The Lessons of History (1968)
Will and Ariel Durant (1885-1981, 1898-1981)
Historians Will and Ariel Durant spent some four decades researching and writing the eleven volumes of their famous collection The Story of Civilization. Three decades into that effort, on the heels of the tenth book in the series, they paused to consider what broad understandings they could glean about the history of mankind from their many years of intense study. That examination resulted in the slim but highly engaging and deeply instructive book The Lessons of History.
Summarizing humankind’s history in just shy of a hundred pages is not for the faint of heart, and in the opening chapter the Durants outline their approach, and the challenges they faced in preparing for and then writing the book. First and perhaps foremost among the challenges they identified is the discouraging combination of the large amount of history that remains unknown, and the significant uncertainty that remains about what is considered known. They noted that both of these shortcomings make generalizing about human history risky; but with a nod to their doubts --- “only a fool would try” (13) --- they push ahead.
Over the next twelve chapters the Durants highlight the impact on human history of such themes as geography, biology, race, religion, and economics. In the final two chapters they then address broader considerations: the never-ending --- and they argue natural and necessary --- Growth and Decay of civilizations; and, in conclusion, the definition of progress, and whether humankind can be considered to have achieved real progress over our history.
Clearly each of these topics could be the theme of an entire book; in Lessons, the Durants have distilled them down to just a half dozen or so pages each. Given their decades of study, and eloquent and elegant prose, the result is a series of captivating essays in which each paragraph, often seemingly each sentence, articulates a deep recognition of the human condition. As the Durants write in the Preface, the book
repeats many ideas that we, or others before us, have already expressed; our aim is not originality but inclusiveness; we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation. (7)Therein, however, lies the benefit of their work: though many of the conclusions they draw have appeared in isolation in other works, here they benefit from the context of being part of a more comprehensive, if densely packed, historiography.
A few specific cases serve to illustrate the breadth and variety of their insights. The chapter Morals and History, for example, describes how moral codes have played a critical role in establishing norms that allow for the development of societies; as humankind has made the passage from hunting-and-gathering to farming and on to the industrial revolution, these moral codes have necessarily been adapted to the conditions of each such stage. The Durants point out that human behaviors that now are proscribed may have provided a strong benefit in societies of the distant past:
Probably every vice was once a virtue --- i.e., 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. (38)
In Socialism and History the Durants examine the centuries-long tug-of-war between capitalism and socialism. As part of the discussion, they note how the dominance of one or the other of these systems has been intimately related to the tension between freedom and security --- a challenge they highlight elsewhere in the book also, and one that clearly remains contentious today in the face of rapidly expanding state-run security organizations. Though the powerful reach of such institutions is in part due to advances in technology, the defense already seventeen centuries ago of the need for extreme security measures by the Roman emperor Diocletian has familiar echoes in the debates of the past couple of decades: “the barbarians [are] at the gate, and that individual liberty [has] to be shelved until collective liberty [can] be made secure” (61)
Their discussion on Government and History begins by summarizing the role of government, and outlining how different forms of governance have developed and fared since Roman times. The chapter concludes with an extended look at Democracy, which the Durants describe in unsparingly elitist, and yet remarkably prescient language, as:
the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. 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 be 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. (77)
I first discovered and read this book some ten years ago, and found it engaging and profoundly affecting in the way it distilled out critical aspects of humankind’s history while also providing insights and implications for present day concerns and debates. Recently having completed two other sweeping visions of history, one by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man, my review here), and the second by Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, my review here), I returned to The Lessons of History for a second reading, with even more profitable results.
These authors have wildly different backgrounds: Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest who studied anthropology; the Durants studied and wrote as what could be considered classical historians; and Harari is a modern historian looking at what lies behind traditional, event based histories. Nonetheless we discover through their work significant areas of overlap in their understanding and interpretation of human development. In lines, for example, that echo Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the noosphere --- a thinking layer that spanned the earth as humans capable of thought and reflection spread across the globe --- and Harari’s related concept of the imagined orders --- fictions or constructs that form the basis of all of our non-biologically driven thought and action --- the Durants note that
Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education.” (34)
The concept of evolution working in the social and cultural domain thus forms a critical part of all three authors’ understanding of humankind’s development. It must be said, however, that where Teilhard de Chardin believed in the optimistic concept of orthogenesis --- that evolution proceeds in a pre-destined, progressively improving direction --- Harari and the Durants present a much less copasetic view of humankind’s future, one in which progress is not necessarily guaranteed.
The Durants express their concerns in the concluding chapter Is Progress Real, including a statement that seems directed to our current situation:
whether a challenge [to a group or a civilization] will or will not be met … depends upon the 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) …. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through … the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change. (91-92)
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