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The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

Rating: 10/10

Date Read: December 20, 2020

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The Lessons of History is a fantastic book, the best one I read in 2020. It is undervalued. While people talk about recent bestsellers this gem is waiting to be read. Any person can gain valuable insight and knowledge from this book.

There are only 100 pages, so you should be able to read this book in a couple of days. But I would suggest to take it slow. Read one chapter at a time and think about what you read.

This books is separated into 13 little chapters, each highlighting a major topic, how changed during our history, and what lessons can we take in those topics.

I. Hesitations

II. History and the Earth

III. Biology and History

IV. Race and History

V. Character and History

VI. Morals and History

VII. Religion and History

VIII. Economics and History

IX. Socialism and History

X. Government and History

XI. History and War

XII. Growth and Decay

XIII. Is Progress Real?

While reading the book, or those notes keep in mind that it was written in 1968. So many of Will's and Ariel's predictions came true. It makes you think that studying our history can teach us a lot about our future.

I know for certain that I will be coming back to read this again, and again, in the future.

Book Notes

II. History and the Earth

Climate no longer controls us as severely as Montesquieu and Buckle supposed, but it limits us. Man's ingenuity often overcomes geological handicaps: he can irrigate deserts and air-condition the Sahara; he can level or surmount mountains and terrace the hills with vines; he can build a floating city to cross the ocean, or gigantic birds to navigate the sky. But a tornado can ruin in an hour the city that took a century to build; an iceberg can overturn or bisect the floating palace and send a thousand merrymakers gurgling to the Great Certainty. Let rain become too rare, and civilization disappears under sand, as in Central Asia; let it fall too furiously, and civilization will be choked with jungle, as in Central America. Let the thermal average rise by twenty degrees in our thriving zones, and we should probably relapse into lethargic savagery. In a semitropical climate a nation of half a billion souls may breed like ants, but enervating heat may subject it to repeated conquest by warriors from more stimulating habitats. Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.

The development of the airplane will again alter the map of civilization. Trade routes will follow less and less the rivers and seas; men and goods will be flown more and more directly to their goal. Countries like England and France will lose the commercial advantage of abundant coast lines conveniently indented; countries like 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. Coastal cities will derive less of their wealth from the clumsy business of transferring goods from ship to train or from train to ship. When sea power finally gives place to air and power in transport war, we shall have seen one of the basic revolutions in history.

III. Biology and History

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 lifepeaceful 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. Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group-our family, community, club, church, party, "race," or nation-in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.

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 co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. 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 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.

Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

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 to fertilize one ovum. She sperms 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.

much of what we call intelligence is the result of individual education, opportunity, and experience; and there is no evidence that such intellectual acquirements are transmitted in the genes. Even the children of Ph.D.s must be educated and go through their adolescent measles of errors, dogmas, and isms; nor can we say how much potential ability and genius lurk in the chromosomes of the harassed and handicapped poor.

IV. Race and History

It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people: circumstances geographical, economic, and political create a culture, and the culture creates a human type. The Englishman does not so much make English civilization as it makes him; if he carries it wherever he goes, and dresses for dinner in Timbuktu, it is not that he is creating his civilization there anew, but that he acknowledges even there its mastery over his soul.

V. Character and History

Nevertheless, known 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. Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same: to act or rest, to acquire or give, to fight or retreat, to seek association or privacy, to mate or reject, to offer or resent parental care.

Nor does human nature alter as between classes: by and large the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them.

History in the large is the conflict of minorities; the majority applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.

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.

VI. Morals and History

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting-because it is exceptional.

Even in recorded history we find so popuissance affecretino ostituprotherican many instances of goodness, even of nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the cruelties of battlefields and jails.

Sexual license may cure itself through its own excess; our unmoored children may live to see order and modesty become fashionable; clothing will be more stimulating than nudity.

VII. Religion and History

It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich. For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified.

Note: Atheist = rich?

Religion does not seem at first to have had connection with morals. Apparently (for we are merely guessing, or echoing Petronius, who echoed Lucretius) "it was fear that first made the gods" 25 -fear of hidden forces in the earth, rivers, oceans, trees, winds, and any sky. Religion became the propitiatory worship of these forces through offerings, sacrifice, incantation, and prayer.

Note: Origins of religion

Only when priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital and rival to the state. It told the people that the local code of morals and laws had been dictated by the gods.

It pictured the god Thoth giving laws to Menes for Egypt, the god Shamash giving Hammurabi a code for Babylonia, Yahveh giving the Ten Commandments and 613 precepts to Moses for the Jews, and the divine nymph Egeria giving Numa Pompilius laws for Rome.

Pagan cults and Christian creeds proclaimed that earthly rulers were appointed and protected by the gods. Gratefully nearly ever state shared its lands and revenues with the priests.

Some recusants have doubted that religion ever promoted morality, since immorality has flourished even in of religious domination. Certainly sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery, and violence existed in the Middle Ages; but probably the moral disorder born of half a millennium of barbarian invasion, ages war, economic devastation, and political disorganization would have been much worse without the moderating effect of the Christian ethic, priestly exhortations, saintly exemplars, and a calming, unifying ritual.

Note: Religion decreased violence?

A thousand signs proclaim that Christianity is undergoing the same decline that fell upon the old Greek ad nd religion after the coming of the Sophists and the Greek Enlightenment.

Note: Decline

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn!

Does history warrant Renan's conclusion that religion is necessary to morality-that a natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes, and wars? Joseph de Maistre answered: "I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart of an honest man; it is horrible." There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.

"As long as there is poverty there will be gods."

VIII. Economics and History

The outstanding personalities in these movements were effects, not causes; Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector would never have been heard of had not the Greeks sought commercial control of the Dardanelles;

Note: I like this phrase, but need to think of examples where that is true. Or just give it some more thought.

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."

Note: My dad told me very similar truth about earning. People who are in close proximity to large sums of money have it easier when it comes to earning. Half percent of a million is more that 80% of 60000

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.

The experience of the past leaves 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. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient. Normally and generally men are judged by their ability to produce-except in war, when they are ranked according to their ability to destroy.

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.

Note: Concentration of wealth is inevitable, but so is the redistribution of such wealth.

IX. Socialism and History

When businessmen predicted ruin, Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty ent could be made secure. The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely as external danger.

Conservatives, led by Wang An-shih's brother, argued that human corruptibility and incompetence make governmenis tal control of industry impracticable, and that the best economy a laissez-faire system that relies on the natural impulses of men.

Note: Open economy is superior to the communism type of regime since it appeals to the innate human desires. Trying to keep everything under government will lead to corruption .

Simply put, man is a flawed being.

X. Government and History

Alexander Pope thought that only a fool would dispute over forms of government. History has a good word to say for all of them, and for for government in general.

Only fools dispute over forms of government, i.e t talking about us elections is a fools job.

Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands.

Note: One could say that government is necessary evil or rather something like a devils advocate

"If," said Gibbon, "a man were called upon to fix the period during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government."

In that brilliant agc, when Rome's subjects complimented themselves on being under her rule, monarchy was adoptive: the emperor transmitted his authority not to his offspring but to the ablest man he could find; he adopted this man as his son, trained him in the functions of government, and gradually surrendered to him the reins of power.

Note: Arguably the most successful period of the Roman Empire was when the leader was not chosen by relatedness to the current emperor but by the treaties that make a good future leader. This is what Plato was suggesting in his work the Republic

How to come up with a government system that incentivizes the current leader to select the next best leader, for the people?

Aristocracy is not only a nursery of statesmanship, it is also a repository and vehicle of culture, manners, standards, and tastes, and serves thereby as a stabilizing barrier to social fads, artistic crazes, or neurotically rapid changes in the moral code. See what has happened to morals, manners, style, and art since the French Revolution.

The excessive increase of anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction; . . . dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.

Note: Quote From Plato’s The Republic

All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to hu man 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 it raised up ability from every rank and place.

Note: Democracy is the best

Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal.

The rights of man are 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.

if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. 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; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.

Note: The signs of disappearing democracy are all off

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.


  • What are those years?
  • Is this legit info, cause there is always some kind of war?
  • What scale of war is the author talking about ?

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. 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.

Note: Causes of war. States are just like humans but without the restraints.

States will unite in basic co-operation only when they are in common attacked from without. 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."

XII. Growth and Decay

History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large. We may reasonably expect that in the future, as in the past, some new states will rise, some old states will subside; that new civilizations will begin with pasture and agriculture, expand into commerce and industry, and luxuriate with finance; that thought (as Vico and Comte argued) will pass, by and large, from supernatural to legendary to naturalistic explanations; that new theories, inventions, discoveries, and errors will agitate the intellectual currents; that new generations will rebel against the old and pass from rebellion to conformity and reaction; that experiments in morals will loosen tradition and frighten its beneficiaries; and that the excitement of innovation will be forgotten in the unconcern of time. History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness, and man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex. But in a developed and complex civilization individuals are more differentiated and unique than in a primitive society, and many situations contain novel circumstances requiring modifications of instinctive response; custom recedes, reasoning spreads; the results are less predictable. There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past.

Every year is an adventure.

Note: So, history is cyclical, but only in general. At the same time there is no certainty that the future will repeat the past.

No student takes seriously the seventeenth-century notion that states arose out of a "social contract" among individuals or between the people and a ruler. Probably most states (i.e., societies politically organized) took form through the conquest of one group by another, and the establishment of a continuing force over the conquered by the conqueror; his decrees were their first laws; and these, added to the customs of the people, created a new social order.

Note: War and violence has given life to the first government

When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

But do civilizations die? Again, not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives in the memory of the race, and in such abundance that no one life, however full and long, could absorb it all. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land. The Greek poets and philosophers are in every library and college; at this moment Plato is being studied by a hundred thousand discoverers of the "dear delight" of philosophy overspreading life with understanding thought. This selective survival of creative minds is the most real and beneficent of immortalities.

Note: Non omnis moritur

XIII. Is Progress Real?

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances. Choosing our evidence with a brighter bias, we might evolve some more comforting reflections.

Note: Anyone can find examples to prove their hypothesis.

We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man.

Note: Definition of progress

We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die-non omnis moritur. Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states: the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, and parental care; social organization, morality, and charity; and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race. These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next. They are the connective tissue of human history.

So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all. Once colleges were luxuries, designed for the male half of the leisure class; today universities are so numerous that he who runs may become a Ph.D. 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.

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man's understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

Note: What is education?

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.

Note: Compound interest in the largest of scales

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.

End Note

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