The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

Will and Ariel Durant wrote an 11 volume set of books on history over 4 decades that spans 10,000 pages. This book is their summary of all of those volumes and it is only 97 pages. Will and Ariel have lots of in-depth knowledge about history and this book is one of the most highly recommended books to read in a lifetime and I see why. It's very easy to read and it covers a very wide-range of history topics that we are dealing with today and will continue to deal with 100's of years from now. Some of the topics that this book covers are biology, religion, economics, government, philosophy, war, progress, decay and many others.

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The electrons, like Cowper’s God, move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform, and some quirk of character or circumstance may upset national equations, as when Alexander drank himself to death and let his new empire fall apart (323 BC.), or as when Frederick the Great was saved from disaster by the accession of a Czar infatuated with Prussian ways (1762).

 

“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.” - or so we believe and hope. 

 

We must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities; in history, as in science and politics, relativity rules, and all formulas should be suspect.

 

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit of an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads - astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war - what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.

 

Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty. At any moment a comet may come too close to the earth and set our little globe turning topsy-turvy in a hectic course. 

But a tornado can ruin in an hour the city that took a century to build; an iceberg can overturn or bisect the floating palace and send a thousand merrymakers gurgling to the Great Certainty.

Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.

 

The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact; and only a similar combination (as in Israel today) can make a culture take form over a thousand natural obstacles. Man, not the earth, makes civilization. 

 

Therefore the laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive. 

 

The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life- peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Cooperation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we cooperate in our group - our family, community, club, church, party, “race,” or nation - in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. 

 

We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers milleniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes cooperation because it is the ultimate form of competition. 

 

The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. Since Nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike. 

 

Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and education opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states. 

 

The 3rd biological lesson of history is that life must breed.

 

If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.

 

Attempts to relate civilization to race by measuring the relation of brain to face or weight have shed little light on the problem. If the Negroes of Africa have produced no great civilization it is probably because climatic and geographical conditions frustrated them; would any of the white “races” have done better in those environments? It is remarkable how many American Negroes have risen to high places in the professions, arts, and letters in the last one hundred years despite a thousand social obstacles. 

 

A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a cooperative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it; it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups. 

Known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. The Greeks of Plato’s time behaved very much like the French of modern centuries; and the Romans behaved like the English. Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same: to act or rest, to acquire or give, to fight or retreat, to seek association or privacy, to mate or reject, to offer or resent parental care. Nor does human nature alter as between classes: by and large the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them. 

 

History in the large is the conflict of minorities; the majority applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment. Intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.

 

It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole. 

 

Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members and associations to behavior consistent with its order, security, and growth.

 

A little knowledge of history stresses the variability of moral codes, and concludes that they are negligible because they differ in time and place, and sometimes contradict each other. 

 

If we divide economic history into three stages - hunting agriculture, industry - we may expect that the moral code of one stage will be changed in the next. In the hunting stage a man had to be ready to chase and fight and kill. When he had caught his prey he ate to the cubic capacity of his stomach, being uncertain when he might eat again; insecurity is the mother of greed, as cruelty is the memory - if only in the blood - of a time when the test of survival (as now between states) was the ability to kill. 

 

For fifteen hundred years this agricultural moral code of continence, early marriage, divorceless monogamy, and multiple maternity maintained itself in Christian Europe and its white colonies. It was a stern code, which produced some of the strongest characters in history.

 

“Rome was full of men who had lost their economic footing and their moral stability: soldiers who had tasted adventure and had learned to kill; citizens who had seen their savings consumed in the taxes and inflation caused by war;... women dizzy with freedom, multiplying divorces, abortions, and adulteries… A shallow sophistication prided itself upon its pessimism and cynicism.” It is almost a picture of European and American cities after two world wars. 

 

History offers some consolation by reminding us that sin has flourished in every age.

 

In every age men have been dishonest and governments have been corrupt; probably less now than generally before.

 

Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young. It has conferred meaning and dignity upon the lowliest existence, and through its sacraments has made for stability by transforming human covenants into solemn relationships with God. It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich.

 

Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative.

 

The growing awareness of man’s miniscule place in the cosmos has furthered the impairment of religious belief.

 

Catholicism survives because it appeals to the imagination, hope, and the senses; because its mythology consoles and brightens the likes of the poor; and because the commanded fertility of the faithful slowly regains the lands lost to the Reformation.

 

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn. 

 

France, the U.S. and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order. Only a few communist states have not merely disassociated themselves from religion but have repudiated its aid, and perhaps the apparent and provisional success of this experiment in Russia owes much to the temporary acceptance of communism as the religion (or, as skeptics would say, the opium) of the people, replacing the church as the vendor of comfort and hope.

 

“As long as there is poverty there will be Gods.”

 

History, according to Karl Marx, is economics in action - the contest among individuals, groups, classes, and states, for fuel, food, materials and economic power.

 

The industrial revolution brought with it democracy, feminism, birth control, socialism, the decline of religion, the loosening of morals, the liberation of literature from dependence upon aristocratic patronage, the replacement of romanticism by realism in fiction - and the economic interpretation of history. 

 

Perhaps it is one secret of their power that, having studied the fluctuations of prices, they know that history is inflationary, and that money is the last thing a wise man will hoard. 

 

The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.

 

The capitalist, of course, has fulfilled a creative function in history: he has gathered the savings of the people into productive capital by the promise of dividends or interest; he has financed the mechanization of industry and agriculture, and the rationalization of distribution; and the result has been such a flow of goods from producer to consumer as history has never seen before. 

 

In free enterprise the spur of competition and the zeal and zest of ownership arouse the productiveness and inventiveness of men; nearly every economic ability sooner or later finds its niche and reward in the shuffle of talents and the natural selection of skills; and a basic democracy rules the process insofar as most of the articles to be produced, and the services to be rendered, are determined by public demand rather than by governmental decree.  

 

In Babylonia (c. 1750 B.C.) the law code of Hammurabi fixed wages for herdsmen and artisans, and the charges to be made by physicians for operations. In Egypt under the Ptolemies (323 B.C. - 30 B.C.) the state owned the soil and managed agriculture: the peasant was told what land to till, what crops to grow; his harvest was measured and registered by government scribes, was threshed on royal threshing floors, and was conveyed by a living chain of fellaheen into the granaries of the king. 

 

The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.

 

In England and the United States, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.

War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war. We have acknowledged war as at present the ultimate form of competition and natural selection in the human species. “Polemos pater panton,” said heracleitus; war, or competition, is the father of all things, the potent source of ideas, inventions, institutions, and states. Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledge supremacy or equal power. The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery.

 

Communist governments, armed with old birth rates and new weapons, have repeatedly proclaimed their resolve to destroy the economy and independence of non-Communist states. Young nations, longing for an Industrial Revolution to give them economic wealth and military power, are impressed by the rapid industrialization of Russia under governmental management; Western capitalism might be more productive in the end, but it seems slower in development; the new governors, eager to control the resources and manhood of their states, are a likely prey to Communist propaganda, infiltration, and subversion. 

 

We have defined civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation.” It is political order secured through custom, morals, and law, and economic order secured through a continuity of production and exchange; it is cultural creation through freedom and facilities for the origination, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners and arts. It is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed. Why is it that history is littered with the ruins of civilizations, and seems to tell us, like Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” that death is the destiny of all?

 

On one point all are agreed: civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear - or linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.

 

When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

 

At the end of the process a decisive defeat in war may bring a final blow, or barbarian invasion from without may combine with barbarism welling up from within to bring the civilization to a close. Is this a depressing picture? Not quite. Life has no inherent claim to eternity, whether in individuals or in states. Death is natural, and if it comes in due time it is forgivable and useful, and the mature mind will take no offense from its coming. But do civilizations die? Again, not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives in the memory of the race, and in such abundance that no one life, however full and long, could absorb it all.

 

One of the discouraging discoveries of our disillusioning century is that science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build. How inadequate now seems the proud motto of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power”! Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.

 

But perhaps we should first define what progress means to us. If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight. Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval. It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage - for certainly the child is the happiest of the three. Is a more objective definition possible? We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man. 

  

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it. History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. 

© 2018 Mike Gorlon                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Amazon Affiliate