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The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant

22 August, 2020 - 14 min read


I. Brief Summary

  • It is important to note where the history was from the lens of 60's from Durants point of view. World has evolved quite a bit when this text was written. Will & Ariel Durant can write ably about a multitude of subjects. This book is short but dense in knowledge which is my kind of book with value spread evenly across the book. Durants conclude monarchy is the most stable form of government and that church played an important role to drive moral behavior amongst individuals. They claim we'll all be united when aliens attack us, and strong and breeding society will win. This is a must read book but it paints a bleak picture how Darwinism will drive humanity. First, I don't agree with monarchy is the most stable form of government. Second, what about human ingenuity that can be drawn from hope or optimism? There are countless leaders who have used human inspiration to drive civilization. Nonetheless, this literature is important to read because if the history repeats itself and those who don't learn from history are forced to repeat it.

II. Big Ideas

The book is divided into several chapters covering major topics in relation to its history. The Durants quote René Sédillot about history having ”no sense.“ They acknowledge that our knowledge of any past is incomplete and just like science and politics, we have to operate under the condition of probability. They describe the difficulty of acquiring a full understanding of the past because it is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, documented by biased and opinionated historians and distorted by patriotic or religious views. The books is about 100 pages only. The Durants write—

  • Only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.
  • Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson in history.
  • History is subject to geology ... To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.
  • Man's ingenuity often overcomes geological handicaps ... Let rain become too rare, and civilization disappears under sand, as in Central Asia; let it fall too furiously, and civilization will be choked with jungle, as in Central America.
  • Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home. Its rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans draw settlers to their shores, for water is the life of organism and towns, and offers inexpensive roads for transport and trade.
  • The development of the airplane will again alter the map of civilization. Trade routes will follow less and less the rivers and seas ... Countries like England and France will lose the commercial advantage of abundant coast lines...countries like Russia, China, and Brazil, which were hampered by the excess of their land mass over their coasts, will cancel part of that handicap by taking to the air. Comment— is that true in 2020? Did airline industry alter the civilization and gave an edge to countries with massive lands? In my opinion, yes! To what degree? I don't know but these countries are more important than ever in shaping civilization.
  • The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.
  • Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
  • History is a fragment of biology.
  • The laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history. We are subject. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive.
  • If some of us seem to escape the strife or trials it is because our group protects us; but that group itself must meet the tests of survival.
  • The first biological lesson of history is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life...
  • Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group—our family, community, club, church...nation—in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competitive groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partnership, pride...War is a nation's way of eating. It promotes co-operation
  • The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection...Nature 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. Nature loves differences as the necessary material of selection and evolution. Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization...makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker.
  • The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use organisms, variations, or groups that cannot produce abundantly.She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality.
  • In the United States the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxons has lessened their economic and political power; and the higher birth rate of Roman Catholic families suggests that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as well as in municipal or state governments.
  • The ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were evidently the product of geographical opportunity and economic and political development rather than of racial constitution, and much of their civilization had an Oriental source.
  • 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.
  • The Industrial Revolution changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life.
  • Perhaps discipline will be restored in our civilization through the military training required by the challenges of war... Sexual license may cure itself through its own excess; our unmoored children may live to see order and modesty become fashionable; clothing will be more stimulating the nudity.
  • Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age...It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young.
  • Religion has kept the poor from murdering the rich. Inequality dooms many to poverty or defeat: supernatural hope staves off despair. Destroy the hope and it leads to war.
  • In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief.
  • There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without aid of religion.
  • Even our generation has not yet rivaled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or Renaissance Italy.
  • History reports that the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all. So the bankers, watching the trends in agriculture, industry, and trade, inviting and directing the flow of capital, putting our money doubly and trebly to work, controlling loans and interest and enterprise, running great risks to make great gains, rise to the top of the economic pyramid.
  • We conclude that 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 fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality. East is West and West is East, and soon the twain will meet.
  • Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.
  • We must not allow our mutual fears to lead us into war, for the unparalleled murderousness of our weapons and yours brings into the situation an element unfamiliar to history.
  • In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.
  • War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. The state itself acknowledges no substantial restraints, either because it is strong enough to defy any interference with its will or because there is no superstate to offer it basic protection, and no international law or moral code wielding effective force. Comment— not true on a small scale of history since the last major war.
  • A world order will come not by a gentlemen’s agreement, but through so decisive a victory by one of the great powers that it will be able to dictate and enforce international law, as Rome did from Augustus to Aurelius. Such interludes of widespread peace are unnatural and exceptional; they will soon be ended by changes in the distribution of military power.
  • Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul. As life overrides death with reproduction, so an aging culture hands its patrimony down to its heirs across the years and the seas.
  • 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 one sex by the other (or the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.
  • …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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • We frolic in our emancipation from theology, but have we developed a natural ethic – a moral code independent of religion – strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity?
  • If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.
  • 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.
  • 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, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.
  • If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children.

III. Quotes

  • So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it—perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. 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 the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes with a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.
  • In that process we made note of events and comments that might illuminate present affairs, future probabilities, the nature of man, and the conduct of states.
  • We tried to defer our conclusions until we had completed our survey of the narrative, but doubtless our preformed opinions influenced our selection of illustrative material. The following essay is the result.
  • Our aim is not originality but inclusiveness; we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation.
  • Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.
  • Historiography cannot be a science. It can only only be an industry, an art and a philosophy.
  • The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.
  • In philosophy we try to see the part in the light of the whole; in the “philosophy of history“ we try to see this moment in the light of the past.
  • Total perspective is an optical illusion. We do not know the whole of man's history.
  • We must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities; in history, as in science and politics.
  • 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 faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army.
  • We are no longer confident that atoms, much less organisms, will respond in the future as we think they responded in the past.
  • Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.
  • When the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of it victory the universe knows nothing. — Pascal
  • Suddenly we perceive to what a perilous minority we belong on the impartial planet.
  • Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias.
  • When religion declines Communism grows.
  • Polemos pater panton (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 acknowledged supremacy or equal power). —Heracleitus
  • The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.
  • Moral codes differ because they adjust to the situation. Morals in hunter era were very different from agricultural era: greed, cruelty, polygamy.
  • Man’s sins are the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.
  • Men love freedom. Freedom of individuals requires some regulation of conduct. Hence first condition of freedom is its limitation. Make it absolute and it dies in chaos.
  • Democracy has embedded class conflict. 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.
  • Climate no longer controls us but still limits us. A tornado can ruin in an hour the city that took a century to build.