Nothing surprises the student of history. On a long enough timeline, history repeats. We therefore mustn’t think that ours is a unique experience; that the laws of history don’t apply to us. That’s quite a delusion.
This much is clear reading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. The Pulitzer Prize‐winning husband and wife team distill the towering themes from their lifetime of research into the human experience. It is one of the most important books for our times. As they write, “The past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
We don’t feel pessimistic about the world, but we do recognize certain historical patterns that are dangerous: the fights between capitalism and socialism, left and the right, rich versus poor, race against civilization, religion versus science, freedom versus equality, and man against nature.
By plunging into the epochs, our hope is to learn enough history to bear reality patiently. We’ve taken the liberty to condense all the lessons in the authors’ own words.
The first lesson is modesty.
Human history is a brief spot in space. Man is a moment in astronomic time.
Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.
Life is competition. Even cooperation is a tool and form of competition.
We cooperate in our group—our family, community, party, race, or nation—in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.
War promotes cooperation because it is the ultimate form of competition. It is one of the constants of history. Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.
The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.
The earth will unite as one only if or when there is interplanetary war.
History is color-blind.
It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people: geographical, economic, and political circumstances create a culture, and the culture creates a human type.
The civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.
History (and nature) 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.
If history supports any theology, it would be a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men’s souls. Christianity assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee.
Source: Getty Images
Sin has flourished in every age.
In every age men have been dishonest and governments have been corrupt. Man has never reconciled himself to the Ten Commandments.
But in the long view of history, moral codes are universal and necessary to produce order out of natural chaos in all the fields of human life.
Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members and associations to behavior consistent with its order, security, and growth. Society is based on social order, which is based on character and moral discipline which is usually associated with religious belief.
Morals deteriorate when religious belief weakens. There is no significant example in history of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid 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.
In antiquity and modernity alike, analytical thought dissolved the religion that had buttressed the moral code. The replacement of Christian with secular institutions is the culminating and critical result of the Industrial Revolution. The propaganda of patriotism or capitalism succeeds to the inculcation of a supernatural creed. Divine surveillance and sanctions are removed.
One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. It may be that all through history, religions have helped society to control animal instincts to enable the social instincts to cope with them and to make civilization possible.
Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines communism grows.
Source: General Social Survey
All economic history shows that concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable (leading to redistribution or revolution). The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of this historic rhythm.
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.
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.
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 recreates an inequality of possessions and privileges and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old.
The Western world visibly moves to a synthesis of capitalism and socialism. The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality. Soon the twain will meet.
The only real revolution is in 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.
Intellect is a vital force in history, but it can also be a destructive power.
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. So, the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it.
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 and opposition; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.
Ideas are the strongest things of all in history. An idea could, however important it might be, lay dead for centuries having no influence and no meaning until the idea meets the personality and the zeitgeist of the time spirit. When those three unite, you’ve got something going.
The ideas of today are the politics of tomorrow, and the philosophy of today is the literature of tomorrow.
Source: Public Affairs
Utopias of equality are doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups.
Freedom and equality are enemies. When one prevails the other dies. Paradoxically, the first condition of freedom is its limitation. Make it absolute and it dies in chaos. The prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands.
When we made ourselves free, we forgot to make ourselves intelligent. Freedom has reached a point where it is creating disorder and forgetting that order was its mother. It is destroying its mother. If you have excess order, you still have order, but if you have excess liberty, you have chaos.
Source: Washington Post
Democracy has done less harm and more good than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation raised up ability from every rank and place.
Under its stimulus, Athens and Rome became the most creative cities in history, and America in two centuries has provided abundance for an unprecedentedly large proportion of its population.
Yet democracy is also the most difficult of all forms of government since it requires the widest spread of intelligence. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple.
America is a democracy more basic and universal than history has ever seen. But many of the formative conditions have disappeared.
Personal isolation is gone through the growth of cities. Independence is gone through the dependence of the worker upon tools and capital that he does not own, and upon conditions that he cannot control. War becomes more consuming, and the individual is helpless to understand its causes or to escape its effects.
The once self-employed shopkeeper is in the toils of the big distributor and may echo Marx’s complaint that everything is in chains. Economic freedom, even in the middle classes, becomes more and more exceptional, making political freedom a consolatory pretense.
And all this has come about not through the perversity of the rich, but through the impersonal fatality of economic development, and through the nature of man.
Civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear. Political leaders fail to meet the challenges of change. American civilization like any other is a transitory thing.
Life has no inherent claim to eternity, whether in individuals or in states. Death is natural, and the mature mind will take no offense from its coming.
But do civilizations die? Not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land. The Greek poets and philosophers are in every library and college.
We should not be greatly disturbed. The effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may yet reinvigorate the West.