Reflections On The Lessons Of History

I recently finished reading Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. Written in 1968, it’s perhaps the most profound book I’ve ever read. It’s not long, coming in at roughly 100 pages, but what it does in those few pages is testament to the depth of knowledge possessed by its authors. The Durant’s were arguably the most renowned public historians of the 20th century, helping to popularize the subject through their seminal work, The Story of Civilization—an 11 volume, ten-thousand-page series of books that chronicles recorded human history. I grew up with the Story of Civilization in our house and would often read pieces of the various books in the series, especially Our Oriental Heritage (had to read up on my ancient Persian history!) and The Age of Faith (the Crusades!). Needless to say, it is an invaluable piece of scholarly work which earned the Durant’s a Pulitzer Prize and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

will-durant-ariel-durantWhat the Durant’s do in the Lessons of History is take all of the knowledge and insight they gained through writing the Story of Civilization and assiduously studying global human history for decades and provide their take on the common themes of history. They delve into what history tells us about topics like war, geography, religion, morals, government, and economics. The result is a book that reads like poetry, with nearly every sentence full of meaning and immensely thought-provoking.

Many parts of this book really stood out to me. So much so that I wanted to write this post to jot down some of what are in my opinion its greatest revelations. I will preface by saying that the overarching lesson I got out of this book is that history does, in fact, repeat itself. Virtually everything that encompasses the human experience and ails it today is the same as what it has always been. Most if not all of the issues confronting modern societies were confronted by societies since time immemorial, who either succumbed or managed to overcome them. To this end, history is of course the greatest teacher for anyone seeking to understand the world, human nature, and (of particular importance for me) international relations.

As a student of international relations, I particularly valued how the Durant’s explained the importance of geography and its role in fostering the rise and persistence of civilizations. They write in one of the early chapters:

Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home. Its rivers, 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. Egypt was “the gift of the Nile,” and Mesopotamia built successive civilizations “between the rivers” and along their effluent canals. India was the daughter of the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges; China owed its life and sorrows to the great rivers that (like ourselves) often wandered from their proper beds and fertilized the neighborhood with their overflow. Italy adorned the valleys of the Tiber, the Arno, and the Po. Austria grew along the Danube, Germany along the Elbe and the Rhine. France along the Rhone, the Louire, and the Seine. Petra and Palmyra were nourished by the oases in the desert.

In a following chapter, the Durant’s discuss the “biological lessons of history,” emphasizing how survival-instinct and competition is the root of all human activity and achievement. In doing so, they touch on realist notions of state behavior:

We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive. If some of us seem to escape the strife or the trials it is because our group protects us; but that group itself must meet the tests of survival.

So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life—peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Cooperation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we cooperate in our group—our family, community, club, church, party, “race,” or nation—in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes cooperation because members it is the ultimate form of competition. Until out states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.

They go on to make salient points about how men are not all equal in ability and how freedom and (economic) equality are at odds with each other:

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. Since Nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every  invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the stronger stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select thirty percent of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest. Life and history do precisely that, with a sublime injustice reminiscent of Calvin’s God.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and education opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states.

Later they make some profound points on demography:

The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She 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; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize on ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (here meaning Nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. Gaul survived against the Germans through the help of Roman legions in Caesar’s days, and through the help of British and American legions in our time. When Rome fell the Franks rushed in from Germany and made Gaul France; if England and America should fall, France, whose population remained almost stationary through the nineteenth century, might again be overrun.

In one of my favorite sections of the book, the Durant’s stress the importance of traditions and adeptly argue that resisting change is just as valuable as proposing it:

Intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to 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. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.

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 that grafts. 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, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.

On the threat of uninformed masses:

Education has spread. A cynic remarked that “you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.” However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may true, as 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.    

The book’s chapter on history and war is particularly noteworthy. It is decisively realist in its explanations of the root of conflict:

Polemos pater panton,” said Heracleitus; war, or competition, is the father of all things, the potent source of ideas, inventions, institutions, and states. Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.

The causes of war are the same as causes of competition among individuals; acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land materials, fuels, mastery. The state has our instincts without our restraints. The individual submits to restraints laid upon him by morals and laws, and agrees to replace combat with conference, because the state guarantees him basic protection in his life, property, and legal rights. The state itself acknowledges no substantial restraints, either because it is strong enough to defy any interference with its will or because there is no superstate to offer it basic protection, and no international law or moral code wielding effective force.

It is pitiful (says the general) that so many young men die in battle, but more of them die in automobile accidents that in war, and many of them riot and rot for lack of discipline; they need an outlet for their combativeness, their adventurousness, their weariness with prosaic routine; if they must die sooner or later why not let them die for their country in the anesthesia of battle and the aura of glory? Even a philosopher, if he knows history, will admit that a long peace may fatally weaken the martial muscles of a nation. In the present inadequacy of international law and sentiment a nation must be ready at any moment to defend itself; and when its essential interests are involved it must be allowed to use any means it considers necessary to its survival. The Ten Commandments must be silent when self-preservation is at stake.

Some of the most profound sections of the book have to do with economic inequality and how it is a constant in history that has repeatedly led to the downfall of societies. The Durant’s argue this is natural because of the inequality in ability among individuals, but state that wise rulers periodically redistribute wealth to maintain social order:

Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. 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. Despotism may for a time retard the concentration; democracy, allowing the most liberty, accelerates it. The relative equality of Americans before 1776 has been overwhelmed by a thousand forms of physical, mental, and economic differentiation, so that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome. 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.

After the breakdown of political order in the Western Roman Empire (A.D. 476), centuries of destitution were followed by the slow renewal and reconcentration of wealth, partly in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In one aspect the Reformation was a redistribution of this wealth by the reduction of German and English payments to the Roman Church, and by the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical property and revenues. The French Revolution attempted a violent redistribution of wealth by Jacqueries in the countryside and massacres in the cities, but the chief result was a transfer of property and privilege from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. The government of the United States, in 1933-54 and 1960-65, followed Solon’s peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution; perhaps someone had studied history. The upper classes in America cursed, complied, and resumed the concentration of wealth.

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 concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.

Finally, another bit I found particularly interesting although not surprising is their explanation of how the groups that control money always wield tremendous power:

At the other end of the scale history reports that “the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.” So the bankers, watching the trends in agriculture, industry, and trade, inviting and directing the flow of capital, putting our money doubly and trebly to work, controlling loans and interest and enterprise, running great risks to make great gains, rise to the top of the economic pyramid. From the Medici of Florence and the Fuggers of Augsburg to the Rothschilds of Paris and London and the Morgan of New York, bankers have sat in the council of government, financing wars and popes, and occasionally sparking a revolution. Perhaps it is one secret of their power that, having studied the fluctuations of prices, they know that history is inflationary, and that money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.


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