Friday, July 17, 2009

Will & Ariel Durant

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” – Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Page 22

I like to share a beautiful love story of these great minds of the century – Dr. Will Durant and his wife, Ariel Durant – which appeared in Reader’s Digest, November 1969 Edition (the one I randomly picked from my collection yesterday evening).


“The Philosopher and the Schoolgirl” by Jim Bishop

The bar at Madrid’s Castellana Hilton was dark and cool and almost empty. This was siesta time, and a high hot sun stared at a million closed shutters.

The old man in the corner moved his glass of iced tea in the dark coolness if its own sweat. The things he said to the lady at his side were said in a whisper, a sound heard in church. The sheaf of white hair was as orderly as his mind, and it lent an indescribable dignity to the marble planes of his face.

The woman was his love. She was small and plain, a doll with the dark luminescent eyes of an orphan looking at her first Christmas tree, and a body too small for the face; she had the aura of an elderly child.

This was six years ago, and one would hope that they might still be sitting in the dark cool of the Castellana. Because, on that hot afternoon, Dr. Will Durant was reminding his Ariel that they were about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage. He sipped the tea and flicked his finger under the trim white moustache and tried to explain the magic of loving one woman forever.

Well, not forever. Dr. Durant is an agnostic and he believes that when the time comes to say farewell to his love, he will be engulfed in a dark void without memory or aspiration. Mrs. Durant understood. At one point, she smiled and hid her face with her small hands and peeked at him through the fingers. She hunched her shoulders like a girl about to be tickled.

Will Durant is the author of “The Story of Philosophy, Transition” and co-author of a ten-volume work called “The Story of Civilisation”. He sought no honours and won them all. Durant was 32 when the dean of Columbia University slipped the velvet doctorate of philosophy around his neck. To help finance his studies, he had taught at a small school in uptown Manhattan. The class was small; so was the pay. In the front row, sat Ida Kaufman. She was 14 and fidgety. The dark eyes looked up at her teacher and she vowed that she would be happy to look up at him all her life. Ida and her parents were Jewish refugees from Russia. They had nothing. Often, the child wore the same print dress all week.

When she was 15 and he was 28, the teacher proposed marriage. It was as though he was revealing a secret he could no longer keep. The girl from Harlem said yes and yes and yes. Will Durant begged her to ask her parents. They handed down a gentle judgment : No. The young professor went to Harlem to sit on the final-inch of a living room chair and plead his own case.

Joseph and Ethel Kaufman said no and no and no, and finally, yes. That was the first step. The second was to explain that, although he has been brought up by Roman Catholic parents and indeed had a sister who was a nun, he could not agree to be married in any church or temple because it would be hypocritical.

Mrs. Kaufman held her hand to her head. Durant said that he would need her presence to marry Ida. A judge, you see, might not accept his word that the mother had given her consent.

Mrs. Kaufman agreed to come. A license was drawn up by an assistant city clerk in October 1913. Professor Durant phoned the New York City Hall and made an appointment. He held the girl’s hands in both of his and gave her the day and the hour of the wedding.

When the day came, the bride first attended classes at a secretarial school, to which she had gone on roller skates. Will joined her there, and they went downtown on subway. As they entered the alder-manic chamber, Ida’s skates hung from one small wrist.

“Oh, no,” the alderman gasped. “I won’t do it”. He looked at Will and said, “If you think, Professor, that I am about to become a party to a ceremony involving a child…” Durant brought forward Ida’s mother, who affirmed her consent. The alderman turned to the bride and said “Do you realise what you are doing?” She nodded yes and put the skates on the floor.

When it was over, the young man held her to him. She murmured, “You are my teacher as well as my husband”.

Later, Ida became Ariel. “We began to call her that,” said Will Durant, “because she was as strong and brave as a boy, and swift and mischievous as an elf”. There were two children, Ethel and Louis. The doctor dropped teaching for writing, and made great ages of man come tremblingly to life in the written word. For a time, Ariel was the proof reader, the moral lifter, the eraser of literary doubt.

It was as though, content with her own minor role, she was forever roller-skating across his consciousness, making herself more and more indispensable. She removed some of the chores of research from his shoulders and sat the lonely hours delving into dusty books for the titbits he required. Fat books were born, and acclaimed by the litterateurs of the world. The name “Will Durant” on the back of a volume ensured a big sale.

In 1961, Simon and Schuster published “The Age of Reason Begins” and the world of letters was surprised to find that it was written “By Will and Ariel Durant”. The Harlem schoolgirl had become a full partner. The older they grew, the more work she assumed, digested and put before him.

On the afternoon that they sat in the bar of Castellana Hilton, he was 78; she 65. He moved the glass of tea in wet circles and told her, for 10,000th time, that he could not have been as productive without her. Their 50th anniversary was coming up and he thought, not looking at her, that there should be some special gift to mark a notable milestone.

No, she said. A Taj Mahal could not add a whit to her contentment. There would be no special gift. Love and work were enough. “You are right”, he said. “Our work and our love became one”.

Again, she hid the face behind her hands. “I am your old partner”, she said. “You love me because you know I love you to distraction”. Suddenly, she burst into laughter. He looked up from the tea. “Remember the time we were in a big group and I wouldn’t shut up and you kept passing plates of nuts to me? I ate them and still kept talking”.

A writer from America walked over to shake the hand of a great man. He said hello to Ariel and asked if she thought the marriage would last. She was never hesitant about words. “He was my teacher and my guide 50 years ago. He is still my teacher and my guide”.

Dr. Durant shook his head violently. Their love was a shade of this side of embarrassing. Ariel showed her left hand. “He forgot to buy a wedding ring for me”, she said. “And I have never missed it”.


This famed psychologist-philosopher, along with his beloved wife, took 50 years to write “The Story of Civilisation” - true to Oscar Wilde’s quote – “Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it”.

“Durant embodied the two qualities that he once declared no philosophy or philosopher was complete without: understanding and forgiveness.

He never once attempted to build his reputation at the expense of others; instead he sought to better understand the viewpoints of human beings, and to forgive them their foibles and human waywardness.
When two burglars were apprehended by police after having broken into his Los Angeles home and stealing valuable jewelry and savings bonds – Durant refused to press charges and insisted that they be set free. "Forgiveness," again, is the other half of philosophy”.

“Durant’s love for his wife Ariel only deepened with the passing of time. When he was admitted to hospital with heart problems in 1981 at the age of 96, his wife stopped eating; perhaps fearing that he would not be returning. When Durant learned of the death of his beloved wife, his own heart stopped beating - he died a week after she left him. They are buried beside each other in a small Los Angeles cemetery, together for all eternity”.

Their marriage lasted for 68 years.

p.s. What do you see in your beloved?


joshua wong said...

i find the notion of two people being together forever (at least in this lifetime) to be very romantic in today's world. How many modern married couples could claim that?

Everything is so 'disposable' these days. Most of everyone has become a consumerist, and it is reflected in most of everything, music for example. Nothing last much longer than a few weeks.

Fi-sha said...

Dear Joshua

This love story is priceless.

A couple could be together, forever - mostly physically - but it is indeed rare to have one that share their thoughts, their passion, their quest in life, for better for worse, and still seeing the beauty of each other souls till the very end.

I concur with you Joshua that we are becoming so 'corrupted' in values that we arecapable of 'changing' our life partner as often we change our clothes.

Lets hope we cherish relationship as special as Will and Ariel Durant.

joshua wong said...

Hi Fisha

I'm beginning to understand what you mean. How many couples could be said to be soulmate.

Love has become too much of a 'noun' - the feelings are gone. But love could also be a 'verb' where you have to work at it. Wisdom learnt from Stephen Covey, actually :)

Have bookmarked Will Durant's 'articles' page. Will read them when i have time.

One thing i noticed was that most, if not all idealists (Will is one, i presumed) subscribed to some form of socialism when they were young. It's only when they'd seen first hand the reality of the system that they realized it is flawed just like capitalism. Or perhaps they have become older and wiser to the ways of the world.

Another interesting aspect was idealist often prefer the concept of free will as opposed to determinism. However, my understanding of these two concepts is shallow at best.

Since i subscribe to the belief in the laws of cause and effect, i would prefer free will to determinism. Determinism always imply that we can't change something because it is a process where we're headed; it's what things are meant to be. But change is something we must all do in light of the situation we're facing now, right? And we do have the will to affect the change, i hope.

plaridel said...

this is one of the greatest love stories that i'd ever read. thank you for sharing.