The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

The Big Idea: History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Chapter I: Hesitations

  • The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.

Chapter II: History and the Earth

  • History is subject to geology.
  • River, lakes, oases, and oceans draw settlers to their shores, for water is the life of organisms and towns, and offers inexpensive roads for transport and trade.
  • The development of the airplane will again alter the map of civilization.
  • 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.

Chapter III: Biology and History

  • History is a fragment of biology: the life of man is a portion of the vicissitudes of organisms on land and sea.
  • The laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history.
  • The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.
  • The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival.
  • We are all born unfree and unequal.
  • Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply.
  • 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.
  • The best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.
  • The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce.
  • If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.

Chapter IV: Race and History

  • The South creates the civilizations, the North conquers them, ruins them, borrows from them, spreads them: this is one summary of history.
  • American civilization is still in the stage of racial mixture.
  • Civilization is a co-operative product, and nearly all peoples have contributed to it.

Chapter V: Character and History

  • 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 conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it. New ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely.
  • It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old.

Chapter VI: Morals and History

  • For sixteen centuries the Jewish enclaves in Christendom maintained their continuity and internal peace by a strict and detailed moral code, almost without help from the state and its laws.
  • History can be divided into three stages — hunting, agriculture, industry. We may expect that the moral code of one stage will be changed in the next.
  • In the hunting stage a man had to be ready to chase and fight and kill.
  • When men passed from hunting to agriculture, industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war.
  • Industrial Revolution changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life. Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals. Education spread religious doubts. The old agricultural moral code began to die.
  • Sin has flourished in every age .
  • We are in a transition between a moral code that has lost its agricultural basis and another that our industrial civilization has yet to forge into social order and normality.

Chapter VII: Religion and History

  • Religion does not seem at first to have had any connection with morals. Apparently, according to Petronius and Lucretius, “it was fear that first made the gods” — fear of hidden forces in the earth, rivers, oceans, trees, winds, and sky.
  • Priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital.
  • Though the Catholic Church served the state, it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power.
  • Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under.
  • The universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan .
  • Francis Bacon proclaimed science as the religion of modern emancipated man.
  • The replacement of Christian with secular institutions is the culminating and critical result of the Industrial Revolution.
  • But if another great war should devastate Western civilization, the resultant destruction of cities, the dissemination of poverty, and the disgrace of science may leave the Church, as in A.D. 476, our sole hope.
  • Religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection.
  • Puritanism and paganism — the repression and the expression of the senses and desires — alternate in mutual reaction in history.

Chapter VIII: Economics and History

  • History, according to Karl Marx, is economics in action.
  • The motives of the (usually hidden) leaders may be economic or lust for power, but the result of many wars and revolutions is largely determined by the passions of the mass.
  • The men who can manage men, manage the men who can manage only things.  The men who can manage money manage all.
  • Bankers have held controlled history, from the Medici of Florence, to the Rothschilds of Paris, to the Morgans of New York.
  • Bankers understand that history is inflationary, and that money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.
  • Every economic system must rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals.
  • The concentration of wealth is a natural result of the concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. Democracy accelerates the concentration of wealth. 
  • The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome.
  • When inequality reaches a tipping point, it is met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.
  • We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution.

Chapter IX: Socialism and History

  • The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth.
  • There have been socialistic experiments in a dozen countries and centuries. 
  • In Sumeria, about 2100 B.C., the economy was organized by the state. 
  • In Babylonia (1750 B.C.) the law code of Hammurabi fixed wages. 
  • In Egypt under the Ptolemies (323 B.C. – 30 B.C.) the state owned the soil and managed agriculture.
  • Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian.
  • China has had several attempts at state socialism. The Emperor Wu Ti (140 B.C. – 87 B.C.) nationalized the resources. Wang Mang (A.D. 9–23) nationalized the land, divided it into equal tracts among the peasants, and put an end to slavery. The rich Liu family put itself at the head of a general rebellion, slew Wang Mang, and repealed his legislation. Everything was as before. Wang An-shih, as premier (1068 – 85), undertook a pervasive governmental domination of the Chinese economy.
  • The longest-lasting regime of socialism yet known to history was set up by the Incas in what we now call Peru. This system endured till the conquest of Peru by Pizarro in 1533. 
  • During the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Thomas Münzer, a preacher, called upon the people to overthrow the princes, the clergy, and the capitalists. 
  • In 1600s, Levellers in Cromwell’s army begged him in vain to establish a communistic utopia in England.
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels gave the movement its Magna Carta in the Communist Manifesto of 1847, and its Bible in 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.

Chapter X: Government and History

  • The prime task of government is to establish order.
  • Power naturally converges to a center.
  • Today international government is developing as industry, commerce, and finance override frontiers and take international forms.
  • 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, full of nepotism, irresponsibility, and extravagance.
  • Most governments have been oligarchies, ruled by a minority, by birth, as in aristocracies, by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies.
  • Minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth.
  • Modern aristocracies have resulted in rulers living a careless and dilettante hedonism, a lifelong holiday.
  • Does history justify revolutions? In most instances the effects achieved by the revolution would apparently have come without it through the gradual compulsion of economic developments.
  • Violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it.
  • There may be a redivision 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 revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
  • In strict usage of the term, democracy has existed only in modern times.
  • Socrates condemned the triumphant democracy of Athens as a chaos of class violence.
  • Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. 
  • In the first century BC, rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes. Battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.
  • The American Revolution was not only a revolt of colonials against a distant government; it was also an uprising of a native middle class against an imported aristocracy. A government that governed least was admirably suited to liberate those individualistic energies that transformed America from a wilderness to a material utopia.
  • New conditions gave America a democracy more basic and universal than history had ever seen. But these conditions have faded away. Personal isolation is gone through the growth of cities. Personal independence is gone through the dependence of the worker upon tools and capital that he does not own. Free land is gone. Economic freedom, even in the middle classes, becomes more and more exceptional.
  • 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.
  • Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence. Lincoln supposed, that “you can’t fool all the people all the time,” but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.
  • Democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. Athens and Rome became the most creative cities in history. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified.
  • if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb.
  • 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.

Chapter XI: History and War

  • War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy.
  • In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.
  • In every century the generals and the rulers (with rare exceptions like Ashoka and Augustus) have smiled at the philosophers’ timid dislike of war.
  • Even a philosopher, if he knows history, will admit that a long peace may fatally weaken the martial muscles of a nation.
  • 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.

Chapter XII: Growth and Decay

  • Why is it that history is littered with the ruins of civilizations? Is death is the destiny of all?
  • History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large. There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past.
  • Civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear — or linger on as stagnant pools.
  • Most states took form through the conquest of one group by another. 
  • What are the causes of decay?
  • Shall we suppose, with Spengler and many others, that each civilization is an organism? It is tempting to explain the behavior of groups through analogy with physiology or physics. 
  • A civilization declines when its leaders fail to meet the challenges of change. The challenges may come from a dozen sources , and may by repetition or combination rise to a destructive intensity.
  • Challenges: climate, food, inequality, morality.
  • Do civilizations die? Not quite.
  • Greek civilization is not really dead. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land.
  • Nations die. But the resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on. Civilization migrates with him.

Chapter XIII: Is Progress Real?

  • All technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends. The nature of man does not really change. 
  • Science and technology are neutral. Our comforts and conveniences may have weakened our physical stamina and our moral fiber. We are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles per hour as when we had only legs. 
  • We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for skilled workingmen and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.
  • Are our manners better than before, or worse?
  • Has there been any progress at all in philosophy since Confucius ?
  • If progress means increase in happiness, we are not happier. 
  • If progress means the increasing control of the environment by life, then progress is real.
  • Longevity in European and American whites has tripled in the last three centuries.
  • Famine has been eliminated in modern states. Science has diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance. Technology has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education. 
  • Our civilization will probably die. But we have said that a great civilization does not entirely die. Some precious achievements always survive. Education is the transmission of civilization. As long as the transmission is not interrupted, civilization’s achievements and progress will endure. 
  • The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage.

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