- Does Philosophy Need a Story?
In May of 1923, Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius heard that Will Durant would be in Kansas City, so decided to drive there from his home in Girard, Kansas to meet up with him.
Haldeman-Julius first met Durant during World War I. Durant, who completed his doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University in 1917, published his first book the same year. Entitled Philosophy and the Social Problem, Durant argued that philosophy had not grown because it avoided the actual problems of society.
Haldeman-Julius liked Durant’s non-technical approach to philosophy, and Durant in turn liked Haldeman-Julius’s ideas. So, Haldeman-Julius traveled to Kansas City intent on signing the philosopher to write for the Haldeman-Julius Weekly. It was a progressive newspaper he had just launched on December 9, 1922 with a blistering attack on the Ku Klux Klan, which he described as “something slimy which had crept out of the gutter. It represents organized hatred, bigotry, maliciousness, jealousy, and cruelty. It is living proof that America is not a civilized country.”
Haldeman-Julius prevailed, and Durant went on for the next three years to write a series of essays on philosophy for the progressive publisher located in America’s heartland. These essays were published by Haldeman-Julius as “Little Blue Books,” a series of little (3 ½ inches by 5 inches), short (32 to 64 pages) books printed on inexpensive paper that sold for as little as 5 or 10 cents (see ABR 39.1 ).
The series, launched in 1919, found in Durant, an author that sold surprisingly well: as of 1928, Durant’s Little Blue Book on the philosophy of Henri Bergson had sold 8,000 copies; Herbert Spencer, 19,000 copies; Voltaire, 24,000; Immanuel Kant, 24,000; Francis Bacon, 25,500; Arthur Schopenhauer, 26,500; Aristotle, 27,000; and Plato, 39,000. The best-selling one though was his essay on Nietzsche, which as of 1928, had sold 45,000 copies.
In July of 1925, Haldeman-Julius was in New York City for a vacation with his wife, Marcet. While there he met with M. Lincoln Schuster of the publishing house, Simon and Schuster. Like Haldeman-Julius, who became notorious and successful for publishing books on topics such as sex, birth control, prostitution, and freethinking, Schuster too gained notoriety and success in the early 1920s albeit for taking advantage of the country’s crossword puzzle craze by founding a company in 1924 with Richard Simon to publish them.
Over lunch, Schuster told Haldeman-Julius that unlike the publisher of the Little Blue Books, he was not interested in the mass production of books. Rather, Schuster just wanted to produce a few quality books, and picked Haldeman-Julius’s brain for book ideas. “How about a good, well-written history of philosophy,” suggested Haldeman-Julius. “But who would write it?” asked Schuster. “There are not may Will Durant’s,” responded Haldeman-Julius.
The more he thought about Schuster’s question the more he became convinced that Will Durant should be the author. So he pitched the idea of publishing Durant’s fifteen Little Blue Books on philosophy in one volume. Schuster thought this was a good idea, and a year later, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers (1926) came out.
It proved to be both a ground-breaking and best-selling book that made Durant financially independent. This allowed him to leave teaching to focus on writing the eleven-volume work, The Story of Civilization (1935–1975), of which the first six volumes would carry only his name, while the final five would carry the name of his wife, Ariel, as co-author. The writing on this multivolume project would go on for the next four decades. The tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution (1967), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and the Durants received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 from US President Gerald Ford for their work on the multivolume series.
Durant later expressed his appreciation to Haldeman-Julius, writing to him “I owe you two great debts: first, you took the...