The Lessons of History

finished (2020)Will DurantAriel Durant2010

1. Hesitations

Here, the Durants express their doubts that there are "lessons of history" that can be expressed at all; history is a strange enterprise in their view, one that combines industry, art, and all disciplines in a futile attempt to understand something. A quote they use seems apt: "most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice." History seems strangely unique in that its practitioners are among those most likely to declare it uncertain and incapable!

2. History and the Earth

The first thing to learn about human history, according to this book, is that it is ultimately irrelevant. We are insignificant motes of dust traipsing around on a tiny rock in space... and one of our greatest challenges, even as we struggle, is to understand the nature of that struggle from incomplete records of what has come before.

In the context of what we do know, "history is subject to geography." Civilizations are made possible by the nature found around them; all human activity takes place in a geographic context, which—consciously or not—pervades nonetheless. How do we move? How do we communicate? What do we eat? How do we feel? Where can we build? What can we see? Food, mood, location and perception dominate human decision-making and life; and how can they be seen but the products of our environment? Throughout the past, kingdoms have risen and fallen through no gift of their own—just geographical luck. Rome, England, America, China—the great kingdoms of the world are chosen by their random position and how it interacts with the human technology of the time.

Because that's the second lesson of geography: while its influence is remarkable, it isn't final. Things can only be judged within a context, and the context of geography is technology. Britain ruled because ocean transport and warfare was the most efficient; America has risen, in part, because of warfare's transition to the air. China's soil has made it a perennial force; but some of its most powerful allies are those that control the once-worthless oil deposits found in barren, arid deserts. Geography gives players cards, the ones with which nations must spar; but human technology gives those cards value and power.

3. History and Biology

The lessons of biology are the core themes of history: war, survival, competition, inequality, suffering. We are animals, and live in an animal world; in light of this idea, even the greatest of human stories seem largely irrelevant.

4. History and Race

Some try to reduce history to a conflict between races—in which those most closely related to Nordic peoples are the most advanced. That's a huge reduction, though: indeed, most civilizations are defined and formed by their physical and geographical surroundings (not the arbitrary relatives of some of their inhabitants)! On racism, "there is no cure for such antipathies except a broadened education."

5. Character and History

Most humans are similar—across time, culture, language, and era. This is why we see rebels often adopting the very methods they despised and attempted to depose; certain things are consistent with humans. The Durants separate the "character elements" into six categories, each with a positive and negative attribute: Action/Sleep, Fight/Flight, Acquisition/Avoidance, Association/Privacy, Mating/Refusal, and Parental care/Filial dependence. "Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species..." Basically, humans don't change throughout history: just their environments.

6. Morals and History

"Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members and associations to behavior consistent with its order, security, and growth." One fo the biggest shifts in modern history is that from a system of agricultural morals (maintained by the largest religions) into one of industrialization, largely on the axes of sex, association, and the like. Each culture develops its own set of morals, which are generally wise to follow: they're the emergent result of countless human generations' struggles, so it's unlikely that by deviation an individual could find a consistent alternative!

7. Religion and History

Historians have always viewed religion curiously—most precepts are objectively false, yet it has seemingly proved indispensable to the survival and function of any enduring and powerful civilization. The church often acts as a locus of power separate from he state: not subservient, yet not dominating... just coexisting, a moral power rather than a political one. The Industrial Revolution's enduring impact may be to break that existence, establishing a lasting set of secular institutions to replace Christian ones in the Western world! (Note: a specific religion is not always necessary, as shown in Communist states, but some faith and hope in a higher and better future is; in that case, Communism itself filled the void to become the "opiate of the masses.")

8. Economics and History

Marx argued that history is simply economics in action—selfish interests pitted in conflict, the rich constantly exploiting the poor by setting them against each other. Perhaps that is true to an extent; leaders, the Durants concede, seem to follow such logic quite frequently. Income and wealth inequality has been a mainstay of society, always rising consistently until an aggravated populace reins it in by peaceful or violent redistribution. In Greece, in Rome, in the Medieval Church... consistently throughout the ages, power and wealth has accumulated with only brief pauses during popular outrage. This has accelerated in democracies, as natural human inequality of ability leads to disproportionate opportunities and compounds into nearly incomprehensible differences of wealth. Is it natural? Absolutely. Is it right? Evidently, certain levels have constantly aggravated peoples' sense of decency since time immemorial.

9. Socialism and History

The contest between socialism and capitalism has been present throughout history, before those terms even came to be. On one side, freedom-empowered wealth for all, at the price of relative inequality: on the other, equality even at a lesser amount for all—enforced and administered by inefficient states. Private profiteering, or public graft? Many civilizations throughout history have chosen different sides: Rome cycled multiple times, the Incas seemed to have a stable socialist system, America has prospered through an explicitly capitalist society. Today, though, the argument seems to be coming to a compromise: Western capitalistic democracies are embracing social reforms, and (when the book was written) leftist governments were coming to give their subjects more freedom... each, perhaps, out of the fear of what the other promoted as its benefits. Perhaps social democracy is the compromise that works.

10. Government and History

The question of governmental structure is that of the distribution of power and wealth: who controls a society? One person—a monarchy? A group of born elites—an aristocracy? The wealthy—a democracy? The Durants postulate that a cycle seems to form: excesses can produce reverberations of their opposites, as in laissez-faire societies when power is concentrated and all are effectively enslaved. From monarchy to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy and back around, the world still seems not to have settled on a conclusion. As in the last two chapters, democracy tends to produce the most wealth... but with the social cost of inequality. (It's hard to summarize this chapter, which is essentially a collection of narrative anecdotes.)

11. History and War

While human impulses are constrained by society, those of nations—fundamentally the same, at a larger scale—are not. War, throughout history, has been the final arbiter of disputes: the only alternative to compromise, in "conflicts [that] are too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation." Until the rise of some kind of international law with teeth (or the continuation of MAD), it seems inevitable that nations will fight, with blood, for control. (Another catalyst for earthly peace would, ironically, be interplanetary war [as explored by Card in the Enderverse prequel trilogies].)

12. Growth and Decay

Civilizations are born, grow, live, and die. What makes each of these stages happen? Are any of the common metaphors—those of organisms and natural forces—accurate? I quote directly, as the Durants address the question that underlies longevity: "If we... ask what determines whether a challenge will or will not be met, the answer is that this depends upon the presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will (which is almost a definition of genius), capable of effective responses to new situations (which is almost a definition of intelligence)." Perhaps the cause of nations' fall is inequality; perhaps education, as theory undermines the religion that glues a society together (first in Greece, now in the modern West). However they die, nations eventually do—but civilizations, and the best of creative intelligences, do not. Plato has more readers, and inspires more people today than were perhaps alive when he was!

13. Is Progress Real?

If history cycles, and nothing in human happenings is truly original, to what extent can progress be said to exist? The Durants define it as the increased ability for humans to control their environment; in aggregate, then, advances in technology and economic power have certainly resulted in definite progress! Even the middle class is educated and free—more free than most of our intelligences can maximize. Sure, some stuck at the bottom of the social latter are still badly off... but, without progress, that'd be almost everyone besides the ruling class. Even though the power and conflicts of history seem to cycle, with every day's "modern" looking similar through that lens, the unrecorded masses' lives glow with riches and power compared to their counterparts' of antiquity.

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