Book Summary: The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

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The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

The Book in Three Sentences

Over the course of history, human behavior has changed, but not human nature. No matter who is in power, the rewards gradually accrue to the most clever and talented individuals. Ideas are the strongest things of all in history because they can be passed down and change the behavior of future generations—even a gun was originally an idea.

The Lessons of History summary

This is my book summary of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • History is the most reliable path to understanding the present and anticipating the problems of the future.
  • The aim of this book is not originality, but inclusiveness.
  • Our knowledge of any past event is incomplete. Most history is guessing and the rest is prejudice.
  • The historian always oversimplifies.
  • The rate of change increases and inventions cause acceleration to go ever faster.
  • History cannot be a science, only an industry, an art, and a philosophy. An industry by ferreting out the facts. An art by seeking order in the chaos of materials. A philosophy by seeking perspective and understanding.
  • Total perspective is an optical illusion. We must operate with partial knowledge.
  • Only a fool would try to compress 100 centuries into 100 pages of conclusions. We proceed.
  • History is a combination of the crimes and absurdities of humankind and the parting contributions. This enabled each generation to proceed with a greater heritage than the one before.
  • Idea: The contributions and improvement of humankind is the story of humankind. Our story is the story of collective learning. So, let me tell you a story.
  • Idea: there are three worlds. The first world is the external world. The second world was born when thoughts became possible and consciousness emerged. The third world emerged when our lives became digital. We can now live in a world where we are not physically there and it is not in our thoughts, but it exists.
  • Other sciences tell us how we might behave. History tells us how we have behaved.
  • The present is merely the past rolled up into this present moment.
  • You are what you are because of your past.
  • We know 1,000 things about the news of today, but rarely about the past. How can we understand our present without knowing our history?
  • Example of technology wild gamble: the invention of airplanes totally redefines the world of trade and commerce. Previously, water was the primary mode of trade and it dictated which nations rose to power (those with large shorelines like Greece and Italy). Then, suddenly, airplanes shifted the power to nations with huge land masses in comparison to their coasts (USA, China, Russia).
  • The lesson of history is that man is tough.
  • History is the map of human character. To know how man will act you must know how man has acted.
  • Humans will always be nobler than the universe. Despite dying after a mere blip of time, we know of our existence while the universe knows nothing of its longevity.
  • The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
  • Idea: Technology overpowers environment as time goes on. This trend, however, started as soon as man was able to fashion tools, which was a form of technology.
  • Progress is real. Man influences his control over the environment as time goes on and technology increases.
  • The environment is still the master of man and other species.
  • Idea: The trend is clear: our technology is allowing us to overpower our natural world. Imagine a time when we can control earthquakes or hurricanes or tornados. Or, when we went to the moon we figured out how to survive outside of the earth’s atmosphere. We somehow learned to transcend the boundaries of oxygen and spread our species to new places.
  • Geography is the matrix of history. If you live on the coast, you will almost inevitably become an addict of the sea.
  • You can smell the ocean for nearly anywhere in Great Britain. What happened? They took to the sea and became the finest naval seamen in history.
  • We are controlled by everything around us and in us, but neither one of those two is the whole story.
  • Everything was involved in what made us.
  • Idea: we are the product of all of the previous events in history summed up and rolled into the present moment. However, even though everything is involved in what made us, there are a few forces that carry most of the weight. Those forces are genetics, culture, environment, and technology.
  • The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.
  • Cooperation is real and it expands as technologies evolve, but mostly because it is a form of competition. We cooperate within our group, family, community, and nation in order to make our group more powerful.
  • Cooperation is the ultimate form of competition.
  • The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection.
  • From nature’s standpoint, we are all born unfree and unequal.
  • Nature loves difference because it is what allow selection to focus on the strong and eliminate the weak.
  • Question: how many organisms get selected for? In a given population, what are the odds of a particular set of traits living on and how robust are those odds? What percentage of genes remain during this process?
  • Freedom and equality are everlasting enemies. When one fails, the other dies.
  • Only the man below the average desires equality. Those who are conscious of being above average desire freedom. In the end, superior ability has its way.
  • The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed.
  • Nature likes large litters and the struggle for survival that ends up selecting the strongest few.
  • Every advance in agriculture and food production is eventually nullified by the increase in number of mouths to feed.
  • Medicine and technology nullify natural selection by keeping the unfit alive.
  • Much of what we call intelligence is the result of individual education, opportunity, and experience.
  • The fertile inherit the earth. The birth rate may determine the fate of belief systems because the more people believe an idea and the more people are trained in an idea (usually the kids of believers), the more that idea will take hold. This has happened with religion throughout a lot of history, but perhaps now it is happening with science.
  • All of the history of humankind is a short chapter in the history of biology. And all of biology is a short chapter in the history of the planet. And the planet is a short chapter in the history of the universe.
  • History is the story of humankind in a struggle with other species and themselves for the limited resources and gifts of the environment. Competition is the basic law.
  • Competition used to be among individuals. Then it was enlarged and it was among families. Then it was enlarged and it was among communities. And so on.
  • The basic reality is competition. If you are not competing in life, what would you develop? A certain degree of competition is necessary not only for progress, but also for survival.
  • Idea: Will competition ever be enlarged enough to not be between humans? We would need a stunning wild gamble where another species forces us to bond together and compete against a common foe.
  • The child learns through their hands in early life. So perhaps standing on two feet was the method through which man became intelligent.
  • Idea: It makes sense to me that intelligence and bipedal walking co-evolved.
  • The role of accident was essential for the progress of humankind, but now, suddenly that is changing. Culture was the first way we began overpowering the role of accident. (Think the education system and teaching humans.) Technology is the second (and faster) way we are overpowering the role of accident in genetic evolution and the progress of humankind. Now you can be dealt a poor genetic hand (think learning disability) and our culture and our technology can still help you to survive.
  • History is colorblind and can develop a civilization under any race and in nearly any circumstance.
  • In the long run, differences between people yield to the environment.
  • People like to think they are a little special. Without this bit of vanity, we might find it harder to push forward. In a way, delusion is a motivator.
  • Human nature is the fundamental feelings and tendencies of humankind.
  • By and large, the poor have the same impulses as the rich, but with less opportunity or skill to implement them.
  • Social evolution is an interplay of custom with origination.
  • The imitative majority follows the innovative minority. History is largely the battle of a few minorities, the winner of which is then lauded as the victor by the majority.
  • Out of every 100 ideas, 99 will likely be inferior to the traditional alternative it was proposed to replace.
  • No one person can become so well-informed in one lifetime to rethink and fully understand the customs and demands of the entire society.
  • It is good for new ideas to be heard for the sake of the few that can be used. But it is also good for new ideas to be tested and questioned.
  • Society is not founded on the ideals of humankind, but on the nature of humankind. We are a product of the forces and instincts that drive us.
  • The basic lesson of history is that humans are essentially what they have been all throughout history. He changes his habits, but not his instincts.
  • Over the course of history, human behavior has changed, but not human nature.
  • The hero is just the product of a situation. Not the other way around. If it were not for the situation, we never would have heard of the hero.
  • In a way, you could say mental toughness or heroism or other qualities of character are merely the outcome of what the situation demands.
  • Morals are the way society exhorts behavior from its members.
  • We can divide history into three stages: hunting, agriculture, and industry.
  • It’s possible that things that are vices today were once virtues.
  • Gradually, industry changed the structure of human culture and morality. People left the home and tribe to work in factories and live in cities, etc.
  • History as it is usually lived is different from history as it is usually written. By definition, historians focus on the exceptional.
  • Two examples of huge shifts in our cultural evolution: Copernicus and his discovery that we were but one planet is a vast ocean of planets and galaxies. Darwin and his discovery that we were just an animal that evolved from many other animals. These two beliefs radically changed how strongly we believed in religion. If we are but one of many planets, why would God care so much about us? If evolution is true, how could an intelligent designer have created us?
  • Civilization itself is the most remarkable thing humankind has done.
  • Civilization requires a delicate balance of social impulses with animal impulses.
  • Durant defines civilization as social order that promotes cultural creation, so you need order and personal freedom / creative liberty. These appear to be at odds with one another, but it is often a tense, delicate balance between the two. If social order is too strong, freedom is restricted. If social order is too low, cooperation is not enabled to the degree to create civilization.
  • You want to reign in your impulses and weaknesses to the point where they are useful, but not excessive.
  • It is very dangerous for an individual to think that — even with 30 or 40 years of studying — he can judge and overcome the collective wisdom of the human race. Old ideas are very powerful.
  • It is very possible that religion has enabled humans to collaborate all throughout history and make civilization possible.
  • The goal of religion and morals and ethics and really any shared belief system is at least partially to overcome the impulses of our hunter-gatherer, reptilian brain. We try to overcome our animal instincts with social instincts. We are casting votes for a new identity that we hope will overpower the natural identity we have.
  • One interesting take on why the decline of religion is quite bad: if religion is the shared belief that unifies a civilization and that belief system dies, then what will hold the civilization together?
  • In every age, the forces of the individual seem to overpower the forces of the group. When all else fails, people will do what serves them best. They will do what ensures their survival.
  • Idea: perhaps our natural wiring to ensure our own survival at all costs is why we are so moved by the act of sacrificing yourself for another. Think: Hodor in Game of Thrones.
  • The word sin is relevant only in the sense of the individual violating the group.
  • Reason cannot be the dominant aspect of any age because it is just an instrument. Reason and rationality are tools for thinking, but there are many other useful approaches that involve reason like sentiment.
  • No one individual can ever hope to hold a candle to the insights of humanity as a whole. It is a fool’s errand to think your ideas will be capable of battling such proven concepts.
  • Without religion, it is very possible that the world would have been less moral. Yes, immorality and crime still persisted, but the forces of religion probably dampened their effects.
  • As time wore on, philosophers became the driving forces behind societal changes rather than the church. And then, eventually science stole that job from philosophy.
  • If history supports any religion it is probably dualism, which would explain the good things and bad things that occasionally happen through the lens of a good god and an evil god.
  • The ultimate result of the industrial revolution was the replacement of religious entities with secular ones.
  • Previously we thought laws were dictated by God. Now it is clear that they are dictated by fallible humans.
  • One lesson of history is that religions have a way of reviving themselves.
  • There is no example in history of a society maintaining moral life among the masses without religion as a force for binding people together.
  • The function of religion is to give humankind a belief to be able to tolerate life.
  • The individual instincts were hardwired into us by evolution. They are millions of years old. The social instincts are much younger and were learned over the last 70,000 years.
  • Idea: In order for a group to let social instincts override the instincts of each individual, we need powerful beliefs and concepts. If we were just a horde of unconnected individuals we would never cooperate. This is where law and religion and capitalism come into play. They are ideas powerful enough to unite us despite our individual instincts.
  • It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much, too think that your supposedly brilliant mind could develop a better solution in 30 or 40 years than humankind has developed over thousands of years of working together. For this reason, it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.
  • You should never trust an old man to be the judgment of youth because they would just cut off the bold things youth would do before they could do them.
  • Idea: this boldness, in fact, is the only way that humankind advances. Most ideas we propose in our boldest moments are wrong. How could they not be? It’s not as if we are easily capable of thinking up something brilliant in our narrow window of time on earth. However, every now and then, the bold youth develops an idea that completely redefines the world and if we are to make progress, if we are to become better, we must be bold enough and delusional enough to believe that we can have those ideas.
  • Idea: even Plato said that “a certain portion of the population” did not believe in God. So there were probably many proposals and creations that went against God. Many wild gambles that failed. But it was only after science was created that we had a wild gamble that proved worthy of the battle.
  • Science deals largely with the external world. It has almost nothing to do with the internal world. What is consciousness? How can we answer this question with science?
  • The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things and the men who can manage money manage all.
  • Normally, men are judged by their ability to produce. Except in war, when they are ranked based on their ability to destroy.
  • The concentration of wealth in a small portion of the population is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history. The most valuable talents and skills are confined to a few people, which means the most valuable wealth is confined to a few as well. This pattern shows up again and again.
  • Liberty is possible when security has been achieved, but until that point you are facing competition. It is only because of competition that we developed the ability to create liberty.
  • The first condition of freedom is limitation. If freedom is absolute, then it dies in chaos. The prime task of government is to establish order.
  • The Pax Romana was perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of governance.
  • If the majority of abilities are contained within a minority of men (that is, if a few people have more valuable skills than most others), then a minority rule is as inevitable as a disproportionate concentration of wealth.
  • All consuming toil is usually the price of genius.
  • The sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories. The sanity of the group lies in the continuity of its traditions. Break away from either too fast and chaos follows.
  • The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character. The only real emancipation is individual. The only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
  • The excessive increase of anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction.
  • Idea: this is a disturbing thought, but once culture and shared thought evolved, we suddenly developed the capacity to perform large swathes of “natural selection” on those who disagree with us. Imagine a revolt within a country where one group commits genocide on another group. These mass killings are largely ideological. In a sense, we could say that these killings are a form of “survival of the fittest”, but in this case it is the ideas that the ruling group deems fit rather than physical fitness. Suddenly, ideology becomes a form of natural selection and because we are the ones with the ideas, we are now the force that selects them. If you take this line of thinking far enough, you get to some dangerous territory. Who decides which ideas are fit?
  • You can’t fool all of the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.
  • Democracy has done less harm and more good than any other form of government.
  • The goal of democracy is not to make every man equal, but to make his access to opportunity more equal. The ideal is not to raise every man to power, but to give him access to each point of entry where his fitness and skill can be tested. In other words, the hope of democracy is to offer a level playing field to start and to let your talents carry you where they may.
  • At what point does liberty become excessive? At what point does it become disorder?
  • Civilization is made possible by self-restraint. It is clear that freedom is made possible by boundaries of some sort. If we cross those boundaries, we have chaos not civilization.
  • You cannot have freedom without order.
  • War seems to be a constant among all civilizations and times. It is a result of competition among groups just as individuals compete as well.
  • War is, paradoxically, the driver of much technological change and cultural change that leads to long periods of peace afterward.
  • We repeatedly enlarge our instruments without enlarging our purpose. We have developed more complex ways to pursue basic human needs.
  • We can define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life.
  • If education is the measure of progress then we have progressed more than ever before. Education is the transmission of as much of human heritage and learning as we can fully achieve.
  • If progress is real, it is not because we are any richer or wiser than those of the past, but because we are born at a higher level and further up the pedestal of our heritage. We are born with the fruits of a larger portion of human heritage.
  • Do not feel depressed that life may only have meaning insofar as man puts into it. It is remarkable that we can put any meaning into life at all. The thing that is rare is the capability to even invent meaning for ourselves, for such a task appears impossible for all other animals.
  • Do not be an optimist or a pessimist. Instead, be a realist. Accept that life is composed of difficulties and delights. The difficulties are a natural price of existence. The delights are goodies you don’t necessarily deserve.
  • It is hard to get a sense of the quality of one’s own age. We usually know more about a previous age’s achievements than their faults. Meanwhile, we usually know more about our faults and downplay our achievements. This makes comparison between ages difficult.
  • Human nature changes, but it changes at an incredibly slow, geological pace. We can say with reasonable certainty that human nature has been virtually unchanged in the last 2,000 years and quite possibly far longer than that. Human nature is strongly linked to biology. These are the intrinsic traits that we have and they change very slowly through evolution.
  • Progress is an improvement in the means that we use for achieving the same old ends. It’s possible that our progress is only of means and not of ends. Do we merely achieve the same desires of 10,000 years ago, but through new, modern means.
  • Human nature is uncivilized. It is almost contra-civilization. It is only through culture and restraint and morality that we acquire civilized activities.
  • The technique of disseminating heritage and absorbing it has grown incredibly over time. Culture is developing a tighter strangle hold on our behavior than ever before. One way to explain this is to say that there is far more to learn and inherit than there was even 100 years ago. The wealth of human knowledge increases with each passing year and endows a slightly greater advantage to those born today than those born yesterday.
  • “Consider education not as a 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 a transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage. As fully as possible to as many as possible for the embellishment of man’s understanding, control, and enjoyment of life. The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes the Greek following that followed him. Richer than Leonardo’s for it includes him and the Italian renaissance. Richer than Voltaire for it embraces all the French enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination.” -Will Durant
  • “If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but 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.” -Will Durant
  • “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” -Henry St. John
  • Revolutions are just surface level changes. Human nature remains the same. The people merely change with the revolution and fall back into the same underlying patterns.
  • Every generation rebels against the preceding one. In many ways, it is natural and desirable.
  • When everybody owns everything, nobody takes care of anything.
  • You cannot make men equal by passing laws.
  • Economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism. No matter who is in power, the gains gradually accrue to the most clever and talented. Then, eventually, there is some fracturing of the order, a new minority rises to power, and the pattern repeats itself.
  • Most of the poor are victims of racial discrimination and environmental handicaps.
  • Every life, every society, and every species is an experiment. It all ends in death eventually.
  • Every religion should preach morality, not theology.
  • Persons under 30 should never trust the economic, political, and moral ideas of other persons under 30.
  • Let our sons and daughters be punished when they break the law, but let us believe in them when they open their hearts.
  • Ideas are the strongest things of all in history. Even a gun was originally an idea.
  • In old age, you understand how good it is that there should be radicals and how good it is that there should be conservatives. The radicals supply the gas and the conservatives apply the brakes. Both of those functions are indispensable. That tension is required for a functioning society.

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