The Lessons of History – Will & Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History – by Will & Ariel Durant
Date read: 10/22/17. Recommendation: 7/10.

A high-level look at the major lessons and themes throughout human history. The Durant's discuss race, religion, economics, capitalism, socialism, war, progress, and heritage, to name a few. They offer some interesting insights that are particularly relevant in today's politically-charged climate. They tackle the concentration of wealth, value of free enterprise, and increasing complexity of the economy. The Lessons of History also wisely reminds us to maintain a healthy level of skepticism as, "history is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances."

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty.

Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.

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 educational opportunity.

Probably every vice was once a virtue (necessary for survival)...Man's sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.

Meanwhile history assures us that civilizations decay quite leisurely (Greece, Imperial Rome took hundreds of years).

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.

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection.

As long as there is poverty there will be gods.

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity.

The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution.

The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth.

[The capitalist] can give the public a greater abundance of foods, homes, comfort, and leisure than has ever come from industries managed by politicians, manned by governmental employees, and supposedly immune to the laws of supply and demand.

In free enterprise the spur of competition and the zeal and zest of ownership arouse the productiveness and inventiveness of men.

The socialist agitation subsided during the Restoration, but it rose again when the Industrial Revolution revealed the greed and brutality of early capitalism–child labor, woman labor, long hours, low wages, and disease-breeding factories and farms.

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

Monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government...democracies, by contrast, have been hectic interludes.

All in all, monarchy has had a middling record...When it is hereditary it is likely to be more prolific of stupidity, irresponsibility, and extravagance than of nobility or statesmanship.

[In Greek states] The middle class, as well as the rich began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor distrusted it as a sham equality of votes nullified by a gaping inequality of wealth....27 B.C. Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.

Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.

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.

War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,241 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.

Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.

Civilization = social order promoting cultural creation.

History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.

Since we have admitted no substantial change in man's nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends–the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of sex by the other, the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.

We frolic in our emancipation from theology...[but] have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological or racial hostilities?

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.

We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die. Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states....They are the connective tissue of human history.

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible.

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.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use.