The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant (3.5k words of notes!)

The Lessons of History is a short edition, about a hundred pages, written by Will and Ariel Durant – a couple who were both historians in their time, and presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their lifetime’s work. This one is one of their last publications, carries the weight of their fifty-plus years of study, and displays the quality of writing honed over that period. I cannot begin to recommend the book enough. It is short, illuminating, and engaging, with a dry wit that shines through and endears the book to me even more. High praise, but it has become one of my favorite books ever.


What it’s about

In about ten sections, Mr. and Mrs. Durant cover an amazing amount of ground, examining some of the biggest or most currently popular ideas in the world through the lens of history. Just a few of the sections are:

  • History and the Earth
  • Race and History
  • Character and History
  • Religion and History
  • Economics and History
  • Socialism and History
  • History and War

The Durants examine these ideas (war, socialism, democracy and Communism) by calling forth an impressive array of examples and peoples, both successful and not. They draw upon those examples to analyze those ideas, or predict what may become of them in the future.

As always, history is somewhat of a subjective study, but for a short yet very well-informed introduction to it, this book is a great place to start.

Why I picked it

I kept seeing it recommended in many places, most recently on StartGainingMomentum by Ludvig Sunstrom.

What I got out of it

I got a lot of balanced perspective out of it, as well as a more “zoomed-out” perspective. Things have been done before and they will be done again, by people who have the same impulses and drives and responses to stimuli like hunger, sex, and danger. This doesn’t mean that nothing is worth working for, but it does help me to remain more calm and aware of the world around me in stressful times.

It educated me a little more on topics that I have less experience with, like the struggle between democracy and Communism, or between capitalism and socialism. It helped me to understand both sides of everything a little more, and articulate my opinions a little better.

Most of all, this book on history educated me about human nature in a way that was neither foolishly optimistic nor misanthropically pessimistic.

Who I’d recommend it to

Everyone. Literally everyone at a high enough reading level to comprehend it.

I especially recommend it to people who are:

  • somewhat uncertain about their beliefs regarding some of the major ideas in this world; it illuminates a few places to start thinking about them from.
  • dealing with people who are very strongly set in their beliefs regarding some of hte major ideas in this world; it illuminates the ideas and allows you to both understand these fervent followers better, and see where they’re coming from and trying to go.


[Emphasis is my own, italics are my own notes.]

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 in 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. It is a precarious enterprise, and only a food would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.

India was the daughter of the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges; China owed its life and sorrows to the great rivers that (like ourselves) often wandered from their proper beds and fertilized the neighborhood with their overflow.

So 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. 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, party, “race,” or nation–in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitive-ness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale.

The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection.

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.

The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed.

“Racial” antipathies have some roots in ethnic origin but they are also generated, perhaps predominantly, by differences of acquired culture–of language, dress, habits, morals, or religion. There is no cure for such antipathies except a broadened education. A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a co-operative 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 those creative and contributory groups.

In our time, as in the times of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.) and Augustus (d. A.D 14), war has added to the forces making for moral laxity… After the wars of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Antony and Octavius, “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.
Sound familiar?

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 it sacraments has made for stability by transforming human convenants into solemn relationships with God. It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich. For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.

Some recusants have doubted that religion ever promoted morality, since immorality has flourished even in ages of religious domination. Certainly sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery, and violence existed in the Middle Ages; but probably the moral disorder born of half a millennium of barbarian invasion, war, economic devastation, and political disorganization would have been much worse without the moderating effect of the Christian ethic, priestly exhortations, saintly exemplars, and a calming, unifying ritual. The Roman Catholic Church labored to reduce slavery, family feuds, and national strife, to extend the intervals of truce and peace, and to replace trial by combat or ordeal with the judgments of established courts. It softened the penalties exacted by Roman or barbarian law, and vastly expanded the scope and organization of charity.
Religion has also done unpleasant things – by its followers. That’s why I stress improvement of the self, not the system; a stronger self has more freedom and power in any form, whither in feudal service or as a hipster programmer, though of course the latter receives more reward than the former, though this is a function of the system. So I guess there is also impetus there to improve the system as well.

The Emperor Henry IV recognized this claim by submitting to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa (1077); and a century later Innocent III raised the authority and prestige of the papacy to a height where it seemed that Gregory’s ideal of a moral superstate had come to fulfillment.
The majestic dream broke under the attacks of nationalism, skepticism, and human frailty. The Church was manned with men, who often proved biased, venal, or extortionate.
Many theories such as communism, or any other modes of governance or commerce, all work well in theory. The problem – the people.

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the United States, 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 dissociated 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. If the socialist regime should fail in its efforts to destroy relative poverty among the masses, this new religion may lose its fervor and efficacy, and the state may wink at the restoration of supernatural beliefs as an aid in quieting discontent. “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”
Look at Nothing to Envy: the North Korean regime has replaced deities with its leaders for supernatural figures to follow. And even then it has failed in many cases, to soothe and comfort those who own less than necessary to lead a basic life with dignity and some measure of comfort.

The French Revolution came not because Voltaire wrote brilliant satires and Rousseau sentimental romances, but because the middle class had risen to economic leadership, needed legislative freedom for their enterprise and trade, and itched for social acceptance and political power.

Allowing for these cautions, we may derive endless instruction from the economic analysis of the past. We observe that the invading barbarians found Rome weak because the agricultural population which had formerly supplied the legions with hardy and patriotic warriors fighting for land had been replaced by slaves laboring listlessly on vast farms owned by one man or a few.

Perhaps it is one secret of their [the Durants refer here to bankers] 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 experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient.

Normally and generally men are judged by their ability to produce–except in war, when they are ranked according to their ability to destroy.

Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history.
As I’ve heard it put, the concentration of wealth is a function of the concentration of value-creating ability, which is itself distributed unevenly among people and therefore gathers in the hands of a few.

In progressive societies, the concentration may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.

The rich protested that his measures were outright confiscation; the radicals complained that he had not redivided the land; but within a generation almost all agreed that his reforms had saved Athens from revolution.
The ‘he’ here refers to Solon, a businessman elected with the hope that he would resolve the crisis that class war was quickly escalating into – he did so successfully.

Octavius defeated him [Mark Antony] at Actium, and established the “Principate” that for 210 years (30 B.C – A.D. 180) maintained the Pax Romana between the classes as well as among the states within the Imperial frontiers.
Also study Octavius.

The government of the United States, in 1933–52, and 1960–65, followed Solon’s peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution; perhaps someone had studied history. The upper classes in America cursed, complied, and resumed the concentration of wealth.

We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceful 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.

There is much truths in such claims [about capitalism being a net positive for society] today, but they do not explain why history so resounds with protests and revolts against the abuses of industrial mastery, price manipulation, business chicanery, and irresponsible wealth. These abuses must be hoary with age, for there have been socialistic experiments in a dozen countries and centuries. We read that in Sumeria, about 2100 B.C… . In Babylonia (c. 1750 B.C.) … In Egypt under the Ptolemies [which this was quite successful, for a time].

Other factors equal, internal liberty [of a nation/state] varies inversely as external danger.

[Under Emperor Wu Ti (r. 140 B.C – 87 B.C), China had one such attempt at socialism]: Harassed by the high cost of living, the poor joined the rich in clamoring for a return to the old ways, and some proposed that the inventor of the new system be boiled alive.
What drives people like Wu Ti and Themistocles to work so hard for a people so ungrateful, enough to accuse and even attempt to murder these leaders that have given so much and fought so hard?

[The Incas were successful]: Every person was an employee of the state, and seems to have accepted this condition cheerfully as a promise of security and food. This system endured till the conquest of Peru by Pizarro in 1533.

[I]n a Portuguese colony along the Uruguay River, 150 Jesuits organized 200,000 Indians into another socialistic society (c. 1620–1750)… . By all accounts the natives were docile and content, and when the community was attacked it defended itself with an ardor and ability that surprised the assailants.

[In Russia]: Here too Communism was a war economy. Perhaps it survives through continued fear of war; given a generation of peace it would presumably be eroded by the nature of man.
So this is why North Korea insists on pretending to be a victim of the world powers, on keeping its citizens sequestered away, and on telling its citizens that they are the last bastion of socialist paradise surrounded by frothing capitalists that would like nothing more than to tear down their way of living and seize all that they hold dear. Soviet and other citizens behind the Iron Curtain saw what the rest of the world was like under capitalists and democracies, and their rule crumbled.

[B]ut if the Hegelian formula of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is applied to the Industrial Revolution as thesis, and to capitalism versus socialism as antithesis, the third condition would be a synthesis of capitalism and socialism; and to this reconciliation the Western world visibly moves. Year by year the role of Western governments in the economy rises, the share of the private sector declines.

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.

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.
E.g. Netocrats, per Alexander Bard. Or CEOs who can keep up with international commerce and international politics.

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.
2016… Trump? … All this hateful political and racial discourse?

Imagine an American President saying to the leaders of China and Russia:
“ If we should follow the usual course of history we should make war upon you for fear of what you may do a generation hence… . But we are willing to try a new approach. We respect your peoples and your civilizations as among the most creative in history… . 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… . Let us open our doors to each other, and organize cultural exchanges that will promote mutual appreciation and understanding… . We ask you to join us in this defiance of history, this resolve to extend courtesy and civilization to the relations among states… . If you and we succeed, we shall merit a place for centuries to come in the grateful memory of mankind.”
The general smiles. “You have forgotten all the lessons of history,” he says, “and all that nature of man which you described. Some conflicts are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation; and during the prolonged negotiations (if history may be our guide) subversion would go on. A world order will not come 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. You have told us that man is a competitive animal, that his states must be like himself, and that natural selection now operates on an international plane. States will unite in basic co-operation only when they are in common attacked from without. Perhaps we are now restlessly moving toward that higher plateau of competition; we may make contact with ambitious species on other planets or stars; soon thereafter there will be interplanetary war. Then, and only then, will we of this earth be one.”
Wow. Just wow. The un-edited speech is inspiringly written, and the general’s rebuke is a nod to both earlier parts of the book and the Durants’ beliefs artistically disguised. The writing ability honed over five decades shows here.

Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) divided the past and future into an alternation of “organic” and “critical” periods: … In the organic ages all basic problems (theological, political, economic, moral) have received at least provisional solutions. But soon the progress achieved by the help of these solutions, and under the protection of the institutions realized through them, rendered them inadequate, and evoked novelties. Critical epochs–periods of debate, protest, … and transition, replaced the old mood with doubt, individualism, and indifference to the great problems… . In organic periods men are busy building; in critical periods they are busy destroying.
Like the theory of positive disintegration. You gotta build up to tear down to make the next build-up even stronger and more resilient. Like working out.

Caught in the relaxing interval between one moral code and the next, an unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and a restless disorder of family and morals, in all but a remnant clinging desperately to old restraints and ways. Few souls feel any longer that “it is beautiful and honorable to die for one’s country.” A fialure of leadership may allow a state to weaken itself with internal strife. 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. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land. The Greek poets and philosophers are in every library and college; at this moment Plato is being studied by a hundred thousand discoverers of the “dear delight” of philosophy overspreading life with understanding thought. This selective survival of creative minds is the most real and beneficent of immortalities.
Nations die. Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change. Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him. If education has deepened and broadened those memories, civilization migrates with him, and builds somewhere another home. In the new land he need not begin entirely anew, nor make his way without friendly aid; communication and transport bind him, as in a nourishing placenta, with his mother country. Rome imported Greek civilization and transmitted it to Western Europe; America profited from European civilization and prepares to pass it on, with a technique of transmission never equaled before.
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 seas. Even as these lines are being written, commerce and print, wires and waves and invisible Mercuries of the air are binding nations and civilizations together, preserving for all what each has given to the heritage of mankind.

We double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs.

Have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological, or racial hostilities?

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.

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