Durant was born in North Adams, Massachusetts of French-Canadian parents Joseph Durant and Mary Allard, who had been part of the Quebec emigration to the United States.
In 1900, Durant was educated by the Jesuits in St. Peter's Preparatory School and, later, Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, New Jersey. Historian Joan Rubin writes of this period, "Despite some adolescent flirtations, he began preparing for the vocation that promised to realize his mother's fondest hopes for him: the priesthood. In that way, one might argue, he embarked on a course that, while distant from Yale's or Columbia's apprenticeships in gentility, offered equivalent cultural authority within his own milieu."
In 1905, he began experimenting with socialist philosophy but, after World War I, began recognizing that a "lust for power" underlay all forms of political behavior. However, even before the war, "other aspects of his sensibility had competed with his radical leanings," notes Rubin. She adds that "the most concrete of those was a persistent penchant for philosophy. With his energy invested in Spinoza, he made little room for Bakunin. From then on, writes Rubin, "his retention of a model of selfhood predicated on discipline made him unsympathetic to anarchist injunctions to 'be yourself'. . . To be one's 'deliberate self,' he explained, meant to 'rise above' the impulse to 'become the slaves of our passions' and instead to act with 'courageous devotion' to a moral cause."
He graduated in 1907. He worked as a reporter for Arthur Brisbane's New York Evening Journal for ten dollars a week. At the Evening Journal, he wrote several articles on sexual criminals. In 1907, he began teaching Latin, French, English and geometry at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. Durant was also made librarian at the college.
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