Selected Passages from The Story of Philosophy
13 min read

Selected Passages from The Story of Philosophy

Written by Will Durant, it beautifully condenses the underlying reading material into a coherent narrative that is both educational and enjoyable.

The Story of Philosophy is a 400-page summary of the major philosophical schools of thought. Written by Will Durant, it beautifully condenses the underlying reading material into a coherent narrative that is both educational and enjoyable.

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Table of Philosophic Affiliations

I've struggled with philosophy for years. The source material is often hard to read and overly verbose. I've tried and failed to read most of the "classics" more times than I can count.

On those rare occasions when I have been able to make inroads on more accessible texts, such as with Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis, I am left feeling as though I've come in at the end of a long story, lacking the context to understand why it was considered so groundbreaking.

Will is like a bricklayer, building a sturdy foundation one idea at a time. He introduces concepts within a historical setting, painting a picture of the world surrounding the philosopher's journey.

The book is split into chapters:

  1. Plato
  2. Aristotle & Greek Science
  3. Francis Bacon
  4. Spinoza
  5. Voltaire & The French Enlightenment
  6. Immanuel Kant & German Idealism
  7. Schopenhauer
  8. Herbert Spencer
  9. Friedrich Nietzsche
  10. Contemporary European Philosophers
  11. Contemporary American Philosophers

Each chapter includes a brief biography of the philosopher, the state of philosophy when they entered the field, and the major concepts they introduced. There are long passages taken verbatim from the underlying work, which helps to give a sense of each philosopher's style. In some chapters Will provides his own critique, but only at the end once he has first presented the ideas to the reader.

The book itself is well paced and can be read linearly or by jumping directly to the relevant section. Will's writing style is emblematic of someone who has learned from the greats; he combines witty aphorisms with deeper subtleties that makes the reader feel as though they are discovering the idea for themselves.

Good philosophy is invisible. If many of the ideas in this book seem obvious, it is only because they have so deeply permeated our culture that we can't imagine life without them.


There is hardly a problem or a solution in our current philosophy of mind and conduct which [the Greeks] did not realize and discuss. They asked questions about anything; they stood unafraid in the presence of religious or political taboos; and boldly subpoenaed every creed and institution to appear before the judgement-seat of reason. In politics they divided into two schools. One, like Rousseau, argued that nature is good, and civilization bad; that by nature all men are equal, becoming unequal only by class-made institutions: and that law is an invention of the strong to chain and rule the weak. Another school, like Nietzsche, claimed that nature is beyond good and evil; that by nature all men are unequal; that morality is an invention of the weak to limit and deter the strong; that power is the supreme virtue and the supreme desire of man; and that of all forms of government the wisest and most natural is aristocracy.

We cannot build Utopia with young people corrupted at every turn by the example of their elders. We must start, so far as we can, with a clean slate. It is quite possible that some enlightened ruler will empower us to make such a beginning with some part or colony of his realm. In any case we must give to every child, and from the outset, full equality of educational opportunity; there is no telling where the light of talent or genius will break out; we must seek it impartially everywhere, in every rank and race. The first turn on our road is universal education.

For we are likely to have trouble with these children of ours if we undertake to explain and justify everything to their simple minds. We shall have an especially hard time when they arrive at the age of twenty, and face the first scrutiny and test of what they have learned in all their years of equal education. Then will come a ruthless weeding out; the Great Elimination, we might call it. That test will be no mere academic examination; it will be practical as well as theoretical: "there shall also be toils and pains and conflicts prescribed for them". Every kind of ability will have a chance to show itself, and every sort of stupid will be hunted out into the light. Those who fail will be assigned to the economic work of the nation; they will be business men, and clerks, and factory workers, and farmers. The test will be impartial and impersonal; whether one is to be a farmer or a philosopher will be determined not by monopolized opportunity or nepotic favoritism; the selection will be more democratic than democracy.


See, here, how inventions make history: for lack of a telescope Aristotle's astronomy is a tissue of childish romance; for lack of a microscope his biology wanders endlessly astray. Indeed, it was in industrial and technical invention that Greece fell farthest below the general standard of its unparalleled achievements. The Greek disdain of manual work kept everybody but the listless slave from direct acquaintance with the processes of production, from that stimulating contact with machinery which reveals defects and prefigures possibilities; technical invention was possible only to those who had no interest in it, and could not derive from it any material reward. Perhaps the very cheapness of the slaves made invention lag; muscle was still less costly than machines. And so, while Greek commerce conquered the Mediterranean Sea, and Greek philosophy conquered the Mediterranean mind, Greek science straggled, and Greek industry remained almost where Ægean industry had been when the invading Greeks had come down upon it, at Cnossus, at Tiryns and Mycene, a thousand years before.

The chief condition of happiness, then, barring certain physical prerequisites, is the life of reason — the specific glory and power of man.

Virtue, or rather excellence, will depend on clear judgment, self-control, symmetry of desire, artistry of means; it is not the possession of the simple man, nor the gift of innocent intent, but the achievement of experience in the fully developed man. Yet there is a road to it, a guide to excellence, which may save many detours and delays: it is the middle way, the golden mean. The qualities of character can be arranged in triads, in each of which the first and last qualities will be extremes and vices, and the middle quality a virtue or an excellence. So between cowardice and rashness is courage; between stinginess and extravagance is liberality; between sloth and greed is ambition; between humility and pride is modesty; be tween secrecy and loquacity, honesty; between moroseness and buffoonery, good humor; between quarrelsomeness and flattery, friendship; between Hamlet's indecisiveness and Quixote's impulsiveness is self-control. "Right," then, in ethics or conduct, is not different from "right" in mathematics or engineering; it means correct, fit, what works best to the best result.

And human nature, the human average, is nearer to the beast than to the god. The great majority of men are natural dunces and sluggards; in any system whatever these men will sink to the bottom; and to help them with state subsidies is "like pouring water into a leaking cask." Such people must be ruled in politics and directed in industry; with their consent if possible, without it if necessary. "From the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, and others for command." "For he who can foresee with his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master; and he who can work only with his body is by nature a slave." The slave is to the master what the body is to the mind; and as the body should be subject to the mind, so "it is better for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master." "The slave is a tool with life in it, the tool is a lifeless slave."

Aristotle seems to suspect that this ideal enslavement of woman is a rare achievement for man, and that as often as not the sceptre is with the tongue rather than with the arm. As if to give the male an indispensable advantage, he advises him to defer marriage till the vicinity of thirty-seven, and then to marry a lass of some twenty years. A girl who is rounding the twenties is usually the equal of a man of thirty, but may perhaps be managed by a seasoned warrior of thirty-seven. What attracts Aristotle to this matrimonial mathematics is the consideration that two such disparate persons will lose their reproductive power and passions at approximately the same time. "If the man is still able to beget children while the woman is unable to bear them, or vice versa, quarrels and differences will arise… Since the time of generation is commonly limited within the age of seventy years in the man, and fifty in the woman, the commencement of their union should conform to these periods. The union of male and female when too young is bad for the creation of children; in all animals the off-spring of the young are small and ill-developed, and generally female." Health is more important than love. Further, "it conduces to temperance not to marry too soon; for women who marry early are apt to be wanton; and in men too the bodily frame is stunted if they marry while they are growing.

Yet democracy is on the whole inferior to aristocracy. For it is based on a false assumption of equality; it "arises out of the notion that those who are equal in one respect (e. g., in respect of the law) are equal in all respects; because men are equally free they claim to be absolutely equal." The upshot is that ability is sacrificed to number, while numbers are manipulated by trickery. Because the people are so easily misled, and so fickle in their views, the ballot should be limited to the intelligent. What we need is a combination of aristocracy and democracy.

It is again the absence of experiment and fruitful hypothesis that leaves Aristotle's natural science a mass of undigested observations. His specialty is the collection and classification of data; in every field he wields his categories and produces catalogues. But side by side with this bent and talent for observation goes a Platonic addiction to metaphysics; this trips him up in every science, and inveigles him into the wildest presuppositions. Here indeed was the great defect of the Greek mind: it was not disciplined; it lacked limiting and steadying traditions; it moved freely in an uncharted field, and ran too readily to theories and conclusions. So Greek philosophy leaped on to heights unreached again, while Greek science limped behind. Our modern danger is precisely opposite; inductive data fall upon us from all sides like the lava of Vesuvius; we suffocate with uncoordinated facts; our minds are overwhelmed with sciences breeding and multiplying into specialistic chaos for want of synthetic thought and a unifying philosophy. We are all mere fragments of what a man might be.

Francis Bacon

Lastly, there are idols which have migrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophers, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theatre, because in my judgment all the received systems of philosophy are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion.

And in the plays of this philosophic theater you may observe the same thing which is found in the theater of the poets, that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as we would wish them to be, than true stories out of history." The world as Plato describes it is merely a world constructed by Plato, and pictures Plato rather than the world.

In one of the finest passages, "to distinguish the three kinds, and as it were grades, of ambition in mankind. The first is of those who desire to extend their power in their native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men; this certainly has more dignity, but not less covetousness. But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition is without doubt both a more wholesome thing and a nobler than the other two." It was Bacon's fate to be torn to pieces by these hostile ambitions struggling for his soul.


Those who wish to seek out the causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.

He had learned the optical trade while living in the Jewish community; it was in accord with Hebrew canon that every student should acquire some manual art; not only because study and honest teaching can seldom make a livelihood, but, as Gamaliel had said, work keeps one virtuous, whereas "every learned man who fails to acquire a trade will at last turn out a rogue."

It has been the one song of those who thirst after absolute power that the interest of the state requires that its affairs should be conducted in secret... But the more such arguments disguise themselves under the mask of public welfare, the more oppressive is the slavery to which they will lead.

Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.

Numbers by themselves cannot produce wisdom, and may give the best favors of office to the grossest flatterers. "The fickle disposition of the multitude almost reduces those who have experience of it to despair; for it is governed solely by emotions, and not by reason." Thus democratic government becomes a procession of brief-lived demagogues, and men of worth are loath to enter lists where they must be judged and rated by their inferiors. Sooner or later the more capable men rebel against such a system, though they be in a minority. "Hence I think it is that democracies change into aristocracies, and these at length into monarchies"; people at last prefer tyranny to chaos. Equality of power is an unstable condition; men are by nature unequal; and "he who seeks equality between unequals seeks an absurdity." Democracy has still to solve the problem of enlisting the best energies of men while giving to all alike the choice of those, among the trained and fit, by whom they wish to be ruled.


When Rousseau sent to Voltaire his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, with it arguments against civilization, letters, and science, and for a return to you for it.
the natural condition as seen in savages and animals, Voltaire replied: "I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I think no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes; to read your book makes one long to go on all fours. As however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it." He was chagrined to see Rousseau's passion for savagery continue into the Social Contract: "Ah, Monsieur," he writes to M. Bordes, "you see now that Jean Jacques resembles a philosopher as a monkey resembles a man.” He is the "dog of Diogenes gone mad." Yet he attacked the Swiss authorities for burning the book, holding to his famous principle: "I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And when Rousseau was fleeing from a hundred enemies Voltaire sent him a cordial invitation to come and stay with him at Les Délices. What a spectacle that would have been!


But Locke, good Christian though he was, ready to argue most eloquently for "The Reasonableness of Christianity," could not accept these suppositions; he announced, quietly, that all our knowledge comes from experience and through our senses-that "there is nothing in the mind except what was first in the senses." The mind is at birth a clean sheet, a tabula rasa; and sense-experience writes upon it in a thousand ways, until sensation begets memory and memory begets ideas.
All of which seemed to lead to the startling conclusion that since only material things can effect our sense, we know nothing but matter, and must accept a materialistic philosophy. If sensations are the stuff of thought, the hasty argued, matter must be the material of mind.


Kant attributed this imperialistic greed to the oligarchical constitution of European states; the spoils went to a select few, and remained substantial even after division. If democracy were established, and all shared in political power, the spoils of international robbery would have to be so subdivided as to constitute a resistible temptation. Hence the "first definitive article in the conditions of Eternal Peace" is this: "The civil constitution of every state shall be republican, and war shall not be declared except by a plebiscite of all the citizens." When those who must do the fighting have the right to decide between war and peace, history will no longer be written in blood. "On the other hand, in a constitution where the subject is not a voting member of the state, and which is therefore not republican, the resolution to go to war is a matter of the smallest concern in the world. For in this case the ruler, who, as such, is not a mere citizen, but the owner of the state, need not in the least suffer personally by war, nor has he to sacrifice his pleasures of the table or the chase, or his pleasant palaces, court festivals, or the like. He can, therefore, resolve for war from insignificant reasons, as if it were but a hunting expedition; and as regards its propriety, he may leave the justification of it without concern to the diplomatic corps, who are always too ready to give their services for that purpose." How contemporary truth is!

The great achievement of Kant is to have shown, once for all, that the external world is known to us only as sensation; and that the mind is no mere helpless tabula rasa, the inactive victim of sensation, but a positive agent, selecting and reconstructing experience as experience arrives. We can make subtractions from this accomplishment without injuring its essential greatness. We may smile, with Schopenhauer, at the exact baker's dozen of categories, so prettily boxed into triplets, and then stretched and contracted and interpreted deviously and ruthlessly to fit and surround all things. And we may even question whether these categories, or interpretive forms of thought, are innate, existing before sensation and experience; perhaps so in the individual, as Spencer conceded, though acquired by the race; and then, again, probably acquired even by the individual: the categories may be grooves of thought, habits of perception and conception, gradually produced by sensations and perceptions automatically arranging themselves, first in disorderly ways, then, by a kind of natural selection of forms of arrangement, in orderly and adaptive and illuminating ways. It is memory that classifies and interprets sensations into perceptions, and perceptions into ideas; but memory is an accretion. That unity of the mind which Kant thinks native (the "transcendental unity of apperception") is acquired and not by all; and can be lost as well as won — in amnesia, or alternating personality, or insanity. Concepts are an achievement, not a gift.


"The character or will," says Schopenhauer, "is inherited from the father; the intellect from the mother."

One must have leisure to be a pessimist; an active life almost always brings good spirits in body and in mind. Schopenhauer admires the serenity that comes of modest aims and a steady life, but he could hardly speak of these from personal experience. Truly; he had money enough for continuous leisure, and he found continuous leisure to be more intolerable than continuous work. Perhaps the tendency of philosophers toward melancholy is due to the unnaturalness of sedentary occupations; too often an attack upon life is merely a symptom of the lost art of excretion.


This, of course, is the doctrine which our own day more or less correctly associates with the name of Nietzsche. "Verily I laughed many a time over the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had lame paws."