The Lessons of Historyby Will and Ariel DurantSimon and Schuster, 1968Purpose of BookThe Lessons of History evolved out of a second reading of The Story of Civilization,Will and Ariel Durants’ renowned ten volume historical account of history fromearliest civilization to the Age of Napoleon. From this second reading, the Durants"made note of events and comments that might illuminate present affairs, futureprobabilities, the nature of man, and the conduct of states.”The Durants needed only 102 pages to accomplish their objective.Hesitations About Their PursuitThe Durants ponder the following questions about their life-long studies:1. What is the utility of our studies?2. Has our work been a mere recounting of the rise and fall of nations and ideas?3. Have we learned more about human nature than the average, unread man?4. Has history provided any illumination of our present condition?5. Has history provided any guidance for our judgments and policies?6. Is there any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change?7. Have you found such regularities in the sequence of past events that you canpredict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states?8. Is it possible that history teaches us nothing?To these questions the authors admit that: “a multitude of doubts assail our enterprise”. “that our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probablyinaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians,and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic and religious partisanship.”“Even the historian who thinks to rise above partiality for his country,race, creed or class betrays his secret predilection in his choice ofmaterials, and in the nuances of his adjectives.” The authors do not answer these questions here.Page 1 of 23
History and the Earth History reveals that man is always trying to overcome the obstaclesimposed by geological and climatic forces: when man builds a city, atornado destroys it; when confronted with intolerable heat, mancounters with air conditioning; when faced with a desert, man attemptsto irrigate it.Figure 1: 1923 Earthquake Kills 300,000Japanese, Wounds 500,000 “The influence ofgeographic factorsdiminishes astechnology grows.” “When sea power finallygives place to air powerin transport and war, weshall have seen one ofthe basic revolutions inhistory.” Air transport provides a more direct route between source anddestination than sea transport. As always, such a transformation willproduce winners and losers. Countries with massive land area, such asRussia, China, and Brazil, should benefit greatly. Countries relying onincome-producing sea transportation, such as England, will experiencean abatement in this industry. “Man, not earth, makes civilization.”
Biology and HistoryBiological lesson #1: life is competition. Churches compete, cities and states compete, countries compete, ethnicgroups compete and, in the process, different alliances evolve.Biological lesson #2: life is selection. The authors issue a sober reminder that nature cares very little for man’sdeclaration of independence: “we are all born unfree and unequalsubject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customsand traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, inmental capacity and qualities of character.” “Inequality is not onlynatural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization.Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities: everyinvention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual,and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker ” “.freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies,and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, andtheir natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically,as in England and America in the nineteenth century underlaissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, libertymust be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even whenrepressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below theaverage in economic ability desires equality; those who areconscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superiorability has its way.” “A society in which all potential abilities areallowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in thecompetition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as thedestruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states.”Biological lesson #3: Quantity is a prerequisite to the selection of quality Nature cares not that a high birth rate has usually accompanied aculturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a culturally highcivilization. The authors issue a stern reminder that nature “is moreinterested in the species than the individual.”
The authors recount the predictions of Malthus, who wrote that thenumber of mouths should not exceed the ability to feed them but theyadd that the technological advances of agriculture and contraceptionappear to refute Malthus. Nonetheless, the authors conclude: “ideallyparentage should be a privilege of health, not a by-product of sexualagitation.” Economic and political power can be gained through an abundanceof breeding. “In the United States the lower birth rate of the AngloSaxon has lessened their economic and political power; and the higherbirth rate of Roman Catholic families suggests that by the year 2000 theRoman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as wellas in municipal or state governments.” “So the birth rate, like war, maydetermine the fate of theologies; just as the defeat of the Moslems atTours (732) kept France and Spain from replacing the Bible with theKoran, so the superior organization, discipline, morality, fidelity, andfertility of Catholics may cancel the Protestant Reformation and theFrench Enlightenment.”Race and History The rise, success, and fall of a civilization depend upon the inherentquality of the race. “The degeneration of a civilization is what the word itself indicates—afalling away from the genus, stock, or race.” “Usually this comesthrough intermarriage of the vigorous race with those whom it hasconquered. Hence, the superiority of the whites in the United States andCanada (who did not intermarry with the Indians) to the whites in LatinAmerica (who did).” Only those who are themselvesthe product of such enfeeblingmixtures talk of the equality ofraces, or think that “all men arebrothers.”
“All strong characters and people are race conscious, and areinstinctively averse to marriage outside their own racial group.” Weaknesses in race theory become obvious when scholars of each raceremind us of their civilization’s contributions. The author also cites that the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, andRome were evidently the product of geographical opportunity andeconomic and political development rather than of racial constitution. “.from Western Europe came the civilization of North and SouthAmerica. In the third and following centuries of our era various Celtic,Teutonic, or Asiatic tribes laid Italy waste and destroyed the classiccultures. The South creates the civilizations, the North conquers them,ruins them, borrows from them, spreads them: this is one summary ofhistory.” “Attempts to relate civilization to race by measuring the relation ofbrain to face or weight have shed little light on the problem.” “If the Negroes of Africa have produced no great civilization it isprobably because climatic and geographical conditions frustrated them;would any of the white “races” have done better in those environments?It is remarkable how many American Negroes have risen to high placesin the profession, arts, and letters in the last one hundred years despite athousand social circles.” “It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization thatmakes the people: circumstances geographical, economic, and politicalcreate a culture, and the culture creates a human type.” “An Americandoes not make his race, his race makes him.” “Racial antipathies have some roots in ethic origin, but they are alsogenerated, perhaps predominately, by differences of acquired culture--oflanguage, dress, habits, morals, or religion.”
Character and History Our most basic tendencies are instincts. Human beings are normally equipped by “nature” (heredity)with six positive and six negative instincts, each functions topreserve the individual, the group, or the species. Each instinctgenerates habits and is accompanied by teryAcquisition Avoidance EatingHoardingPropertyAssociation PrivacyCommunicationSeek approvalGenerosityMatingRefusalSexual activityCourtshipParent care Dependence ngAbsorptionImitationResolutionDisorderAesthetic tyPossessivenessSolitudeSociabilityFear disapproval VanitySelfishnessKindlinessSexual aversion Sexual fantasyBlushingSexual loveFilial rebellionParental tySexual neurosisModestyFilial resentment Known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. “As submissive natures unite with masterful individuals to make the order andoperation of a society, so the imitative majority follows the innovatingminority.” “History in the large is the conflict of minorities; the majorityapplauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.” Man’s intellect has been a vital force in history, but it has also been destructive.Most new ideas will probably be inferior to the traditional responses that theypropose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, canpossess such a fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss thecustoms or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generationsenduring centuries of experiment.
New ideas should be heard, but they must withstand objection and oppositionbefore being allowed to enter the human race.Morals and History Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members to behaviorconsistent with its order, security, and growth. Moral codes differ because they adjust themselves to historical andenvironmental conditions. As we moved from a hunting-based society to anagricultural-based society, bravery gave way to industriousness. “Childrenwere economic assets; birth control was made immoral.” “Monogamy wasdemanded by the approximate numerical equality of the sexes.” Then came theIndustrial Revolution and people moved to the cities, which provided a largerand more diversified social environment, which ultimately threatenedmonogamy. Education spawn doubtsabout religion. “ . sin has flourished in every age.Even our generation has not yet rivaledthe popularity of homosexualism inancient Greece or Rome or RenaissanceItaly.” “Montaigne tells us that in histime (1533-92) obscene literature founda steady market.” “We have noted thediscovery of dice in the excavationsnear the site of Nineveh .” History reveals that moral decay occurs rather leisurely (i.e. it takes a while).“Roman morals began to decay soon after the conquered Greeks passed intoItaly (146 B.C.), but Rome continued to have great statesmen, philosophers,poets, and artists until the death of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 180).” “ . Individualism will diminish in America and England as geographicalprotection ceases.” “Sexual license may cure itself through its own excess . “
History and War In the last 3,421 years ofrecorded history only 268have seen no war. Causes of war:acquisitiveness, pugnacity,pride, food, land, anddominance. In apologetic consolationwar now promotes scienceand technology, whosedeadly inventions, if theyare not forgotten inuniversal destitution and barbarism, may later enlarge the materialachievements of peace. A long peace may fatally weaken the martial muscles of a nation. The author issues the typical communist alert. Then he argues that the bestpolicy may be to break from historical precedent and live and let live. But thegeneral warns against parting from history: man is a competitive animal and hisstates must be like himself, and that natural selection now operates on aninternational level. States will unite in basic co-operation only when they are incommon attacked from without. That time has not yet arrived.
Religion and History Napoleon once remarked that religion had kept the poorfrom murdering the rich. The authors write, “.fear first made the gods.” Does history support a belief in God? “. history remains a natural selection of the fittest ina struggle wherein goodness receives no favors,misfortunes abound, and the final test is to survive.” “Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions ofgood and bad; they define good as that which survives,and bad as that which goes under.” Other causes diminishes the power of religion: the growing awareness of man’s minuscule place in the cosmos the Protest Reformation, which originally defended private judgment the emergence of a multitude of Protestant sects and conflicting theologies criticism of the Bible the Protestant exposure of Catholic miracles the deistic exposure of Bible miracles general exposure of frauds, inquisitions, massacres the bold advance of skeptical scholar the attack of the French Enlightenment upon Christianity the triumps of scientific technology, promising man omnipotence “ . Christianity lent a hand against itself by developing in many Christians amoral sense that could no longer stomach the vengeful God of the traditionaltheology.” “Catholicism survives because it appeals to imag