Thursday, May 17, 2007

Durant on Morality and Immorality

As you may recall, I recently discovered a first edition of Will Durant's "The Mansions of Glory", published in 1929. I was fascinated to find that much of what this forward-thinking philosopher predicted has come true, or is seen today. Equally fascinating are his mistakes. This is the last in my trilogy of posts.

In order to understand some of the following quotes today by Durant, it is necessary to understand he was an atheist. As an atheist, he could not refer to any religion or belief system as his guide to morality and immorality. In my personal opinion, there is much that follows which can be easily argued and I shudder at the thought of "one world order," but I am going to let him speak for himself.


"Aristotle and Bacon were right; man was by nature social, because societies had existed long before man, and humanity had inherited social habits - had carried sociability in its blood - along with the individualistic impulses to compete and kill. ...Evolution ceased to be physical, it became social; survival came not by individual power, but by group coherence and ability."

"The development of external danger and competition unified the members of a group into some measure of fellow-feeling (sympathy), group-feeling (kindness), sociability, and mutual aid; those simple virtues... were really social necessities for group survival; and the strange paradox appeared that the very violence of competition and strife among societies was the cause of cooperation and peace within; it was war, or the possibility of war, that make morality, as it made morale. ...In the light of this biological approach it becomes sufficiently obvious that the natural and inevitable basis and definition of morality is the cooperation of the part with the whole."

"(Once grown up) we discover that the "society" which we scorned (as teenagers), and to which we opposed... consists of nothing else than individuals too, each as precious as our incomparable selves. After long resistance we admit that morality can never be defined in terms of the individual, and that we must accept the good of the whole as the ultimate criterion by which to judge (when we must judge) the behavior of the part."

"How often must we judge? As the best government is still that which governs least, so the best morality is that which forbids least; freedom of life is so great a boon that those who wish to make morals for their neighbors are rightly considered enemies of the human race. We have seen how precarious every moral judgement is..."

In regards to geniuses and intellectuals: "...Such persons are set aside by nature, so to speak, to experiment with new ways of action, feeling, and thought; and to subject them to our normal and necessary "herd morality" is to frustrate the very purpose of their coming. We need not be much more severe with them than Pope Paul III, who, when advised to imprison Cellini for various acts of homicidal enthusiasm, replied: "You should know that men like Bevenuto, unique in their profession, stand above the law." Let us extend to our geniuses something of the leniency which we offer to our millionaires."

"...heroism is heroic precisely because it is so rare."

"Nothing is immoral unless it injures one's fellows; therefore, under certain circumstances, suicide is sinless."

"Again, if instinct or pleasure calls us, we shall not be wrong in following it, provided that no fellow-being is thereby harmed, and we ourselves suffer no hurt, of body or mind, to the detriment of the race. "Sin" ceases to have meaning except where the good of the whole is involved."

"Slowly trade and common interest merge nations into vast national groups, and provide the basis for an international morality. Soon all the world will agree that patriotism is not enough."

"If the state has grown like a leviathan, and has absorbed one parental right and function after another, it is not merely because our economic life has developed complex interrelations and contradictions which demand at the center of the community a coordinating and adjudicating authority; it is also because the individualism of industry has disintigrated paternal authority, and shorn the family of its ancient roles."

"...Until an international order is a reality, and humanity is organized to use and protect the allegiance of the individual, an ideally perfect morality - a cooperation of the part with the completest whole - will be but a counsel of perfection, like the command to resist not evil; what order there is in the world must be supported until a larger community comes."

"Of all the non-sexual difficulties that confront morality today, the only one that catches our concern is the absorbing problem of getting alcohol. Doubtless there is an ethical issue there, and the lawlessness that stems from a questionable law weakens the moral fibre of the whole community." (This was written during Prohibition)

"But alas, the only instrument now open to us for the control of industry within communal good is the state; and the state is not a moral entity, but a perpetually changing assortment of elected persons. The reformer longs for an omnipotent government, forgetting that this merely means omnipotent politicians. Better a hundred times that men should build up their own methods of cooperation and control, than that they should rely upon aldermen and policemen!" (In later years, Durant refused to press charges against thieves who had broken into his home and stolen jewelry. Of course, one wonders if he initially reported it to the police since they were the ones that apprehended the thieves!)

"When we have an economic world-order we shall begin to have a political world-order; when we have a political world-order we shall begin to have an international morality. ...Therefore let every experiment and tentative towards the new world-order be applauded and encouraged." (This was written pre-World War II)

"It is not in strong but in weak governments that the danger to freedom lies; it is when a state is imperiled that it puts an end to liberty."

"...Our sexual ambitions must submit to certain moral limitations. We may be tolerant of our inventive immorality, we may wish to study homosexuality, zooeroticism, ...scatophilia, on the stage we may smile at these audacious tentatives as guideless gropings towards another moral code. But we cannot satisfy our own hearts with any ethic that ignores the group..."


green said...

saur: Durant definitely has some interesting views and many with which I do not agree. But definitely interesting reading, to be sure.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Green, Yes, you and I see eye-to-eye on most things. I think that much of what he suggests and believes in this particular instance has been disproven by time. On the other hand, I think that the world IS moving to a "one-world order" and that if such a thing happens, it will not and can not work. Those of us viewing that from a Christian standpoint believe that it heralds the end of the world. But even from a non-Christian standpoint, we know enough of mankind to know that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

You've gone Durant mad!

Saur♥Kraut said...

Daniel, I decided to do one last post on Durant for all time. Tomorrow we return to scheduled programming (and I'll be speaking on Jerry Falwell).

green said...

end of the world or just the beginning (for Christians)?

Before you write on Jerry Falwell, I encourage you to check out Ben Witherington's blog. Witherington, a historian and New Testament professor at Asbury College, wrote a nice piece (on 5/16) about Dr. Falwell on his blog. I put more stock in other notable religious leaders' opinions about Falwell than the general media's viewpoint.

Senor Caiman said...


My mother use to make us cross the street when she saw a divorced woman approaching. I don't cross the street but I give them plenty of room.

Excellent post.

daveawayfromhome said...

I dont think we'll ever have a one-world order until we've got more than one world. Remember the "strange paradox... that the very violence of competition and strife among societies was the cause of cooperation and peace within".