Book Review: “Fallen Leaves”, Will Durant

By: Yasir Khan

fallen leaves

The” Fallen leaves”, last out of the three posthumous publications of Will Durant, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the Medal of Freedom, was published in 2014. Even though it was conceived around 1960s, the mega project of “the story of civilizations” of Will and Ariel Durant can be considered a reason in its procrastination so long as 50 years! Or perhaps, he was not ready to write a book that would be a handbook for men in 21st century.

The minds open to questions often at some point in their life wonder if there exists any document that can reveal all the answers to questions that have been posed for thousands of years, remedies to the ills inflicted upon humans since Adam and Eve, an antidote to un-puzzle the puzzled. In this quest one has always relied on the words and wits of philosophers, sages and the erudite ones, with the hope of getting answers from them: what someone who has lived their whole life studying and writing philosophy and history has to say before death – the apex of wisdom?  Just like “the prophet” of Khalil Gibran and “Mortals and others” of Bertrand Russell, the “Fallen Leaves” of Will Durant contains essays touching almost all the aspects of a man living in 21st century, from youth to old age, Radicalism to conservatism, beauty and love to sex,  religion to education, art to science, and life to death.

The book is an account of the issues concerned with individuals as well as problems affecting humans collectively. The subject of the essays keeps switching between “what troubles a man” and “what troubles humanity”.  The selection of the topics testifies that the author of the book was mindful of the occupations of an ordinary mind in recluse, and, also, in a state when it is more concerned with the external environment. Hence, there are chapters about life, death, soul, morality, religion and art, but also about capitalism, communism, sex, war, education and science. Thus, he successfully draws a rough estimation of the domains that become the centers of ruminations and activity of humans at different stages of life.

Taking in cognizance his extensive study, his wisdom and his long gained experience, it is no surprise to see the author’s effortless art of picking examples and giving references from a spectrum as old as thousands of years and as wide as the stretch of world. This craftsmanship of his is visible in every chapter of the book, for who would know that the place where French and Germans fought during the two World Wars was in fact the same place where the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons fought some fifty thousand years ago. Moreover, blessed with canon of extensiveness, Will Durant’s lines never fall short of encapsulating subtleties that can only be seen by observant and calm eyes instead of a cursory glance that is essential when it comes to such vast studies. This ability of his is depicted when he talks about the aesthetic sense of Japanese, who found beauty in forms deviated from usual, whereas Aristotle claimed symmetry and proportions and organic order to be the elements of beauty: a proof that his study was not just wide but deep as well.  It can safely be said that he had a toolbox full of thousand years at his expense that he used with adroitness peculiar to him.

I believe, after reading this book one comes to realize that Will Durant, who ought to have been a conservative because of his age, or a radical, aware of his services to the realm of philosophy and knowledge, held a liberal stand on almost every segment of life. Going through the chapters, it can be seen that he projects two extreme poles discussing each of them and then finally finds a liberal point, in between the two extremes, that he would advocate. While talking about communism and capitalism, he came to hail welfare state; when it came to uselessness of art and usefulness of science, he wished for science to become art; among Utopia and heaven he suggested to reside in a place warmed by the heat of both.

 

”Fallen leaves” is indeed a guide to a man living in the 21st century in general, but an American in particular. Enthralled by the sagacious lines of the book, I felt it as the last address of Will Durant to the humanity, but this feeling of mine would often get interrupted by topics exclusively addressed to the Americans, such as the chapter on Vietnam and some other parts of the book. Yet this book brings him in line with those authors who have tried to give their solutions- which Will Durant so humbly calls “his nostrums”- to alleviate the miseries faced by humans, and to raise the standards of humanity even if it is just by a notch.

The art of weaving a discourse giving a holistic view- that is quite evident in this book -shows how seasoned a writer Will Durant is. He might talk of apparently two different topics such as the curse  of late marriages or the accumulation of wealth in certain hands, but he will definitely present the nexus of the growing gap between the biological and economic maturity of a man that has pushed man towards violating continence and delaying of marriage. While attempting to show the complete picture of how things are inter-related, he never fails to unearth the link not visible to a layman’s eye.

Finally, the growing intolerance on religious level, disorder and chaos on social level, uncertainty and instability on economic level and insincerity on political level in Pakistan makes it a very relevant read, for history is full of the examples of decayed nations that once swayed boldly with glory! And it is this notion that is heavily reinforced by Will Durant: history is to be learned from, not to be repeated!