Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Ageby Will Durant
Heroes of History is a book of life-enhancing wisdom and/i>/i>/i>
In the tradition of his own bestselling masterpieces The Story of Civilization and The Lessons of History, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Will Durant traces the lives and ideas of those who have helped to define civilization, from its dawn to the beginning of the modern world.
Heroes of History is a book of life-enhancing wisdom and optimism, complete with Durant's wit, knowledge, and unique ability to explain events and ideas in simple, exciting terms. It is the lessons of our heritage passed on for the edification and benefit of future generations—a fitting legacy from America's most beloved historian and philosopher.
Will Durant's popularity as America's favorite teacher of history and philosophy remains undiminished by time. His books are accessible to readers of every kind, and his unique ability to compress complicated ideas and events into a few pages without ever "talking down" to the reader, enhanced by his memorable wit and a razor-sharp judgment about men and their motives, made all of his books huge bestsellers. Heroes of History carries on this tradition of making scholarship and philosophy understandable to the general reader, and making them good reading, as well.
At the dawn of a new millennium and the beginning of a new century, nothing could be more appropriate than this brilliant book that examines the meaning of human civilization and history and draws from the experience of the past the lessons we need to know to put the future into context and live in confidence, rather than fear and ignorance.
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Chapter One: What Is Civilization?
Human history is a fragment of biology. Man is one of countless millions of species and, like all the rest, is subject to the struggle for existence and the competition of the fittest to survive. All psychology, philosophy, statesmanship, and utopias must make their peace with these biological laws. Man can be traced to about a million years before Christ. Agriculture can be traced no farther back than to 25,000 B.C. Man has lived forty times longer as a hunter than as a tiller of the soil in a settled life. In those 975,000 years his basic nature was formed and remains to challenge civilization every day.
In that hunting stage man was eagerly and greedily acquisitive, because he had to be. His food supply was uncertain, and when he caught his prey, he might, as like as not, eat it to the cubic capacity of his stomach, for the carcass would soon spoil; in many cases he ate it raw -- "rare," as we say when he returns to the hunting stage in our profoundly masculine restaurants. Furthermore, in those thousand times a thousand years, man had to be pugnacious, always ready to fight -- for his food, his mate, or his life. If he could, he took more mates than one, for hunting and fighting were mortally dangerous and left a surplus of women over men; so the male is still polygamous [or polygamous] by nature. He had little reason to contracept, for children became assets in the hut and later in the hunting pack. For these and other reasons acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and ready sexuality were virtues in the hunting stage -- that is, they were qualities that made for survival.
They still form the basic character of the male. Even in civilization the chief function of the male is to go out and hunt for food for his family, or for something that might, in need, be exchanged for food. Brilliant though he may be, he is basically tributary to the female, who is the womb and mainstream of the race.
Probably it was woman who developed agriculture, which is the first soil of civilization. She had noted the sprouting of seeds that had fallen from fruits or trees; tentatively and patiently she planted seeds near the cave or hut while the man went off to hunt for animal food. When her experiment succeeded, her mate concluded that if he and other males could band together in mutual protection from outside attack, he might join his women in planting and reaping instead of risking his life and his food supply upon the uncertain fortunes of the chase, or of nomadic pasturage.
Century by century he reconciled himself to a home and settled life. Women had domesticated the sheep, the dog, the ass, and the pig; now she domesticated man. Man is woman's last domestic animal, only partially and reluctantly civilized. Slowly he learned from her the social qualities: family love, kindness (which is akin to kin), sobriety, cooperation, communal activity. Virtue now had to be redefined as any quality that made for the survival of the group. Such, I believe, was the beginning of civilization -- i.e., of being civil citizens. But now, too, began the profound and continuing conflict between nature and civilization -- between the individualistic instincts so deeply rooted in the long hunting stage of human history, and the social instincts more weakly developed by a recently settled life. Each settlement had to be protected by united action; cooperation among individuals became a tool of competition among groups -- villages, tribes, classes, religions, races, states.
Most states are still in a state of nature -- still in the hunting stage. Military expeditions correspond to hunting for food, or fuels, or raw materials; a successful war is a nation's way of eating. The state -- which is ourselves and our impulses multiplied for organization and defense -- expresses our old instincts of acquisition and pugnacity because, like primitive man, it feels insecure; its greed is a hedge against future needs and dearths. Only when it feels externally secure can it attend to its internal needs, and rise, as a halting welfare state, to the social impulses developed by civilization. Individuals became civilized when they were made secure by membership in an effectively protective communal group; states will become civilized when they are made secure by loyal membership in an effectively protective federated group.
How did civilization grow despite the inherent hunting nature of the male? It did not aim to stifle that nature; it recognized that no economic system can long maintain itself without appealing to acquisitive instincts and eliciting superior abilities by offering superior rewards. It knew that no individual or state can long survive without willingness to fight for self-preservation. It saw that no society or race or religion will last if it does not breed. But it realized that if acquisitiveness were not checked it would lead to retail theft, wholesale robbery, political corruption, and to such concentration of wealth as would invite revolution.
If pugnacity were not checked, it would lead to brawls at every corner, to domination of every neighborhood by its heaviest thug, to the division of every city by rival gangs. If sex were not controlled, it would leave every girl at the mercy of every seducer, every wife at the mercy of her husband's secret itching for the charms of variety and youth, and would make not only every park, but every street, unsafe for any woman. Those powerful instincts had to be controlled, or social order and communal life would have been impossible, and men would have remained savages.
The hunting-stage instincts were controlled partly by law and police, partly by a precarious general agreement called morality. The acquisitive impulses were checked by outlawing robbery and condemning greed and the disruptive concentration of wealth. The spirit of pugnacity was restrained by inflicting punishing injury to persons or property. The sexual impulses -- only slightly less powerful than hunger -- were disciplined to manageable order by banning their public excitation and by trying to channel them at an early age into responsible marriage.
How was that complex moral code -- so uncongenial to our nature, so irritating with its "Thou shalt nots" -- inculcated and maintained through five special institutions that are all in disrepair today: the family, the church, the school, the law, and the public opinion that these helped to form? The family, in the agricultural regime, taught the uses and comforts of association and mutual aid; the mother led and taught her daughters in the care of the home; the father led and taught his sons in the care of the soil; and this double leadership gave a strong economic base to parental authority. Religion buttressed the moral commandments by attributing them to an all-seeing, rewarding, and punishing God. Parents and teachers transmitted the divinely sanctioned code by precept and example; and their authority was strengthened, till our century, by this connection with religion. Law supported large parts of the code by the use and fear of organized force. Public opinion checked immorality with adjectives and contumely, and encouraged good behavior with praise, promotion, and power.
Under this protective umbrella of social order communal life expanded, literature flourished, philosophy adventured, the arts and sciences grew, and historians recorded the inspiring achievements of the nation and the race. Slowly men and women developed the moderation, the friendliness and courtesy, the moral conscience and esthetic sense, which are the intangible and precious graces of our heritage. Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation.
Now what if the forces that made for order and civilization are failing to preserve them? The family has been weakened by the disappearance of that united labor which held it together on the farm; by the individualism that scatters jobs and sons; and by the erosion of parental authority through the mental freedom, the utopian aspirations, and the natural rebelliousness of the young.
Religion has been weakened by the growth of wealth and cities; by the exciting developments of science and historiography; by the passage from fields proclaiming creative life to factories preaching physics, chemistry, and the glory of the machine; and by the replacement of heavenly hopes with perfect states. Our educational system is discouraged by class and race war, by armed minorities presenting "nonnegotiable demands," by the revolt of overburdened taxpayers and by the collapse of bridges between youth and age, between experiment and experience. Laws lose their edge by their multiplication and their bias, by the venality of legislators, by improvements in the means of escape and concealment, and by the difficulty of law enforcement in a population breeding beyond control. Public opinion loses force through division, fear, apathy, and the universal worship of wealth.
So the old instincts return unchained and untamed, and riot in crime, gambling, corruption, conscienceless moneymaking, and a sexual chaos in which love is sex -- free for the male and dangerous for the race. Consultation gives way to confrontation; law yields to minority force; marriage becomes a short-term investment in diversified insecurities; reproduction is left to mishaps and misfits; and the fertility of incompetence breeds the race from the bottom while the sterility of intelligence lets the race wither at the top.
But the very excess of our present paganism may warrant some hope that it will not long endure; for usually excess generates its opposite. One of the most regular sequences in history is that a period of pagan license is followed by an age of puritan restraint and moral discipline. So the moral decay of ancient Rome under Nero and Commodus and later emperors was followed by the rise of Christianity, and its official adoption and protection by the emperor Constantine, as a saving source and buttress of order and decency.
The condottiere violence and sexual license of the Italian Renaissance under the Borgias led to the cleansing of the Church and the restoration of morality. The reckless ecstasy of Elizabethan England gave way to the Puritan domination under Cromwell, which led, by reaction, to the paganism of England under Charles II. The breakdown of government, marriage, and the family during the ten years of the French Revolution was ended by the restoration of law, discipline, and parental authority under Napoleon I; the romantic paganism of Byron and Shelley, and the dissolute conduct of the prince of Wales who became George IV, were followed by the public propriety of Victorian England. If these precedents may guide us, we may expect our children's grandchildren to be puritans.
But there are more pleasant prospects in history than this oscillation between excess and its opposite. I will not subscribe to the depressing conclusion of Voltaire and Gibbon that history is "the record of the crimes and follies of mankind." Of course it is partly that, and contains a hundred million tragedies -- but it is also the saving sanity of the average family, the labor and love of men and women bearing the stream of life over a thousand obstacles. It is the wisdom and courage of statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the latter dying exhausted but fulfilled; it is the undiscourageable effort of scientists and philosophers to understand the universe that envelops them; it is the patience and skill of artists and poets giving lasting form to transient beauty, or an illuminating clarity to subtle significance; it is the vision of prophets and saints challenging us to nobility.
On this turbulent and sullied river, hidden amid absurdity and suffering, there is a veritable City of God, in which the creative spirits of the past, by the miracles of memory and tradition, still live and work, carve and build and sing. Plato is there, playing philosophy with Socrates; Shakespeare is there, bringing new treasures every day; Keats is still listening to his nightingale, and Shelley is borne on the west wind; Nietzsche is there, raving and revealing; Christ is there, calling to us to come and share his bread. These and a thousand more, and the gifts they gave, are the Incredible Legacy of the race, the golden strain in the web of history.
We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us -- we should work undiscourageably to lessen them -- but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance. Let us, varying Shakespeare's unhappy king, sit down and tell brave stories of noble women and great men.
Copyright © 2001 by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant
Chapter Two: Confucius and the Banished Angel
It will not be news to you that Chinese civilization is as old as any known to us and that its history is alive with statesmen, sages, poets, artists, scientists, and saints, whose legacy can still enrich our understanding and deepen our humanity. "These peoples," Diderot wrote of the Chinese about 1750, "are superior to all other Asiatics in antiquity, art, intellect, wisdom, policy, and in their taste for philosophy; nay, in the judgment of certain authors, they dispute the palm, in these matters, with the most enlightened peoples of Europe." How revealing it is to find Confucius, some five hundred years before Christ, writing about "the wise men of antiquity"; the Chinese, apparently, had philosophers a thousand years before Confucius, before Buddha, Isaiah, Democritus, and Socrates.
The ancient Chinese, like our own ancestors, devised legends to explain origins. One tells us that P'an Ku, through eighteen thousand years of labor, hammered the universe into shape about 2,229,000 B.C. As he worked, "his breath became the wind and the clouds, his voice became the thunder, his veins the rivers, his flesh the earth, his hair the grass and trees, his sweat the rain; and the insects that clung to his body became the human race." At first, we are informed, "the people were like beasts, clothing themselves in skins, feeding on raw flesh, and knowing their mothers but not their fathers" -- or, in our contemporary variation, they wore mink coats, liked rare steaks, and practiced love free for the male.
This wild freedom (the legend continues) was ended by a series of "celestial emperors," each of whom reigned eighteen thousand years, and helped turn P'an Ku's vermin into obedient citizens. The emperor Fu Hsi, about 2852 B.C., taught his people marriage, music, writing, painting, fishing with nets, domesticating animals and husbands, and persuading silkworms to secrete silk. His successor Shen Nung introduced agriculture, invented the plow, and developed the science of medicine from the curative values of plants. The emperor Huang-ti discovered the magnet, built an observatory, corrected the calendar, and redistributed the land -- the earliest mention of governmental redistribution of (repeatedly concentrated) wealth. So legend, like Carlyle, saw history as a succession of heroes, and ascribed to a few outstanding individuals the laborious advances of many generations.
This imperial age was ended by the wickedness of the emperor Chou Hsin, who invented chopsticks and allowed his people to riot in licentiousness and violence; men and women, we are told, gamboled naked in the gardens of the queen. About 1123 B.C. a revolution overthrew Chou Hsin, and the Middle Kingdom, as the Chinese called their country, fell into a medley of semiduchies, whose semi-independence, as in eighteenth-century Germany, seems to have contributed to the development of poetry and philosophy, science and art. Confucius collected 305 poems of this feudal period into the Shi-Ching, or Book of Odes.
Most contemporary of them is the timeless lament of soldiers torn from their homes and dedicated to unintelligible death:
How free are the wild geese on their wings,
And the rest they find on the bushy Yu trees!
But we, ceaseless toilers in the king's services,
Cannot even plant our millet and rice.
What will our parents have to rely on?
O thou distant and azure Heaven:
When shall all this end?...
What leaves have not turned purple?
What man is not torn from his wife?
Mercy be on us soldiers! --
Are we not also men?
One soldier returned, as we gather from the happiest of these odes, beautifully translated by Helen Waddell:
The morning-glory climbs above my head, Pale flowers of white and purple, blue and red. I am disquieted.
Down in the withered grasses something stirred;
I thought it was his footfall that I heard;
Then a grasshopper stirred.
I climbed the hill as the new moon showed;
I saw him coming on the southern road.
My heart lays down its heavy load.
To that feudal age belonged the first famous Chinese philosophers. Born about 604 B.C., Lao-tze -- i.e., the "Old Master" -- rejected the civilization of the rising cities of China, in a book known as Tao-Te-Ching -- that is, The Way and the Right. It was almost a summary, twenty-three hundred years before them, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson. The Right Way, according to Lao, is to shun the works and tricks of the intellect, and lead a life of quiet rusticity in harmony with nature and ancient customs and ideas.
Unhampered by government, the spontaneous impulses of the people -- their desires for bread and love -- would move the wheels of life sufficiently in a simple and wholesome round. There would then be few inventions, for these merely add to the strength of the strong and the wealth of the rich. There should be no books and no industries, only village trades -- and no foreign trade.
The Old Master draws as sharp a distinction between nature and civilization as Rousseau was to do in that gallery of echoes called modern thought. Nature is natural activity, the silent flow of traditional events, the majestic march and order of the seasons and the sky; it is the Tao (or Way) exemplified and embodied in every brook and rock and star; it is that impartial and impersonal, yet rational, law of things, to which the law of conduct must conform (as in Spinoza) if we desire to live in wisdom and peace. This law of things is the Tao, or Way, of the universe, just as the law of conduct is the Tao, or Way, of life. In Lao-tze both Taos are one; and human life, in its essential rhythms of birth and life and death, is part of the rhythm of the world.
All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfill their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfillment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.
Quiescence, a kind of philosophical inaction, a refusal to interfere with the natural courses of things, is the mark of the wise man in every field. If the state is in disorder, the proper thing to do is not to reform it, but to make one's life an orderly performance of duty. If resistance is encountered, the wiser course is not to quarrel, fight, or make war, but to retire silently, and to win, if at all, through yielding and patience; passivity has its victories more often than action. Here, Lao-tze talks almost with the accents of Christ:
If you do not quarrel, no one on earth will be able to quarrel with you...Recompense injury with kindness...To those who are good I am good, and to those who are not good I am good; thus all get to be good. To those who are sincere I am sincere, and to those who are not sincere I am also sincere, and thus all get to be sincere...The softest thing in the world...overcomes the hardest.
All these doctrines culminate in Lao's conception of the sage. It is characteristic of Chinese thought that it speaks not of saints but of sages, not so much of goodness as of wisdom; to the Chinese the ideal is not the pious devotee but the mature and quiet mind. Even of the Tao and wisdom the wise man does not speak, for wisdom can never be transmitted by words, only by example and experience. If the wise man knows more than other men he tries to conceal it; "he will temper his brightness, and bring himself into agreement with the obscurity of others. He agrees with the simple rather than with the learned, and does not take hurt from the novice's contradiction." He attaches no importance to riches or power, but reduces his desires to an almost Buddhist minimum.
We can imagine how irritating this philosophy of retreat must have been to the ambitious young Confucius, who, at the immature age of thirty-five, sought out Lao-tze and asked his advice on some details of history. The Old Master, we are told, replied with harsh and cryptic brevity:
Those about whom you inquire have molded with their bones into dust...Get rid of your pride and many ambitions, your affectation and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing at all from all these.
The Chinese historian relates that Confucius recognized the wisdom of these words and took no offense from them. He went forth with new resolve to fulfill his own mission and to become the most influential philosopher in history.
Kung-fu-tze -- "Kung the Master," as his pupils called him -- was born about 551 B.C., in the feudal duchy, or kingdom, of Lu, now the province of Shantung. His father died when the boy was three. Confucius worked after school to help support his mother. He married at nineteen, divorced his wife at twenty-three, and does not seem to have married again. At twenty, he set up as a teacher, using his home as a schoolhouse, and charging whatever fee his pupils could pay. Like Socrates he taught by word of mouth rather than by books; we know his views chiefly by the unreliable reports of his disciples. He attacked no other thinker and wasted no time on refutations. He strongly desired fame and place, but he repeatedly refused appointment from rulers who seemed to him immoral or unjust.
His opportunity came when, about the year 501 B.C., he was made chief magistrate of the town of Chung-tu. According to a patriotic tradition, a veritable epidemic of honesty swept through the city; articles of value dropped in the street were left untouched or were returned to the owner. His subsequent appointment by Duke Ting of Lu to be minister of crime, we are told, sufficed of itself to end all lawlessness. "Dishonesty and dissoluteness," say Chinese records, "were ashamed, and hid their heads. Loyalty and good faith became the characteristics of the men, and chastity and docility of the women. Confucius became the idol of the people." This is too good to be true, and in any case proved too good to endure. Criminals put their heads together, and laid snares for the Master's feet. Neighboring states, say the historians, grew jealous of Lu, and fearful of its rising power. A wily minister suggested a stratagem to alienate the duke of Lu from Confucius; the duke of Ts'i sent to Duke Ting a bevy of pretty "sing-song girls," and 120 still-more-beautiful horses. The duke of Lu was captivated, ignored the protests of Confucius (who held that the first principle of government is good example), and scandalously neglected his ministers and affairs of state. Confucius resigned, and began thirteen years of wandering with his pupils. He remarked sadly that he had never "seen one who loved virtue as much as he loved beauty."
What was his basic philosophy? It was to restore morality and social order by spreading education. Two paragraphs in a book called The Great Learning were drawn up by his pupils to summarize his doctrine:
The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy.
It is a counsel of perfection, and forgets that man is a trousered ape; but, like Christianity, it offers a goal to aim at, a ladder to climb. It is one of the golden texts of philosophy: Reform begins at home.
In the sixty-ninth year of Confucius, Duke Gae succeeded to the duchy of Lu, and sent three officers to the philosopher, bearing presents and an invitation to return to his native state. During the five remaining years of his life Confucius lived there in simplicity and honor. When the Duke of Shi sent inquiries about his health, he told his faithful pupil Tsze-loo to answer:
He is simply a man who, in his eager pursuit of knowledge, forgets his food; who, in his joy (of its attainment) forgets his sorrows; and who does not perceive that old age is coming on.
He died at the age of seventy-two. His students buried him with pomp and ceremony befitting their affection for him; some built huts by his grave and lived there for three years. When all the others had gone, Tsze-kung, who had loved him even beyond the rest, remained three years more, mourning alone by the Master's tomb.
Now put on your wings and leap across twelve centuries from 478 B.C. to A.D. 705.
One day, at the height of his reign, the emperor Ming Huang received ambassadors from Korea, who brought him important messages written in a dialect which none of his ministers could understand. "What!" he exclaimed, "among so many magistrates, so many scholars and warriors, cannot there be found a single one who knows enough to relieve us of vexation in this affair? If in three days no one is able to decipher this letter, every one of your commissions will be suspended." For a day the ministers consulted and fretted, fearing for their offices and their heads.
The Minister Ho Chi-chang approached the throne, and said:
Your subject presumes to announce to your Majesty that there is a poet of great merit, called Li, at his house, who is profoundly acquainted with more than one science; command him to read this letter, for there is nothing of which he is not capable.
Li came and dictated a learned reply, which the emperor signed without hesitation, almost believing what Minister Ho Chi-chang whispered to him -- that Li was an angel banished from heaven for some impish deviltry. The story is probably one of Li's compositions.
On the night of his birth, his mother -- of the family of Li -- had dreamt of Tai-po Hsing, the Great White Star, which in the West is called Venus. So the child was named Li, meaning "plum," and surnamed Tao-po, the White Star. At ten he had mastered all the books of Confucius and was composing immortal poetry. He grew to health and strength, practiced swordsmanship, and announced his abilities to the world: "Though less than seven [Chinese] feet in height, I am strong enough to meet 10,000 men." Then he wandered leisurely about the earth, drinking the lore of love from varied lips. So he wrote:
Wine of the grapes,
Goblets of gold --
And a pretty maid of Wu.
She comes on ponyback; she is fifteen.
Blue-painted eyebrows --
Shoes of pink brocade --
But she sings bewitchingly well.
So, feasting at the table
Inlaid with tortoise shell,
She gets drunk in my lap.
Ah child, what caresses
Behind lily-broidered curtains!
He married, but earned so little money that his wife left him, taking the children with her. The emperor befriended him and showered him with gifts for singing the praises of Yang Ywei-fei, the royal mistress. But Lady Yang thought that the poet satirized her, and so persuaded the emperor, who presented Li Po with a purse and let him go.
We picture him wandering from city to city, much as Tsui Tsung-chi described him:
A knapsack on your back, filled with books, you go a thousand miles and more, a pilgrim. Under your sleeves there is a dagger, and in your pocket a collection of poems.
In these long ramblings his old friendship with nature gave him solace and a kind of rebel joy:
Why do I live among the green mountains?
I laugh and answer not; my soul is serene;
It dwells in another heaven and earth belonging to no man.
The peach trees are in flower, and the water flows on.
I saw the moonlight before my couch,
And wondered if it were not the frost on the ground.
I raised my head and looked out on the mountain-moon;
I bowed my head and thought of my far-off home.
Now, as his hair grew white, his heart was flooded with longing for the scenes of his youth. How many times, in the artificial life of the capital, he had pined for the natural simplicity of parentage and home!
In the land of Wu the mulberry leaves are green,
And thrice the silkworms have gone to sleep.
In East Lu, where my family stays,
I wonder who is sowing those fields of ours.
I cannot be back in time for the spring doings;
I can help nothing, traveling on the river.
The south wind, blowing, wafts my homesick spirit
And carries it up to the front of our familiar tavern.
a peach-tree on the east side of the house,
With the thick leaves and branches waving in the blue mist.
It is the tree I planted before my parting three years ago.
The peach-tree has grown now as tall as the tavern roof,
While I have wandered about without returning.
Ping-yang, my pretty daughter, I see you stand
By the peach-tree and pluck a'flowering branch.
You pluck the flowers, but I am not there --
How your tears flow like a stream of water!
My little son, Po-chin, grown up to your sister's shoulders,
You come out with her under the peach-tree;
But who is there to put you on her back?
When I think of these things my senses fail,
And a sharp pain cuts my heart every day.
Now I tear off a piece of white silk to write this letter,
And send it to you with my love a long way up the river.
His last years were bitter, for he had never stooped to make money, and in the chaos of war and revolution he found no king to keep him from starvation. Gladly he accepted the offer of Li-ling, prince of Yung, to join his staff; but Li-ling revolted against the successor of Ming Huang, and when the revolt was suppressed, Li Po found himself in jail, condemned to death as a traitor. Then Kuo Tsi-i, the general who had put down the rebellion, begged that Li Po's life might be ransomed by the forfeit of his own military rank and title. The emperor commuted the sentence to banishment. Soon thereafter a general amnesty was declared, and the poet turned his faltering steps homeward. Three years later he sickened and died, and legend, discontent with an ordinary death for so rare a soul, told how he was drowned in a river while attempting, in hilarious intoxication, to embrace the water's reflection of the moon.
All in all, the thirty volumes of delicate and kindly verse which he left behind him warrant his reputation as the greatest poet of China. "He is the lofty peak of Tai," exclaims a Chinese critic, "towering above the thousand mountains and hills; he is the sun in whose presence a million stars of heaven lose their scintillating brilliance."
King Huang and Lady Yang are dead, but Li Po still sings.
My ship is built of spice-wood, and has a rudder of mulan;
Musicians sit at the two ends, with jeweled bamboo flutes and pipes of gold.
What a pleasure it is, with a cask of sweet wine,
And singing girls beside me,
To drift on the water hither and thither with the waves!
I am happier than the fairy of the air,
Who rode on his yellow crane,
And, free as the merman who followed the seagulls aimlessly.
Now with the strokes of my inspired pen I shake the Five Mountains.
My poem is done. I laugh, and my delight is vaster than the sea.
O deathless poetry! The songs of (the poet) Ch'u P'ing are ever glorious as the sun and moon,
While the palaces and towers of the Chou kings have vanished from the hills.
There is so much more to say, but the infernal clock ticks away, so I end with the last paragraph that I wrote about China, about 1932:
No victory of arms, or tyranny of alien finance, can long suppress a nation so rich in resources and vitality. The invader will lose funds or patience before the loins of China will lose vitality; within a century China will have absorbed her conquerors (then the Japanese), and will have learned all the technique of what transiently bears the name of modern industry; roads and communications will give her unity, economy and thrift will give her funds, and a strong government will give her order and peace. Every chaos is a transition. In the end disorder cures and balances itself with dictatorship, old obstacles are roughly cleared away, and fresh growth is free. Revolution, like death and style, is the removal of rubbish, the surgery of the superfluous; it comes when many things are ready to die. China has died many times before, and many times she has been reborn.
Copyright © 2001 by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant
Chapter Three: India -- From Buddha to Indira Gandhi
Civilization -- which we have defined as social order promoting cultural creation -- is as old in India as the archeologists care to dig. At Mohenjodaro, on the river Indus, Sir John Marshall and his aides, in 1924, unearthed four or five superimposed cities, with hundreds of solidly built brick houses and shops, ranged along wide streets and narrow lanes, and rising in some cases to several stories. There they found wheeled wagons, household utensils, toilet articles, painted pottery, coins and engraved seals, necklaces, and earrings; all this, we are told, as early as the oldest Egyptian pyramids.
About 1600 B.C. a hardy people called Aryans entered India from the north, settled down as conquerors, became a master class, established or confirmed a caste system, developed a Sanskrit language basically akin to the languages of Europe, and produced a literature of which some fragments have come down to us as four Vedas, or Books of Knowledge. They consist mostly of prayers, hymns, and religious rituals; partly of Upanishads -- religiophilosophical conferences between master and pupil. For centuries they were transmitted by word of mouth; then, toward 300 B.C., they were committed to writing, and are now the oldest extant form of Indian philosophy. I am very fond of them, and ask you to share a few of them with me.
Upa means "near," and shad means "to sit"; the words suggest one or more pupils seated before a guru, or teacher. The doctrine -- which is still taught by gurus today -- offers three stages to understanding and salvation. The first is patient, persistent introspection. Ignore sensations, desires, memories, reasoning, thought; put aside all intellectual operations, for these are primarily adapted to dealing with outward things; put aside all actions or thoughts of action; introspect persistently until you see nothing with any shape or substance or individuality, until you feel, behind its operations, the mind itself, and the very consciousness of consciousness. This is the most immediate, most basic of all realities, upon which all phenomena -- all perceptions and therefore all things -- depend. The gurus called this fundamental reality Atman -- which seems to have meant "breath," like our words "spirit" and "inspire."
Secondly, in all things, as in ourselves, there is a breath of this inward, vital, immaterial force, without which matter would be spiritless, motionless, dead, and nothing would live or grow. The sum of all these living forces is Brahma -- the one all-pervading immaterial, sexless, impersonal, intangible essence, upon which not only all lives and thoughts, but all forms and forces, depend. This is the one and only god, of whom -- or of which -- all the gods of the Hindu pantheon are partial aspects and poetic expressions aiding the mortal mind to conceive the varied vitality of omnipresent reality.
Thirdly, Atman and Brahma are one: the nonindividual soul or force within us, or within a tree or a stone, is identical with the impersonal Soul of the World. Hear the most lovable of the Upanishad gurus, Yajnavalkya, explain this to his pupil Shwetaketu:
"Bring me a fig from there."
"Here it is, Sir."
"It is divided, Sir."
"What do you see there?"
"These rather fine seeds, Sir."
"Of these please divide one."
"It is divided, Sir."
"What do you see there?"
"Nothing at all, Sir."
"Verily, my dear one, that finest essence which you do not perceive -- verily from that finest essence this great tree arises. Believe me...that which is the finest essence -- this whole world has as its soul. That is Reality. That is Atman. Tat tvam asi -- that art thou, Shwetaketu."
"Do you, Sir, cause me to understand even more."
"So be it, my dear one."
The Upanishads teach much more; Yoga as a cleansing of the self, and rebirth as a punishment for selfishness. But on this matter let us listen to Buddha, Asia's "Light of the World."
His story is so shot through with legends that we cannot be sure that he ever existed. One legend credited him with a virgin birth. He himself, we are told, opened the side of Queen Maya, entered her womb, stayed there ten months, then came forth, "not stained with impure matter," but "like a man descending stairs," and "shining like a jewel." Nevertheless he had a father, the king of Kapilavastu, near the Himalayas. Siddhartha Gautama, as the boy was called, was given every comfort, was sheltered from pain and grief, chose a wife from five hundred beautiful maidens, became a happy father, and lived in prosperity and peace.
One day, says a holy tradition, he went forth from his palace into the streets, and saw an old man. Another day he went forth and saw a sick man; and on a third day he saw a dead man. "This," he later explained, "seemed to me not fitting. As I thus reflected, all the elation of youth disappeared...Thus, O monks,...being myself subject to birth, I sought out the nature of birth; being subject to old age, I sought out the nature of old age, of sickness, of sorrow, of impurity. Then I thought: 'What if I, being myself subject to birth, were to seek out the nature of birth;...and, having seen the wretchedness of the nature of birth, were to seek out the unborn, the supreme peace of Nirvana?' "Like one stricken with "conversion," he resolved to leave his father, wife, and newborn son, and became an ascetic seeker of fundamental truth.
For six years he lived on seeds and grass. "Then I thought, what if I were to take food only in small amounts, as much as my hollowed palm would hold -- juices of beans, vetches, chickpeas, and pulse...My body became extremely lean. The mark of my buttocks was like a camel's footprint through the little food...When I thought I would ease myself I fell prone through the little food."
But one day the thought came to Gautama that self-mortification was not the way. He perceived that no new enlightenment had come to him from these austerities; on the contrary, a certain pride in his self-torture had poisoned any holiness that might have grown from it. He abandoned his asceticism, and went to sit under a shade-giving tree (the "Bodhi tree" still shown to tourists), and resolved never to leave that seat until enlightenment should come. What, he asked himself, was the source of human sorrow, sickness, old age, death? A vision came to him of the infinite succession of births and deaths, each of them darkened with pain and grief. Birth, he concluded, is the origin of all evil.
Why is not birth stopped? Because the law of karma demands new incarnations, in which the soul may atone for evil done in past existences. If, however, one could live a life of perfect justice, of tireless patience and kindness to all; if he could tie his thoughts to eternal things, not binding his heart to those that begin and pass away -- then he might be spared rebirth, and for him the fountain of evil would run dry. If one could still all desires for oneself, and seek only to do good to all, then individuality, that fundamental delusion of mankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire! -- and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could ever know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, nor hereafter, as many believe; only peace is possible, only
the cool quietude of craving ended, which is Nirvana. And so, after seven years of meditation, Gautama went forth to preach Nirvana to mankind.
He soon gathered disciples, who followed him as he walked from town to town, teaching as he went. They trusted him, because he seemed to take no thought of himself, and returned good for evil patiently. "Let a man overcome anger by kindness," he counseled them, "evil by good...Never does hatred cease by hatred; hatred ceases only by love." He took no thought of the morrow, but was content to be fed by some local admirer; once he scandalized his followers by eating in the house of a courtesan. They renamed him Buddha; that is, the Enlightened One -- but he never claimed that a god was speaking through him. He taught through moral parables, or a pithy pentalog like his "Five Moral Rules":
Let no one kill any living being;
Let no one take what is not given to him;
Let no one speak falsely;
Let no one drink intoxicating drinks;
Let no one be unchaste --
which apparently forbade all sexual actions or desires. Tradition reports a dialogue with Buddha's favorite disciple, Ananda:
How are we to conduct ourselves, lord, with regards to women?
As not seeing them, Ananda.
And if we should see them, what are we to do?
No talking, Ananda.
But if they should speak to us, Lord, what are we to do?
Keep wide-awake, Ananda.
Buddha's conception of religion was purely ethical; he cared everything about conduct, nothing about ritual, worship, or theology. Furthermore, like our latest psychology, he rejected mind if this meant something behind -- and performing -- the mental operations; mind is an abstract term for those operations taken in their totality. However, Buddha taught, the soul remains, as the living force of a body and a personality; and it is this soul that can be reborn to another earthly life to atone for sins committed in this one.
Sin is selfishness, the seeking of individual advantage or delight; and until the soul is freed from all selfishness, it will be repeatedly reborn. Nirvana is not a heaven after death; it is the quiet content of selfishness overcome. In the end, says Buddha, we perceive the absurdity of moral and psychological individualism. Our fretting selves are not really separate beings and powers; they are passing ripples on the stream of life, little knots forming and unraveling in the wind-blown mesh of fate. When we see ourselves as parts of a whole, when we reform ourselves, and our desires, in terms of the whole, then our personal disappointments and defeats, our griefs and pains and inevitable death, no longer sadden us as bitterly as before; they are lost in the amplitude of infinity. When we have learned to love not our separate selves but all human things, then at last we shall find Nirvana -- unselfish peace.
The soul of India is heat. It seemed so when, in February 1930, the Durants debarked in Bombay and found the temperature throbbing at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Could this be the reason why so many Hindus prayed that they should never be reborn? But then we passed east to New Delhi and south to Madras, and found many handsome Hindus eager, active, and creative despite the heat. And in the north the population was kept alert by the cool winds blowing down upon them from the Himalayas. The English so long maintained their mastery of India because very few of them stayed there more than five years at a time; quinquennially they returned to England to get away from the sun.
Buddhism, after its flowering under King Ashoka in the third century B.C., rapidly declined in India and succeeded best in hot Ceylon, at the cost of a barbarous transformation. I was shocked to find, on the wall of a Buddhist monastery in Kandy, a spacious painting showing the gentle founder of Buddhism distributing ferocious punishments in hell. When I protested against this barbarization of the idealist who had preached, "Let no man kill any living thing," a monk explained that unless a religion preached terror as well as virtue and bliss, it could not control the lawless individualism of mankind. In China, Japan, and Southeast Asia a theologically reconstructed Buddhism is flourishing, and the godless Buddha has become a god.
Meanwhile, weakened by heat, by religious, military, and political divisions, India was invaded by Alexander, then by the Huns, then by the Arabs, then by the Turks, then by Timor (our Tamerlane), then by the Portuguese, then by the French, then by the English. In 1686 the East India Company announced its intention "to establish a large, well-grounded, sure English dominion in India for all time to come." Most of the invaders brought some boon to the harassed subcontinent, like Moslem art and British administration; but each took away some of the fabled "wealth of the Indies," leaving an impoverished people.
Despite the despotism of Huns, Arabs, Turks, Christians, and the sun, the patient Hindus found energy enough to develop massive architecture, profuse sculpture, subtle philosophy, and a rich literature in prose and poetry. Which of you has missed that little gem, in Rabindranath Tagore, where a wise maiden questions her lover's compliments? Let us cool ourselves with it:
Tell me if this be true, my lover, tell me if this be true --
When these eyes flash their lightning the dark clouds in your breast make stormy answer.
Is it true that my lips are sweet like the opening bud of the first conscious love?
Do the memories of vanished months of May linger in my limbs?
Does the earth, like a harp, shiver into songs with the touch of my feet?
Is it true that the dewdrops fall from the eyes of night when I am seen, and the morning light is glad when it wraps my body round?
Is it true, is it true that your love traveled alone through ages and worlds in search of me?
That when you found me at last your age-long desire found utter peace in my gentle speech and my eyes and lips and flowing hair?
Is it then true that the mystery of the infinite is written on this little forehead of mine?
Tell me, my love, if all this be true?
England applauded the poetry, but only the Second World War made India politically free.
Mohandas Gandhi, who had spent three formative years in England, learned to love the British character and to shrink from the darker side of British industry. He felt the influence of William Morris, Peter Kropotkin, John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoi, and the Fabian Socialists. He was deeply moved by the ethical gospel of Christ and added it to his fervent acceptance of Buddha's major precept -- to injure no living thing.
Returning to India, he begged his people to prefer fields to factories. If industrial goods were needed, let the family restore the spinning wheel, and be satisfied with homespun garments and such tools as the village blacksmith could forge. Better the apparent poverty of the rural home than the palaces and tenements of the industrial city; better the friendliness of the village folk than the secret distrust or hostility of the nameless bipeds hurrying through the urban crowd. The vision that drew Gandhi was of a people content with the simplicity of ancient ways.
Like most visions this was not realistic. Whence would iron come to the village smithy except through the industry of workers half-buried in the dungeons of the earth? Whence would come the weapons, the organization, and the martial spirit needed to defend the village against attack? The kindest souls and most peaceful settlements would be at the mercy of the ruthless and the strong. Darwin would again challenge Christ.
After Gandhi's assassination (in 1948) his movement against industrialization was rapidly eroded by the natural acquisitiveness and competitive spirit of men. Town factories lured village youth, and agriculture itself became an industry, wedded to chemistry and costly machines. Even so, population grew faster than the food supply; ancient customs and taboos defeated modern ways and views; and the people canceled their prosperity with their fertility.
Meanwhile studies in science and history, and India's contact with European and American skepticism and permissiveness, had eroded her religious creeds and moral codes, and the new nation found its economic, political, and social life disordered with shoddy work, corrupt administration, and social decay. Suddenly a woman, politically popular, declared a moratorium on democracy, and assumed autocratic control of India's government, economy, and press.
Indira Gandhi took neither her name nor her doctrine from Mohandas Gandhi; the name came from her late husband, Feroz Gandhi, who was no relation to the "Mahatma." Moreover her philosophy of government was almost the opposite of that of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India, for he had won his people by his gentleness and his power by compromise. Sitting next to her in 1960, when she presided as hostess at a luncheon given to local scribes, I was at first impressed by her beauty -- Italian features, flashing eyes -- and then more soberly moved by her power as a character and a mind. I was not much surprised, then, when, in 1966, she became prime minister; it seemed almost natural that she should fill the place of her father, who had died two years before.
We need not pretend to sit in judgment on her -- we so far away and so imperfectly informed. It may be that the economy, politics, and society of India had fallen into disorder, incompetence, and venality, and called for the stern hand of a central and decisive power. In ancient republican Rome, law allowed -- in a crisis -- the appointment of a dictator for a year; but when that year had expired, and if the dictator persisted, anyone might depose him, legally or not.
Copyright © 2001 by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant
Chapter Four: From the Pyramids to Ikhnaton
Was the civilization of ancient Egypt the oldest and most lasting in history?
So thought Elie Faure, historian of world art: "It is possible," he wrote, "that Egypt, through the solidarity, the unity, and the disciplined variety of its artistic products, through the enormous duration and sustained power of its effort, offers the spectacle of the greatest civilization that has yet appeared on the earth." (I would rank the civilization of ancient Rome as still greater.)
As to age, the oldest date generally -- though still uncertainly -- assigned to the Egyptian calendar is 4241 B.C.; if so, Egyptian astronomy and mathematics had reached considerable development by that time. However, a like development had probably been reached in Mesopotamia; and archeologists are inclined to ascribe "the first civilization in known history" to the lands "midway between the rivers" Euphrates and Tigris. If we reckon the specifically Egyptian civilization to have endured from 4241 B.C. to the Greek conquest of Egypt (332 B.C.), we spread Egyptian civilization over 3,809 years. I know of no other culture, not even the Chinese, that maintained itself through so many centuries.
Egypt, as Herodotus said in 430 B.C., was to doron tou Nilou, "the gift of the Nile." The most famous of rivers watered the settlements that developed on its banks; it offered a liquid road for communication and commerce; and it annually irrigated the lands of the peasants with its dependable overflow. The Greeks called those settlements nomes -- i.e., communities accepting laws -- and each local ruler became a nomarch. When some strong man united several of these nomes under his power, the nomarchs submitted to a monarch, and the political history of Egypt began.
About 3100 B.C., one such monarch, the half-legendary Menes, issued, for the communities under his rule, a body of laws allegedly given him by the god Thoth. He built his capital on the west bank of the Nile, at a place known to us by its Greek name Memphis; and there he established the First Dynasty of pharaohs.
Some four hundred years later Pharaoh Zozer (c. 2680 B.C.) appointed as his chief minister Imhotep -- the first great name in Egyptian history, renowned as both physician and architect. Later generations worshiped him as a god of knowledge, father of their sciences and arts. Tradition ascribed to him the oldest building now extant in Egypt, the step pyramid of Sakkara -- a terraced structure of stone near the ruins of Memphis. This is the father of all extant pyramids.
The most famous of these date from the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613-c. 2494 B.C.). Herodotus celebrated two of its pharaohs as Cheops and Chephren, now more accurately renamed Khufu and Khafre. By their time, Egyptian entrepreneurs had built commercial fleets, and had developed trade with several ports on the Eastern Mediterranean; they had exploited the timber and other resources of Lebanon, and had opened up the mines of Sinai; they had carved out great quarries of stone in the Nubian desert and at Aswan.
The pharaohs became rich and lavished wealth on their palaces and tombs. Herodotus tells how Khufu (r.c. 2590 B.C.) erected the oldest of the many pyramids that adorn the desert near Giza, a suburb of Cairo. So far as we know, this is the largest single structure ever raised by man. It covers thirteen acres, and rises to the height of 448 feet; within its space Rome's St. Peter's, London's Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, and the cathedrals of Florence and Milan, could all be enclosed.
It is not beautiful, except in the accuracy of its stonecutting and in the symmetry and precision of its geometrical measurements. It impresses us chiefly by its size and history. As a work of engineering it was a miracle of its time: 2,300,000 blocks of stone -- each weighing, on the average, two-and-a-half tons -- were drawn for miles over the eastern desert and then across the Nile; granite blocks, mostly from Aswan, were carried 555 miles north. Apparently these masses were raised to higher and higher levels of the pyramid by hauling them, on rollers or sledges, along a rising embankment of bricks and earth. According to Herodotus, this rising road took two years to build, and the pyramid itself required the labor of 100,000 men through twenty years. The Greek traveler and historian transmitted an inscription which he claimed to have found on one pyramid, recording the quantity of radishes, garlic, and onions consumed by the workmen in that one enterprise.
Why did the pharaohs and others build pyramids? The Egyptian believed that he had in himself a spiritual counterpart or double which he called his ka, and which he hoped would survive indefinitely if his flesh were preserved against hunger, violence, and decay. Hence his corpse was to be embalmed and mummified with expert care; the viscera would be removed by a kind of Caesarian operation; the brains would be drawn out through the nose; the interior would be cleansed with wines and perfumes and aromatic spices; then the body was to be sewn up, steeped in antiseptic chemicals, rubbed with adhesive gum, and wrapped tightly with bandages of waxed cloth; finally it was deposited in a coffin. The ideal tomb should be of stone, of sufficient quantity to make a solid mass impenetrable except for a secret passage to an inner chamber furnished with food, weapons, and a lavatory, and with carved or painted figures which, by a magic formula known only to the priests, would attend to the body, soul, and ka forever.
Near the pyramid of Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2550 B.C.) stands the famous monster known to history by its Greek name Sphinx. Apparently, at the ruler's command, a corps of mechanics and sculptors carved out of stone a massive figure with the body of a lion and the head, allegedly, of Khafre himself. The face is dark with a frown, as if to frighten marauders from the royal tomb.
There is something barbarically primitive about the Pyramids -- their brute grasp for size, their vain lust for permanence. It may be the memory and imagination of the beholder that, swollen with history, makes these monuments great. Perhaps pictures have too much ennobled them; photography can catch everything except dirt, and enhances man-made objects with noble vistas of land and sky. The sunset at Giza is greater than the pyramids.
Life in ancient Egypt was pleasant for the pharaohs; we see in the pictures and reliefs, and gather from the scrolls, their wealth, luxury, and power.
The clergy cooperated -- declared them to be gods, inculcated popular obedience to the royal rule, and received in return a captivating share of the royal revenue. A thousand trained scribes served as a clerical bureaucracy to the pharaohs and clergy, and to the feudal nobles who ruled the provinces as fiefs of the kings. So aided, the government organized a regular postal service, collected taxes, accumulated capital, developed a credit system of finance, distributed funds to agriculture, industry, and commerce, and in some measure achieved a planned economy regulated by the state.
Industry was manned by free labor as well as slaves under the jurisdiction of the provincial governors. The wars brought in thousands of captives, most of whom were sold into bondage; their labor facilitated the exploitation of mines and the triumphs of engineering. Class wars flourished; strikes were frequent. One manuscript preserves the plea of some workers to their overseer: "We have been driven here by hunger and thirst; we have no clothes, no oil, no food. Write to our lord the Pharaoh, and to the governor who is over us, so that they may give us something for our sustenance." However, we hear of no class revolution -- unless we describe as such the historic walkout of the Jews.
The industrial arts in ancient Egypt were as advanced and varied as anything in Europe before the Renaissance. Egyptian artisans made weapons and tools of bronze, including drills that bored through the toughest diorite stone and saws that cut the massive slabs of the sarcophagi. They were masters in carving wood: they made merchant vessels a hundred feet long, and coffins so handsome that they almost invited men to die. Egyptian engineering surpassed any before 1800 A.D.; it built canals from the Nile to the Red Sea, and transported over great distances obelisks weighing a thousand tons.
The moral code in Egypt made no objection to incest. We hear of many cases where a man married his sister. Many pharaohs did this, apparently to keep the royal blood pure, or to keep the family property unimpaired -- for property was transmitted through the female line. The pharaohs and some nobles kept a harem, but commoners found this impossibly extravagant. Prostitutes abounded, but many pictures celebrate marital love.
Women enjoyed a legal status higher, and a moral and social freedom greater, than in any European state before our time, possibly excepting Imperial Rome. The Greeks, who confined their women narrowly, were astonished to learn that Egyptian women went about their social and business affairs publicly, unattended and unharmed. They used every cosmetic device, even to painting their nails and their eyes; some of them covered breasts, arms, and ankles with jewelry. They spoke of sex with a directness rivaling that of the freest women of today. They could take the initiative in courtship, and could be divorced only for proved adultery, or with ample compensation. Some of them, like Nefertiti, earned immortality by their beauty. Some ruled the empire imperiously but well, like Hatshepsut (r. 1503-1482 B.C.), or recklessly like Cleopatra. Motherhood was revered as woman's title to nobility.
Egyptian art is rivaled by the Greek and Roman, but it preceded them by a thousand years, and in a hundred items led the way. I needn't describe -- for many of you must have seen them or photographs thereof -- the temples, palaces, colonnades, and tombs that rose along the banks of the Nile in the thirty centuries between the age of the pyramids and the time of Cleopatra. At Karnak and Luxor a veritable forest of pillars was raised by Egyptian royalty. The columns seem too plentiful to us, but apparently their obtrusive proximity was intended to break the domineering impact of the sun. Here, long before the Greek flowering, the arch and vault, the column and capital, the architrave and pediment, gave example and challenge to architecture in the Mediterranean world.
I would not equate Egyptian sculpture with that of classic antiquity, but I know of nothing in Greek statuary finer than the diorite bust of Khafre in the Cairo Museum. It is now forty-two hundred years old, and seems immune to time. It may be idealized, but it probably represents in its essential features the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. Even more famous is the stone statue of the Scribe, now in the Louvre. Squatting on his haunches, almost totally nude, he holds a pen behind his ear as reserve for the one he holds in his hand. He keeps a record of work done and goods paid for, of prices and costs, of profits and losses, of taxes due or paid. He draws up contracts and wills, and makes out his employer's tax report. His life is monotonous, but he consoles himself by writing essays on the hardships of the manual worker's existence and the princely dignity of those whose food is paper and whose blood
Beneath and above everything in Egypt was religion. We find it in every stage and form from totemism to theology; we see its influence in literature, government, art -- in everything except morality. And its gods were almost as numerous as in India. In the beginning, said the priests, was the sky; and to the end this and the Nile remained the chief divinities. All the heavenly bodies were the external forms of mighty spirits, whose wills ordained their complex and varied movements. The sun was the god Ra or Re or Amon, who had created the world by shining on it; as the god Horus, it was a gigantic falcon flying across the heaven day after day as if supervising its realm. The Nile was the great god Osiris; and -- perhaps because the Nile fertilized the adjoining earth -- Osiris was also worshiped as the god of male sexual power.
Isis, the sister and wife of Osiris, was the goddess of motherhood; and, as fertilized by Osiris-the-river, the soil of the Delta was one of her forms. Vegetables and animals, too, were worshiped as gods; the palm tree for its shade, the goat and the bull for their reproductive energy, the serpent as a symbol of wisdom and life; at least he knew how to make ends meet. The pharaoh, too, was worshiped as a god, the son of Amon-Re; he was a deity transiently taking the earth as his home. It was through this supposedly divine lineage that he was able to rule so long and with so little use of physical force.
Hence the priests of Egypt were the necessary props of the throne and the secret police of the social order. Through the piety of the people and the politic generosity of the king, they became in time richer and stronger than the feudal aristocracy, or even the royal family itself. They educated the young, accumulated and transmitted learning, and disciplined themselves with rigor and zeal. Herodotus described them almost with awe:
They are of all men the most excessively attentive to the worship of the gods, and observe the following ceremonies...They wear linen garments, constantly fresh-washed...They are circumcised for the sake of cleanliness, think it better to be clean than handsome. They shave their whole body every third day, that neither lice nor any other impurity may be found upon them...They wash themselves in cold, cold water twice every day and twice every night. (Histories 2.37)
Their frailty was a hot devotion to power, and their willingness to recommend, or sell, magic incantations, rites, or charms to the faithful as instruments of earthly welfare or eternal happiness.
According to our great American Egyptologist Professor James Breasted:
The dangers of the hereafter were now greatly multiplied, and for every critical situation the priest was able to furnish the dead with an effective charm which would infallibly cure him. Besides many charms which enabled the dead to reach the world of the hereafter, there were those which prevented him from losing his mouth, his head, his heart; others which enabled him to remember his name, to breathe, eat, drink, avoid eating his own foulness, to prevent his drinking-water from turning into flame, to turn darkness into light, to ward off all serpents and other hostile monsters, and many others...Thus the earliest moral development which we can trace in the ancient East was suddenly arrested, or at least checked, by the detestable devices of a corrupt priesthood eager for gain.
Such in part was the condition of religion in Egypt when a poet, lover, and heretic came to the throne and announced to a shocked clergy and people that there was only one god.
Amenhotep IV was hardly designed to be a king: he cared more for art than for war, wrote the most famous poem in Egyptian literature, and indefatigably loved his wife, Nefertiti. He allowed artists to show him riding in a chariot with the queen, engaged with her in pleasantries with their children.
On ceremonial occasions Nefertiti sat beside him and held his hand, while their daughters frolicked at the foot of the throne. She gave him seven daughters, but no son; he still loved her and took no secondary wife. He spoke of her as "Mistress of my happiness, at hearing whose voice the King rejoices"; and for an oath he used the phrase "As my heart is happy in the Queen and her children."
Next to her he loved the sun. The Egyptians had long worshiped it as the father of all earthly life; but they had also worshiped Amon and a hundred other gods, from the evening star to the onion and the baboon. He was revolted when he saw the high priest of Amon sacrifice a ram to the god; he scorned the traffic of the clergy in magic charms and their use of the pretended oracle of Amon to support their plans.
He abominated the indecent wealth of the temples and the growing hold of a mercenary hierarchy on the nation's life. With a poet's audacity he threw compromise to the winds and announced that these deities and ceremonies were a vulgar idolatry and that there was only one god, Aton -- the sun. He threw off his inherited name of Amenhotep, which contained the word Amon, and called himself Ikhnaton, meaning "Aton is satisfied."
Helping himself with some monotheistic poems composed in the preceding reign, he wrote passionate songs to Aton, the god-sun; the longest of these now surviving is the most remarkable remnant of ancient Egyptian poetry:
Thy dawning is beautiful in the horizon of the sky.
O living Aton, Beginning of life.
When thou risest in the eastern horizon,
Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.
Thou art beautiful, great, glittering, high above every land,
Thy rays, they encompass the land, even all that thou hast made.
They are Re, and thou carriest them all away captive;
Thou bindest them by thy love.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are upon earth;
Though thou art on high, thy footprints are the day.
When thou settest in the western horizon of the sky,
The earth is in darkness like the dead;
They sleep in their chambers,
Their heads are wrapped up,
Their nostrils are stopped,
And none seeth the other,
All their things are stolen
Which are under their heads,
And they know it not.
Every lion cometh forth from his den,
All serpents they sting...
The world is in silence,
He that made them resteth in his horizon.
Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon.
When thou shinest as Aton by day
Thou drivest away the darkness.
When thou sendest forth thy rays,
The Two Lands are in daily festivity,
Awake and standing upon their feet
When thou hast raised them up.
Their limbs bathed, they take their clothing,
Their arms uplifted in adoration to thy dawning.
In all the world they do their work.
All cattle rest upon their pasturage,
The trees and the plants flourish,
The birds flutter in their marshes,
Their wings uplifted in adoration to thee.
All the sheep dance upon their feet,
All winged things fly,
They live when thou hast shone upon them.
The barks sail upstream and downstream.
Every highway is open because thou dawnest.
The fish in the river leap up before thee.
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.
Creator of the germ in woman,
Maker of seed in man,
Giving life to the son in the body of his mother,
Soothing him that he may not weep,
Nurse even in the womb,
Giver of breath to animate every one that he maketh!
When he cometh forth from the body...on the day of his birth,
Thou openest his mouth in speech,
Thou suppliest his necessities...
Thy rays nourish every garden;
When thou risest they live,
They grow by thee.
Thou makest the seasons
In order to create all thy work;
Winter to bring them coolness,
And heat that they may taste thee.
Thou didst make the distant sky to rise therein,
In order to behold all that thou hast made,
Thou alone, shining in the form as living Aton.
Dawning, glittering, going afar and returning.
Thou makest millions of forms
Through thyself alone;
Cities, towns and tribes,
Highways and rivers.
All eyes set thee before them,
For thou art Aton of the day over the earth...
Thou art in my heart,
There is no other that knoweth thee
Save thy son Ikhnaton.
Thou hast made him wise
In thy designs and in thy might.
The world is in thy hand,
Even as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen they live,
When thou settest they die;
For thou art length of life of thyself.
Men live through thee,
While their eyes are upon thy beauty
Until thou settest.
All labor is put away
When thou settest in the West...
Thou didst establish the world,
And raised them up for thy son...
Ikhnaton, whose life is long;
And for the chief royal wife, his beloved,
Mistress of the Two Lands, Nefer-nefru-aton, Nefretiti,
Living and flourishing for ever and ever.
This is not only one of the great poems of history, it is the outstanding expression of monotheism 640 years before Isaiah. Ikhnaton's god is not tribal, like Jehovah; Aton feeds and rules all the nations of the earth. It is a vitalistic conception of deity, as a creative living power animating all things; its heat is the warmth of life and the ardor of love; it nourishes and fertilizes every plant, energizes every animal, and "creates the man-child in woman." It is a god for all nations, for all forms of growth.
Ikhnaton spoiled this by letting egotism cloud his vision: "There is no other that knoweth thee save thy son Ikhnaton...Thou didst establish the worlds, and raised them up for thy son Ikhnaton." Confident of his new religion, he ordered that the names of all gods but Aton should be carved or blotted out from every public place in Egypt. He cut out from his father's name the word Amon, as being a deity now dead; he declared all creeds illegal but his own.
The official hierarchy fumed and plotted; the people, seeing Ikhnaton's monotheism as a wholesale slaughter of the gods, muttered and rebelled. Even in his palace his ministers hated him, for his scorn of war had weakened the army, and his generals impatiently awaited his death. Subject states refused their customary tribute; one by one they deposed their Egyptian governors and became free; Egypt suddenly fell apart. Ikhnaton found himself almost deserted except for his wife and children. He was hardly thirty years old when he died, mourning his failure as a ruler and the unworthiness of his race.
Two years after his death his son-in-law, Tutenkhamon, a favorite of the priests, ascended the throne. He changed the name Tutenkhaton, which his father-in-law had given him, made his peace with the powers of the Church, and announced to a rejoicing people the restoration of the ancient gods. The words Aton and Ikhnaton were effaced from all the monuments, the priests forbade the name of the heretic king to pass any man's lips, and the people referred to him as "the Great Criminal." The names that Ikhnaton had removed were recarved upon the monuments, and the feast days that he had abolished were renewed. Everything was as before.
Egypt had another great age, under Rameses II, who showed his mettle by reconquering the Egyptian colonies, building immense temples, begetting one hundred sons and fifty daughters on his multiple wives, and leaving behind him a statue of himself as a proud relic of his power. Originally it was fifty-six feet in height; now it is fifty-six feet in length, for the centuries eroded its earthy pediment and let it fall.
Shelley described that statue in a sonnet both beautiful and terrible, entitled by one of Rameses' many names, "Ozymandias":
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Copyright © 2001 by John Little and the Estate of Will Durant
Meet the Author
Will Durant (1885–1981) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1968) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). He spent more than fifty years writing his critically acclaimed eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization (the later volumes written in conjunction with his wife, Ariel). A champion of human rights issues, such as the brotherhood of man and social reform, long before such issues were popular, Durant’s writing still educates and entertains readers around the world.
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