little debate with a friend of mine, who is studying history, about the Middle Ages. I was arguing, I’m sorry to say, a simplistic and stereotyped version of that period. I noted that the science of the day was almost wholly derived from Aristotle and other classical philosophers; that Galen, a Roman physician, was still considered the major authority of medicine; that philosophy was so intermingled with theology as to be wholly compromised. My friend pointed out to me that, first, to judge a different time period by the standards of one’s own is always questionable; and second, these large generalizations don’t do justice to the daily reality of the time, and that there was doubtless much variation from place to place, and from time to time.
The debate influenced me enough to prompt me to look more closely into the period’s history. First, I made my way through the works of Augustine and Aquinas, who had long been on my to-read shelf. Meanwhile, I took a trip to the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a beautiful branch of the museum overlooking the Hudson River—constructed out of pieces of several European abbeys, transported to New York—which houses the Met’s impressive collection of medieval art. And, finally, I began on Will Durant’s Age of Faith, the massive fourth installment of his even more massive Story of Civilization, which covers the period from the death of Constantine (337) to the death of Dante Alighieri (1321).
An enormous amount of information is packed into these pages—so much that I can’t hope to do justice to it all in this review. To a large extent, this book is of a piece with the two preceding volumes, The Life of Greece and Caesar and Christ; it differs mainly in being larger and more varied in subject matter. Durant aims to tell the story of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the resulting political chaos of Western Europe; the gradual decline and fall of the Eastern Empire and the development of Byzantine culture; the emergence of the modern political landscape from the invasions and conquests of the Middle Ages; as well as the history of the three major religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The sections on Islam and Judaism I found especially impressive. What were the Dark Ages for Western Europe was the Renaissance for the Muslim World; and Durant’s lengthy chapters on Muslim and Jewish thinkers are both admirable and inspiring. Now I am determined to at least read Moses Maimonides, Averroës, and Avicenna, to do justice to the intellectual life of this time period.
Durant is a fine writer and an competent chronicler, but what sets him apart is his versatility. He can write ably about mythology, poetry, sculpture, architecture, commerce, philosophy, literature, religion, culture, medicine, music, art, war, language, and government. Certainly, he is by no means an expert in any of these subjects, and doesn’t pretend to be; and it is fair to say that his treatment of each tends to be superficial and cursory. But the final combination is, as the saying goes, more than the sum of its parts. What emerges is a compelling portrait of an entire era, from its trade routes to its wandering minstrels, from its superstitions to its greatest thinkers. And every ounce of his versatility is needed in these pages, for, as I soon learned, the Middle Ages were a complex and eventful time, a far cry from the sorry stereotype I had held before.
Just last week, I found myself standing inside the Toledo Cathedral. I sat in the pews and looked up at the vaulted ceiling, which seemed supernaturally suspended above me. Every surface of the building was significant; every picture told a story, every shrine commemorated a holy event. Generations of artists had collaborated on this structure, making the final product a mix of styles across centuries; and yet every element coalesced into a nearly perfect whole. Colored light poured in through the stained glass windows high up above; voices echoed and re-echoed, seeming to descend from the ceiling in a chorus of unintelligible whispers; an intoxicating smell, I believe of frankincense, wafted over the space; and as I sat there, I found myself agreeing with Santayana, that, stripped of its pretentions to reality, the Catholic faith might be the most compelling piece of art ever made.
Shortly after leaving the cathedral, I found myself in a museum of torture devices used in the Middle Ages. Though I’m sure the information was exaggerated to titillate the tourist, it was impossible to look upon these devices without feeling a sense of shame for all of humanity, that we could ever subject one another to these bizarre and horrid punishments—especially for something as intangible as a religious belief. (Though, to be sure, heresies were often tied to politically revolutionary movements.) The juxtaposition of these two things, the cathedral and the torture devices, summarized for me why you can’t form a verdict of an age; sublimity and barbarism so often, if not always, exist side-by-side.
Durant does his best to do justice to this strange concatenation of cruelty and superstition, faith and reason, worldliness and otherworldliness; and I’m happy to say that he mostly succeeds. He does, however, have his faults. For one, although he is versatile in subject matter, he is not a flexible writer. His style becomes somewhat monotonous as it roles on; and by this, the fourth volume, the reader is familiar with all of Durant’s favorite turns of phrase and rhetorical devices—though admittedly when one writes as much as Durant, it is forgivable to run out of tricks. Durant is also unfortunately fond of superlatives; these pages are filled with the words “most” and “best”—to the extent that it all becomes rather meaningless. Added to this is his penchant for broad, unsustainable stereotypes. For example, he persistently characterizes the French as clear writers and logical thinkers—which any reader of Foucault and Bourdieu knows to be claptrap.
But what really separates Durant from true greatness is his lack of depth, rigor, and originality. His analyses of history are superficial; his writing style is adapted from Gibbon, though considerably watered down; his explanations of scientific theories and philosophical ideas are often sketchy; and no idea in this volume can be said to originate with Durant. He is not a historian, nor is he a philosopher; rather, Durant is a popularizer. Durant frankly writes for a middlebrow audience, perhaps the same audience who subscribed to the Book of the Month Club and brought Mortimer Adler and his Great Books of the Western World to fame. In the U.S. in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, apparently, there was a widespread hunger among the middle class for classical learning; and in that light, Durant’s Story of Civilization can be seen as remedial education for bourgeois Americans with highbrow aspirations. After all, a blue-blooded member of the intelligentsia would hardly have need for these volumes.
But fortunately for Durant, if he is a popularizer, he is an exceedingly good one—perhaps one of the best. And being myself a member of the uncultured American middle class, this remedial education in European history and culture is much appreciated. Thus I have nothing but gratitude for his diligence, and a deep respect for his capacious and genial mind.
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Read information about the authorWilliam James Durant was a prolific American writer, historian, and philosopher. He is best known for the 11-volume The Story of Civilization, written in collaboration with his wife Ariel and published between 1935 and 1975. He was earlier noted for his book, The Story of Philosophy, written in 1926, which was considered "a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy."
They were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1967 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.
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