There are many gems of wisdom to appreciate in this little book, but in this short review (and with the risk of oversimplifying) I wanted touch critically on two of his major themes: religion and government.
Whereas in all his long life he was never able to bring himself to the belief that religion is true, he does believe it is necessary to teach this lie to those too much less intelligent than Durant, to try to make them behave themselves. This, of course, is very cynical. It is on these terms that he supports the Catholic Church, and desires its moral power over society to increase. He does also say that he wants it to be a more liberal Catholic Church than it has been in the past, but judging by history, wouldn’t one discern that once it has power that it will do what it wants?
I find his stance very disappointing. In this he mirrors Plato, who wanted to subdue the masses of society with “benevolent” myths. But Durant has the benefit of perspective. He knows what the Catholic Church did to those who actually sought to advance humanity, once it had the power of the masses behind it. Here Durant is archaic, a throwback, and it is quite a shame. Rather than trying to trick people into being moral, we should strive to tell them the truth, for only in knowing the truth can they actually be moral. Teaching them a sham morality will only exacerbate foolishness and lead to a chaos of unintended consequences.
His views on government parallel his views on religion. Given human nature as he sees it, he finds it impractical to do the right thing, and so embraces an increase in the power of the status quo while making the quiet but futile appeal for it to be kinder and gentler. But again, what have we ever seen happen in history as national governments (and Durant himself favors a one-world government) aggregate more and more power? Tyranny over the individual has been the predictable result.
In this and unlike his views on religion where he mirrors the archaic ideal, here Durant mirrors the modern ideal. He is a liberal in the modern sense, he is not a classical liberal who was the idealist that believed that reason and liberty led to the improvement of mankind.
Fallen Leaves is a good book, but I’m disappointed about where his long life of experience and thinking led him on these two very important matters. Our culture desperately needs more sincerity, not more trickery. And to solve the problem of barbarism, it needs more appeal to rational principles, an increase in the heart and soul of civility – rationality – not political hacks that pander to barbarism.
If you’ve not read Durant’s Story of Philosophy, Transition, and Philosophy and the Social Problem, I’d recommend reading these before Fallen Leaves.