The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant

Why this book: Selected by my SEAL Reading Group as our selection for January 2023, on the recommendation of of one of our members.   

Summary in 3 Sentences:  In this small volume the Durants offer the reader the distillation of their insights about human nature and civilization, that I have frequently described as a brief volume of the  “wisdom of the ages” regarding the nature of man and and our efforts to survive, live together and thrive over the millennia.  In this short book, Will and Ariel Durant offer us their distilled insights that they acquired after writing and then revising their highly regarded 11 volume set The Story of Civilization. They conclude with a reason to be pessimistic, but what they feel is a more compelling reason to be optimistic. 

My Impressions:   I loved this little book.  In paperback, this book is only 102 pages  – short but not to be read quickly. I read the book – a couple of chapters at a time, underlined a lot, many of my underlines I provide below.  When the group of Navy SEALs met to discuss it on zoom, nearly all were enthusiastic about it, many of us thanking the fellow who recommended it.   Indeed there were some quibbles with conclusions they had drawn about man and society, but it was noted that it was written in 1968, when we were in the middle of the Vietnam War,  when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated,  and the Cold War with Russia was nearing its apogee.   There have been some new developments and new research that might challenge some of their conclusions, and a few that could be updated,  but I would say these points are merely in the margins.   I tend to agree with their conclusions that there is little truly new under the sun – that the nature of man recycles many of the same lessons and experience, simply in different times and contexts and most of what has happened in the years since they wrote this book merely reinforces their conclusions.   I was reminded of a quote by E.O Wilson that in today’s world, our challenge is that “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology…” 

Some of those on our zoom call listened to rather than read the book, and they shared that the Audible version concluded each chapter with a recorded interview with the authors, done after their writing of the book, about the contents of the that chapter.   Those who listened to it shared that these recorded interviews added a lot to the content of the chapters.  Given that it is so short – the audible version just a few hours long, I intend to listen to it next, and enjoy the benefit of the voices of the long deceased authors commenting in their work. 

There are thirteen chapters in the book, and here is a brief look at what I saw as highlights: 

  1. Hesitations. They speak of the challenge of writing a short book that covers so much, concluding with “It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions.  We proceed.” 
  2. History and the Earth. They note that human history is a brief spot in space and time, and its first lesson is modesty.  They share how “geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing  mother and disciplining home.” They point out that “history is subject to geology,” and that distances, bodies of water, natural boundaries, mountain ranges, rich top soil, climate have all been major drivers of civilization.
  3. Biology and History. “The first biological leson of history is that life is competition….The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection…. The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. (Nature) has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few.”  Other lines from this chapter:
    •  “Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization.” 
    • “Freedom and equlity are sworn and everlasting enemies and when one prevails, the other dies.
    • “If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balances: famine, pestilence and war.”
    • “Ideally parentage should be a privilege of health, not a by-product of sexual agitation.”
    • “Biologically, physical vitality may be, at birth, of greater value than intellectual pedigree;  Philosophers are not the fittest material from which to breed the race.” 
  4. Race and History.  Their overall point is that race is a trivial superficiality that humans have elevated far beyond its importance.  They make the descriptive (vice prescriptive) observation that, “All strong characters and peoples are race conscious, and are instinctively averse to marriage outside their own racial group.”   They point to how races have mixed, changed and evolved over history. Noting, (though not necessarily agreeing with) that “The South creates the civilizations, the North conquers them, ruins them, borrows from them, spreads them: this is one summary of history.’  “History is color-blind and can develop a civilization (in any favorable environment) under almost any skin.”
  5. Character and History. Fascinating chapter. They create a table of human character elements which they claim is fundamental to humans everywhere.  The instincts they list, each with their associated habits and feelings, and each of these with positive and negative manifestations are Action, Fight, Acquisition, Association, Mating, Parental care.   They describe how the “hero” or “great man” who changes the course of history is simply a person who “grows out of his time and land and is the product and symbol of events as well as their agent and voice.”
    • “Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man”
    • “We may define human nature as the fundamental tendencies and feelings of mankind.”
    • “By and large, the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them.”  
    • “Customs or institutions of society …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 – perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts.”
  6. Morals and History. “Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts (as laws are the rules by which it seeks to compel.)”  Noting that morality is relative and evolves, they say “Probably every vice was once a virtue – ie, a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group.  Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” And they conclude this chapter with, “.,.much of our moral freedom is good: it is pleasant to be relieved of theological terrors, to enjoy without qualm the pleasures that harm neither others nor ourselves, and to feel the tang of the open air upon our liberated flesh.” 
  7. Religion and History.  He begins this chapter “Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.”  They describe the ongoing tension between religious and secular leaders, and how nationalism, skepticism and human frailty break even the most idealistic dreams of spiritual unity. “History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth.” And they conclude that “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.” 
  8. Economics and History.  They give much credit to Karl Marx’s view that History “…is economics in action – the contest, among individuals, groups, classes, and states, for food, fuel, materials, and economic power.”  There is “…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….Naturally and generally men are judged by their ability to produce – except in war, when they are ranked according to their ability to destroy.”  Accepting that “the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable…all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.” 
  9. Socialism and History.  “The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth.” This chapter outlines the numerous cases throughout history when a civilization has experimented with a centralized authority seeking to distribute wealth more justly within a society – and why they have all failed.  It usually became “a choice between private plunder and public graft.” The Inca civilization was the longest lasting socialistic civilization.  They point to the current movement in the West toward a synthesis of socialism and capitalism, noting that “The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.”
  10. Government and History.  They begin this chapter with “…the first condition of freedom is its limitations; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.  So the prime task of government is to establish order….” They look at democracy and its missteps, at aristocracy, how and why it emerged, revolutions in government and the pattern of their successes and failures.  They warn about sharp breaks with the past, noting that “violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it.” “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.” He describes the democracy of ancient Greece in terms that resonate today, “The middle classes as well as the  rich, began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor distrusted it as a sham equality of votes nullified by a gaping inequality of wealth.”
    • All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm and more good, than any other form of government.
    • The vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, thier access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal.
    • The rights of man ar not rights to office and power, but the rights of entry into every avenue that may nourish and test a man’s fitness for office and power.
    • A right is not a gift of God or nature but a privilege which it is good for the group that the individual should have. 
  11. History and War.  War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy.  In this chapter, the authors create a mock discussion between a General and a Philosopher – the General arguing for the necessity of war and even some of its many advantages (‘young men need an outlet for their combativeness, their adventurousness, their weariness with prosaic routine..”)  The Philosopher responds with all the damage caused by war, that far outweigh its gains, argues for adequate defense but also nonaggression and non-subversion pacts to lead to world order.  To which the General replies “You have forgotten all the lessons of history,” noting 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.”    In other words, the Durants don’t offer much hope for universal peace. 
  12. Growth and Decay.  They state that “On one point all are agreed: civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear – or linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.”This chapter points out how great civilizations have essentially two phases: “centripetal organization unifying a culture in all its phases into a unique coherent and artistic form; the other a period of centrifugal disorganization in which creed and culture decompose in division and criticism, and end in a chaos of individualism, skepticism, and artistic aberrations.”  And they look at the causes of decay, and sadly many of the symptoms they describe we see in America today, especially when “Few souls feel any longer that it is beautiful and honorable to die for one’s country.” And they answer the question, Do civilizations die like individuals?  They answer not quite – they evolve and pass down  their “patrimony to their heirs across the years and the seas.”
  13. Is Progress Real? In this final chapter they say, “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…Science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build”
    • “Our comforts and conveniences may have weakened our physical stamina and our moral fiber.”
    • “Have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological, or racial hostilities?”
    • “Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval.” 
    • “If education  is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing.”
    • “We may not have excelled the selected geniuses of antiquity, but we have raised the level and average of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

His concluding paragraph of this chapter, and of the book, is worth quoting in whole:

“To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.  The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it;  let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life. “

My concluding note: Read this book.  And discuss it with friends. Then read it again.  

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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