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Will Durant on Geological Consent

Well, Maybe Not from Will Durant

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Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.

Will Durant (1946). What is civilization? Ladies Home Journal: January.

Thanks very much to James Bishop of the Will Durant Foundation, who let me know the correct citation for this well-known quote. Mr. Bishop adds this: "Durant is the author of the statement. While Durant has been quoted using the phrase in his lectures as far back as 1933, the first record of it appearing in print was in his essay titled "What is Civilization?" in the January 1946 issue of Ladies Home Journal."

Finding the Source

The source of this quotation has been up for discussion since I published it here on my website, back in 1998, attributed (by me) to the Story of Philosophy. Several readers wrote, letting me know that my attribution was not correct, and providing me a list of possible authors, as well as a collection of other close quotations from Durant, which I cannot bring myself to remove from this page. Here are some of the quotations that various readers supplied to me as close approximations.

Faithful reader Peter Blau wrote me to say this quote is definitely not from the Story of Philosophy. However, Peter reports that T. F. Mills, a contributor to the (now defunct) "Stumpers" mailing list, offers something of interest:

In Will and Ariel Durant's Lessons of History (Simon & Schuster 1968), chapter 2 ("History and the Earth") is devoted to this theme, but the exact wording of this particular quote is not there. Some samples:

"At any moment a comet may come too close to the earth and set our little globe turning topsy-turvy in a hectic course, or choke its men and fleas with fumes or heat; or a fragment of the smiling sun may slip off tangentially -- as some think our planet did a few astronomic moments ago--and fall upon us in a wild embrace ending all grief and pain. We accept these possibilities in our stride, and retort to the cosmos in the words of Pascal: 'When the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.'"

"To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ."

He concludes the chapter with "Man, not the earth, makes civilization."

Some Other Suggestions

More suggestions from readers as to who might have written this included Vladimir I. Vernadsky or Teilhard de Chardin (from Douglas Frink); Jack Kilmon suggested that it might have been an off-the-cuff remark of Durant's at a lecture (and it turns out that Jack was right, according to James Bishop, who says that Durant often used it in his lectures).

Mark L. Anderson suggested H.G. Wells might be the quipper. I did find one listing on the Internet (but now we know how dependable that is) that suggested geologist George F. Demko was the author. Also, columnist George Will comes close in a (2003) review of Simon Winchester's Krakatoa when he says "Geology has joined biology in lowering mankind's self-esteem. Geology suggests how mankind's existence is contingent on the geological consent of the planet. Although the planet is hospitable for the moment, it is indifferent -- eventually it will be lethally indifferent -- to its human passengers." That clearly post-dates the quote I found in 1998.

I am very pleased to say that, thanks to James Bishop, this quote is now properly accredited to Will Durant.

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