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Fallen Leaves Book Summary by Will Durant

What you will learn from reading Fallen Leaves:

– New perspectives on the deeper questions of humanity,

– Why Desire is the essence of life and experience is the tool of desire in pursuit of it’s ends.

– The importance of institutions and social order.

Fallen Leaves Book Summary:

Fallen Leaves is a short read but a great one. It consists of many few page chapters which features reflections on specific age old questions like what is old age and what is death.

Will Durant was a seasoned writer, philosopher and historian. From his historical studies he has tried to distill the wisdom of the human condition as experienced across all ages. If there ever was someone who can answer these tough questions. It is Will Durant!

If you’re interested in seeking new perspectives on life or just overall want to be wiser then this is the book for you. This book Summary is made up of direct quotes from the book. Will Durant quite simply says it best.


On Youth:

Happiness is the free play of the instincts, and so is youth. For the majority of us it is the only period of life in which we live; most men of forty are but a reminiscence, the burnt-out ashes of what was once a flame. The tragedy of life is that it gives us wisdom only when it has stolen youth.

Health lies in action, and so it graces youth. To be busy is the secret of grace, and half the secret of content. Let us ask the gods not for possessions, but for things to do; happiness is in making things rather than in consuming them. In Utopia, said Thoreau, each would build his own home; and then Suos would come back to the heart of man, as it comes to the bird when it builds its nest.


On book learning:

Nothing learned from a book is worth anything until it is used and verified in life; only then does it begin to affect behaviour and desire. It is Life that educates, and perhaps love more than anything else in life.


On the changes of growing up:

For meanwhile puberty has come, and with it that self-consciousness which is the origin of thought. Suddenly the boy has lost the readiness and unity of indeliberate action and the pale cast of thought overshadows him. The girl begins to bedeck herself more carefully, to dishevel her hair more artfully;, ten hours a day she thinks of dress, and a hundred times a day she draws her skirt down over her knees with charming futility.

Intellectual development comes step by step with the growing consciousness of sex. Instinct gives way to thought, action slips into quiet brooding.


Society and competition:

The principle of the family was mutual aid; but the principle of society is competition, the struggle for existence, the elimination of the weak and the survival of the strong.

Youth, shocked, rebels, and calls upon the world to make itself a family, and give to youth the welcome and protection and comradeship of the home: the age of socialism comes. And then slowly youth is drawn into the gamble of this individualistic life; the zest of the game creeps into the blood; acquisitiveness is aroused and stretches out both hands for gold and power. The rebellion ends; the game goes on.

Here and everywhere is the struggle for existence, life inextricably enmeshed with war. All life living at the expense of life, every organism eating other organisms forever. Here is history, a futile circle of infinite repetition: these youths with eager eyes will make the same errors as we, they will be misled by the same dreams; they will suffer, and wonder, and surrender, and grow old.


On discovering evil:

Discovering the world, youth discovers evil, and is horrified to learn the nature of his species.

The discovery darkens life for some years; we begin to mourn the brevity of the human span, and the impossibility of wisdom or fulfillment within so limited a circle; we stand at the top of the hill, and without straining our eyes we can see, at its bottom, death. We work all the harder to forget that it is waiting for us; we turn our eyes back in memory to the days that were not darkened with its presence; we revel in the company of the young because they cast over us, transiently and incompletely, their divine carelessness of mortality.


Old age:

What is old age? Fundamentally, no doubt, it is a condition of the flesh, of protoplasm that finds inevitably the limit of its life. It is a physiological and psychological involution.

It is a hardening of the arteries and categories, an arresting of thought and blood; a man is as old as his arteries, and as young as his ideas. The ability to learn decreases with each decade of our lives, as if the association fibers of the brain were accumulated and overlaid in inflexible patterns. New material seems no longer to find room, and recent impressions fade as rapidly as a politician’s promises, or the public’s memory of them.


On death:

And yet what if it is for life’s sake that we must die? In truth we are not individuals; and it is because we think ourselves such that death seems unforgivable. We are temporary organs of the race, cells in the body of life; we die and drop away that life prune growth would be stifled and youth would find no room on the may remain young and strong. If we were to live forever, earth. Death, like style, is the removal of rubbish, the circumcision of the superfluous.

Though I am fond of my unique soul, I do not expect it to survive the complete death of my body. Death is the breakup of the human soul-i.e., of the life-giving, form-molding force of an organism into those partial souls that animate individual parts of the body; so these lesser souls can for a time continue the growth of hair and nails on a corpse. And when the corpse completely disintegrates there will be souls, or inner energising powers, even in the “inorganic” fragments that remain. But my soul as me is bound up with my organised and centrally directed body, and with my individual memories, desires, and character; it must suffer disintegration as my body decays.


On Desire:

When I introspect I perceive not merely sensations and ideas but desire, will, ambition, and pride as vital phases of me.

Spinoza was right: “desiderium ipsa essentia hominis”-desire is the very essence of man. We are living flames of desire until we admit final defeat. Will is desire expressed in ideas that become actions unless impeded by contrary or substitute desires and ideas. Character is the sum of our desires, fears, propensities, habits, abilities, and ideas.

It is this soul or psyche, this steaming fountain of desires and thoughts, that forms the body and the face, limited by heredity and environment, and following the lines upon which ancestral souls have moulded ancestral forms. When the amoeba extends itself into a temporary arm to clutch and enclose some wanted object, desire is moulding that arm; and if such desires are so expressed through many lives and generations, the soul or directive force of the embryo may generate a permanent arm.

Desire, not experience, is the essence of life; experience becomes the tool of desire in the enlightenment of mind and the pursuit of ends.


On being Christian:

consider myself a Christian in the literal and difficult sense of sincerely admiring the personality and ethics of Christ,  and making a persistent effort to behave like a Christian.


Religion and philosophical truths:

I have tried to keep some hold on the religion of my youth by interpreting its basic doctrines as symbols that gave popular expression to philosophic truths. I can rephrase “original sin” as man’s inherited disposition to follow those instincts of pugnacity, sexual promiscuity, and greed which may have been necessary in the hunting stage of human history, but which need a variety of controls in an organised society that guarantees its members protection against violence, theft, and rape; we are born with the taint of ancestral passions in our blood.

In the expulsion of “our first parents” from paradise because they had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge I can see a forecast of Ecclesiastes’ somber warning-“He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” for knowledge can destroy a happy innocence and many a comforting or inspiring delusion.


Where does the word morals come from?

The word moral, of course, is from the Latin mos, moris, meaning “custom”; we may agree that what at a given time or place is considered moral will depend upon the mores, customs, or standards prevailing in the group. Personally I should define morality as the consistency of private conduct with public interest as understood by the group.


On ignorance of institutions:

You ignorant fools! When will you grow up enough to understand that your individual security and survival are the gifts of social order; that social order can be maintained only through the influence of the family, the school, and the Church; that no number of laws or policemen can replace the moral discipline inculcated by parents, teachers, and priests; that in attacking these formative and protective institutions you are sapping the dykes that have been raised through the labor and wisdom of centuries against the individualistic, disorderly, and savage impulses that lurk in the hearts of men?


Youth and revolts:

Nothing can destroy my faith in our successors. I welcome their radical protests and revolts; we need and deserve them.

We give our offspring twenty years of care and education and then conscript them for murder and death in foreign wars. We preach Christ to them and then cheat so much in business that the government has to intervene to protect the consumer against deceptive labels, dangerous cars, poisonous drugs, chemicalised food, and shoddy goods, while the government itself competes in corruption and mendacity.

There is an anarchist in all of us that inclines us to sympathise with a felon who is desperately and cleverly eluding the police; nobody loves a policeman until he needs one.