Civilization is always older than we think; and under whatever sod we tread are the bones of men and women, who also worked and loved, wrote songs and made beautiful things, but whose names and very being have been lost in the careless flow of time
Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, The Life of Greece.
I have repeatedly enjoyed the entire Will Durant series of books, The Story of Civilization. Durant has been much chided for his light dusting of history (a pop history, as it is claimed by serious historians) in this series of about fifteen books, which I was fortunate to acquire at a discount book store in Baton Rouge about twenty-five years ago. I have read through them several times. Nothing is quite as good as a history book for bedtime reading. Sometimes, days have gone by with me reading the same paragraph before rapidly dropping off to sleep, while other times I can get caught up in the story of civilization and read for hours. Like any good book, I see things differently and pick up on things I had heretofore missed each time I read it anew. The thing I am getting this time is more profound than any historical fact. It is that Durant, while perhaps not getting the peer respect he deserves as an historian, my opinion which will remain unaltered, is that he wins top prize for his philosophy of history. “True” historians can tell me whatever they’d like about Durant’s abilities as an historian, but I will shut them up when they start to analyze his conclusions about the philosophy of history and civilization. His conclusions are his own, and I have witnessed their power to set me to serious deliberation and self-deliberation. In other words, Durant has made me think about the path of history, the interconnectedness of mankind in the story of our shared human civilization, and my place in it thanks to the influence of those who lived before me . . . and also to think about my own limited role in shaping tomorrow for those who will come behind me.
Tackling the whole of human civilization as a topic for a book is a daunting task. Durant managed to do an adequate job in his fifteen volumes. It takes about five years to read through them all, so I have had the pleasure of going through them about five times, with the exception of two of them: The Age of Voltaire and The Age of Napoleon, which I have each read dozens of times, since Voltaire and Napoleon are two of my favorite historical characters. One can have any opinion on Voltaire and Napoleon they choose without challenge from me, unless one’s opinion leads them to discount their impact on human civilization, which I could not let pass.
The above quote is Durant’s reflection on the work of amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century. Schliemann was determined that he would find the location and unearth the remains of the then mythical Troy, which he believed was in Western Turkey, and using Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as guides and inspiration, succeeded in doing so. He also succeeded in unearthing earlier Minoan and Mycenean civilizations, digging past and deeper than the ruins of Troy, thinking that Troy must lay at the bottom of the seven different layers of ruins that had been constructed one on top of the other. In doing so, many of Troy’s ruins were damaged or destroyed, or layers mixed making their separation and identification difficult for future archaeologists. Schliemann has been much criticized for this, but at that time, archeology was in its scientific infancy, and Schliemann was an amateur with a motive. Some said research, others said plunder. The rightful ownership of some of the artifacts he discovered in 1872 are still controversial to this day, with ownership being claimed by Turkey. While Schliemann may have had his faults, it is only through him that we know that Agamemnon was a real king, and not just a fictional character from a novel. The works of Schliemann lent legitimacy to the veracity of the works of Homer, and instead of being considered purely fictional they became fictional embellishments of real people, real places, and real events; thus myth and legend passed into reality.
That was Schliemann. What follows is Durant.
As Schliemann was digging through successive layers of different civilizations, he must have been considering how all the varying strata could hold whole separate ages of civilizations simply built on top of each other: dig a few feet and find a layer representative of a certain civilization and time. Dig a few more feet down and find a second one. A few feet more and find a third . . . all the way down through seven levels. Each strata a distinct and separate time period, with successive generations simply building on top of previous ones. This phenomena is not new to archaeology, but it was new to it at the time, and the number of levels uncovered was unheard of.
Reflection on this led Durant to the quote offered above, which is a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of human existence as anything I have ever considered. While I read this many, many years ago, it really sunk in this time, perhaps because of a new and improved perspective foisted on my be the stark confrontation with my own mortality. If anything good can be said of cancer, it is that it can provide one with the opportunity to view the world through a different set of lenses which help bring certain things into a much greater focus. There must be growth in this. I insist that there be growth in this. I will claim it for myself and I will be better for it.
The very ground we walk on has been walked on by others before us. It has been tilled, shaped, built upon, and in it are the bones and bodies, now returned to dust, of those who lived before us whose stories of their time on this earth will forever remain a mystery to us; we will be forever ignorant of their existence, yet we share many things in common with them. Like them, we toil and sweat, we sing our songs, we make our beautiful things, we raise our children, and we leave only our DNA behind to testify of our existence here. We also leave behind those things we learned that we teach to our children. What is it that we would teach them? How would we have our children remember us? It is something we should consider as we watch those to whom the future belongs innocently play in the dust that contains the bones of those now lost to that careless flow of time. To those children playing in the that dust, there is only now, and each tiny artifact they may uncover is a source of wonder. So is each cricket. So is each roly-poly. To a child, it is a ROLY-POLY! To us, it is ONLY a roly-poly.
Eventually, the dust claims us all, and like our ancestors, our memories are reduced to names on markers others see without remark, or others see and wonder about what our lives may have been like. Whole lifetimes of love, pain, wealth, suffering, strife, and joy have been erased by that careless flow of time, except that we are the extensions of those whose own essence is contained in our very being.
Ironically, I find great comfort in that. What do you think? Morose? No, it is its inverse.
Thank you Will Durant