Dear Earl Russell,
Will you interrupt your busy life for a moment, and play the game of philosophy with me?
I am attempting to face, in my next book, a question that our generation, perhaps more than most, seems always ready to ask, and never able to answer — what is the meaning or worth of human life? Heretofore this question has been dealt with chiefly by theorists, from Ikhnaton and Lao-tse to Bergson and Spengler. The result has been a species of intellectual suicide: thought, by its very development, seems to have destroyed the value and significance of life. The growth and spread of knowledge, for which so many reformers and idealists prayed, appears to bring to its devotees — and, by contagion, to many others — a disillusionment which has almost broken the spirit of our race.
Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star; geologists have told us that civilization is a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that ‘progress’ is a delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is only a transient incandescence of the brain. The Industrial Revolution has destroyed the home, and the discovery of contraceptives is destroying the family, the old morality, and perhaps (through the sterility of the intelligent) the race. Love is analysed into a physical congestion, and marriage becomes a temporary physiological convenience slightly superior to promiscuity. Democracy has disintegrated into such corruption as only Milo’s Rome knew; and our youthful dreams of a socialist utopia disappear as we see, day after day, the inexhaustible acquisitiveness of men. Every invention strengthens the strong and weakens the weak; every new mechanism displaces men, and multiplies the horrors of war. God, who was once the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers him. Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured; nothing is certain in it except defeat and death — a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening.
We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of truth. It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us, and restraints that preserved us; it has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased. As we look upon it now we wonder why we hurried so to find it. For it appears to have taken from us every reason for existing, except for the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s trivial hope.
This is the pass to which science and philosophy have brought us. I, who have loved philosophy for many years, turn from it now back to life itself, and ask you, as one who has lived as well as thought, to help me understand. Perhaps the verdict of those who have lived is different from that of those who have merely thought. Spare me a moment to tell me what meaning life has for you, what help — if any — religion gives you, what keeps you going, what are the sources of your inspiration and energy, what is the goal or motive-force of your toil; where you find your consolations and your happiness, where in the last resort your treasure lies. Write briefly if you must; write at leisure and at length if you possibly can; for every word from you will be precious to me.
William James Durant (November 5, 1885 — November 7, 1981) was an American philosopher, historian, and writer. He is best known for writing, with his wife Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, an 11-volume work written between 1935 and 1975. The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1967 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom 1977