The history of any domain is a pendulum swinging from one pole to the other. Civilization gravitates to one extreme until it overreaches and swings back to the other.
This process is a perpetual cycle. Everything dies and is reborn in a new but familiar form. Society holds the tension between conservatism and progress; government swings from socialism to liberalism; religion dies and is reborn again. No domain has ever avoided some form of this fate.
The Lessons of History explores this idea and more across biology, religion, government, socialism, economics, and more. It can be considered the key takeaways of the Durants’ eleven-volume The Story of Civilization.
It is a rare piece of writing that is the perfect length and depth. Any shorter would lose crucial details and any longer would belabor the point.
Knowledge of the past is a game of telephone, relying on fallible historians to relay the stories — subject to re-interpretation at each step due to their personal views and biases.
“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”
Object of this book: what does history have to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man?
“When the universe has crushed him, man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.”
For recorded history, access to water has defined where cities are located. Access to sea trade routes has determined whether these cities fare well thanks to trade routes. Airplanes threaten this and will allow cities and countries far from sea trade to engage in the world economy. Durant predicts that China, Russia, and Brazil will benefit greatly thanks to air transit. Accurate prediction
“The influence of geographic factors [on civilization] diminishes as technology grows… Man, not the earth, makes civilization.”
The laws of biology apply neatly to philosophy. The first biological lesson is that life is competition and the second lesson is that life is selection. Competition (between species, between civilizations) and threats to survival (of species, of civilizations) select the fittest to continue.
Freedom and equality are at odds with one another. If men are free, then natural inequalities multiply — see the free markets for this. If men are equal, it is only be limiting their freedom.
“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 strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group.”
The ideal is not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity — specifically, legal justice and educational opportunity.
If human population grows unchecked, Nature steps in with famine, disease, and war, to put the growth in check. See Malthus.
As population grows, people find more ways to make food. As there is more food, population grows. And repeat cycle.
“Biologically, physical vitality may be of greater value than intellectual pedigree… philosophers are not the fittest material from which to breed the race.”
Groups with higher birth rates increase their population which increases their power. Groups with more power (literacy, money, status) have lower birth rates. They shrink and power diminishes. And repeat cycle.
Birth rates and war determine the fate of theologies.
Weaknesses in white supremacist race theory are many and obvious. The Chinese created the most enduring civilization in history. The Babylonian, Indian, Khmer, and many North American civilizations had notable advancements. The Mohammedans had their enlightenment while Europe destroyed itself in the Dark Ages for 500 years. Civilization and progress is tied not to race, but to geography and cooperation.
Has human nature changed in the course of recorded history? Though social norms have evolved, there is little to no evidence to suggest that heritable qualities (biology) have changed.
“Nevertheless, known history shows little altera- tion 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; mo- tives 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. Nothing is clearer in history than the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they were accustomed to condemn in the forces they deposed.”
Overthrow a despised regime, and then become it. And repeat…
The past begets the present and the present begets the future. If the radical argues that the future is to be good, they must acknowledge that the present and past must hold a kernel of that good, and thus can not be all bad.
The tension between the radical and the conservative is necessary and good. Of 100 radical ideas, 99 will be terrible—but the 1 that is good will push humanity forward. And the conservative will ensure that the traditions (stability) that created the world will not be lost.
“Roots are more vital than mere 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.”
Morals reflect their environment and era. Every modern vice was once a virtue: consider the hunter-gatherer man, whose brutality, greed, and sexual assertiveness were survival advantages.
“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 relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.”
Tribes used to be the moral unit. And then with agriculture, the moral unit became the family, because a family was the economist unit. Family first.
The Industrial Age changed the moral unit yet again from family to individual, because the economic unit became the individual.
The moral relaxation of our time must not be immediately attributed to our decline: it may merely be the slow transition from agriculture-family to industrial-individualism.
Religion has value whether it is literally true or not. It brings supernatural comfort to those who need it. It helps discipline and anchor the young.
Without religion, class war and tensions grow.
“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… Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.”
Both religion and scientific progress are a source of hope. When religion results in violence, science and progress provide stability. But if technology and progress results in another Great War with mass destruction, religion may remain the sole source of hope.
Religion has many lives and has died and been reborn time and time again.
“Puritanism and paganism-the repression and the expression of the senses and desires-alternate in mutual reaction in history. Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief”
We are already seeing this last point about ‘excesses bringing another reaction’ to a small degree in the United States, as the reaction intensifies to the infiltration of far left ideology into public schools.
“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.”
JOSEPH DE MAISTRE
History says that economics is the concentration of wealth followed by the partial distribution (either peacefully or violently). Redivision solves the problem temporarily. But soon concentration will take place again, and then another redivision. And repeat.
Socialism and capitalism is the choice between private plunder and public graft. Civilization will swing between from one to the next, as the ills of one force society to the other. They slowly approach each other in order to maintain their stability. To avoid revolution, socialist systems work to increase individual freedoms and capitalist systems works to increase equality.
When democracy and freedom results in chaos, monarchy and stability emerges. When monarchy becomes corrupt and divorced from reality, revolution begins and democracy emerges.
“If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another.”
Plato reduced political evolution to monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, then dictatorship.
Ancient democracy doesn’t necessarily deserve the name — many (most) could not vote, and slavery was permitted. Modern American democracy is far truer to the idea.
“But 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 suc- cumb 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.”
War is a constant. Peace is unstable equilibrium—it can be maintained only through equal power or accepted supremacy/hierarchy.
Human nature has violent instincts—pride, power, mastery—but is restrained by the state. The state has the same instincts, but no restraints. This leads to war.
States will war with each other until a common enemy emerges. This may be yet another state, which forces the initially warring states into a coalition. World peace would require an alien threat—the ultimate common enemy for all humankind to unite over.
Nietzsche obsessed over eternal recurrence. It is true, but not as he imagined. History repeats itself, but only the outlines.
“Life has no inherent claim to eternity.”
Everything is a cycle. It will end, be reborn, and end again.
“We should not be greatly disturbed by the probability that our civilization will die like any other. As Frederick asked his retreating troops at Kolin, “Would you live forever?” Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn. Meanwhile the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.”