Mental Health Personal Growth Psychology

Will & Ariel Durant – The Lessons of History

My Opinion

Lessons of history is a beautifully written book, originally published in 1968. I once heard somebody say it might be the “highest wisdom-per-word-book” and I certainly understand why. On just hundred pages the authors try to extract what history has to teach us.

It feels like every word in this book has been extremely carefully thought through. Therefore, instead of doing a lot of editing on the notes like I usually do, I decided to leave many quotes as they were.

Reading Recommendation: 8/10

My Notes

What is the benefit of history? Does history have something to teach? Is it possible that it has no sense and that “the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?” Is it more than just a “fable not quite agreed upon”?

The selection and confirmation bias in history: “The historian always oversimplifies and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.”

The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.

  • “Animals eat one another without qualm; civilised men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, 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.”
  • Our states being ourselves multiplied; are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and greedy […]. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. […] Until our states become members of a large and effective protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

The second biological lesson is that life is selection. We compete for power, food and mates. We are all born unfree, limited by our physical and psychological heredity and our culture, and differentiate in health, strength, mental capacity and character.

  • “Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilisation. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.”
  • “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and ever lasting enemies and when one prevails the other dies.” The more freedom the higher the inequality.
  • “Utopias of equality are biologically doomed […]. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups.” Equality of chances is good, equality of outcome is not.

The third biological lessons 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.”

Evolution during recorded time has been social rather than biological based on economical and political factors. New situations require experimentation and innovation – the “social correlates of variation and mutation.

The wisdom of traditions. As Nassim Taleb describes with the Lindey effect (the longer some non-perishable thing like a technology or idea exists, the longer it will continue to exists i.e. the lower its mortality rate), the Durant’s argue that “out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior the 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.”

Virtues change. “Pugnacity, brutality, greed and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for existence. Probably every vice was once a virtue – i.e. a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. “

Three stages of economic history: hunting, agriculture and industry. Transitioning from one stage (hunting) to another (agriculture) changed some virtues into vices (and vice versa).

  • “Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets; birth control was made immoral.”
  • Farming life was simple. Each son followed his father. “At fifteen he understood the physical tasks of life as well as he would understand them at forty; all that he needed was land, a plow, and a willing arm. So he married early, almost as soon as nature wished.”
  • “Monogamy was demanded. For fifteen hundred years this agricultural moral code of contingency, early marriage, divorceless monogamy and multiple maternity maintained itself.”

The Industrial Revolution changed the economic and moral structure of European and American life.

  • “Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals, individually paid, in factories built to house not men but machines.”
  • “Children no longer were economic assets; marriage was delayed; premarital continence became more difficult to maintain. The city offered every discouragement to marriage, but it provided every stimulus and facility for sex.”
  • “The rebellious youth was no longer constrained by the surveillance of the village; he could hide his sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd.”

As Nassim Taleb states, it’s the outliers – the unseen black swans – that form history. This is also true when it comes to the way history is recorded. The Durant’s write that “we must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting – because it is exceptional.”

The importance of religion. “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 kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich.”

Religion at first has nothing to do with morals but stems from fear (“It was fear that first made the gods”) – fear of unknown, seemingly random forces in the earth, water and sky.

“History do not agree with our conception of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under.”

“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!” For example the India of the young Buddha, who then founded a religion without a god. After his death, Buddhism developed a complex theology including gods, saints, and hell. Many other examples in ancient Greek and through the European history.

Is religion necessary to morality? Is “a natural ethic too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes and wars?”

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

According to Marx, history is “economics in action” – Individuals, groups, classes and states compete for food, fuel, materials and economic power.

Industrial Revolution as fundamental change to human life. “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. “

The interpretation of history based on economic decision-making explains many events. For examples “the Crusades, like the wars of Rome with Persia, were attempts of the West to capture trade routes to the East; the discovery of America was a result of the failure of the Crusades.” The French Revolution was not caused by some idealistic movements but by the middle class that required legislative freedom to fully utilise their economic leadership.

It seems clear, that every economic system needs to incorporate a profit incentive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. “Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient.”

“The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws.”

When inequality reaches a critical point, wealth redistribution or revolution follows. “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.”

History shows that wealth concentration is unavoidable. “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 concentration wealth and compulsive recirculation.”

The story of socialism and capitalism is part of concentration and dispersion of wealth. Socialism is much older than one would expect. In Sumeria, about 2100 B.C. that economy was organised by the state. In Babylonia (1750 B.C.) the law code of Hammurabi fixed wages for certain professions. Many more examples: Rome (A.D. 301), several attempts China (145 B.C.) and – the longest-lasting regime yet known to history – by the Incas in what we now call Peru at some time in the 13th century.

Socialism 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 slums.” Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1847) and Das Kapital (1867 – 95).

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

No freedom without limitations. “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.”

Most governments have been oligarchies. They have been “ruled by a minority, chose either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organisation, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies.”

Aristocracy is based on the belief that it requires specific training and preparation to rule. “The aristocrat holds that political selection by birth is the sanest alternative to selection by money or theology or violence. Aristocracy withdraws a few men from the exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition and trains them from birth […] for the tasks of government.”

Does history justify revolutions? Sometimes a violent overthrow might be necessary as in Russia in 1917. “But in most instances the effects achieved by the revolution would apparently have come without it through the gradual compulsion of economic developments.”

Since revolutions violate trust, cause uncertainty and destabilize the economy, revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as they destroy it. “There may be a redistribution of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old. The only real revolution is the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.

“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.”

The power of democracy. “Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal.”

“If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as able as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all.”

In the 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war. “We have acknowledged war as at present the ultimate form competition and natural selection in the human species. […] Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only be achieved by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.” This statement (as Harari describes in Homo Sapiens and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century”) might no longer be true in the 21st century due to a globally interconnected economy where each participant has more to loose than to win.

How are civilizations (defined as “social order promoting cultural creation”) formed? The Durant’s dismiss the Hobbesian notion of a “social contract” among individuals and a ruler and argue it much more likely happens through the conquest of one group by another and the subsequent development.

How do civilizations progress? By overcoming challenges, that is, by “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)”

Civilizations don’t exactly die. “Life has no inherent claim to eternity, wether 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? Not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives.”

We didn’t change. “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 by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.”

“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.”

The price we pay for a global world. “We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose was only gently disturbed by the news of their village.”

It’s all just a narrative. “History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.”

Lessons learned instead of an infusion of facts. “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 understand, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The final role of history. “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.

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