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

Book Cover for The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant is a sweeping examination of history, human nature, and the patterns that we can see when we adopt a long-term perspective. This book summary looks at the lessons we might glean from the past.

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Key Takeaways

  • Natural forces play a key role in shaping history:
    • Geology and climate limit us, but less so as technology grows.
    • Natural selection requires competition, quantity, and diversity.
  • Morals and religion maintain social order:
    • Moral codes are universal and necessary, but change over time according the context. Values that made sense during an agricultural era evolved after the Industrial Revolution.
    • Religion was borne out of fear — the link to morality came afterwards, and strengthened the role of religion.
    • Religion and morals play a bigger role in maintaining social order when laws are weaker, and vice versa.
  • Economic forces throughout history:
    • Though leaders may have appealed to non-economic matters (e.g. religion and nationalism) to motivate the masses, the hidden, underlying motive for war was often economic.
    • Inequality is natural and inevitable, because men are born with different abilities. The only way to constrain inequality is to constrain freedom — but doing so will make a society more vulnerable to external threats.
    • Redistribution occasionally breaks up concentrations of wealth. Peaceful redistributions redistribute wealth whereas violent ones just redistribute poverty.
    • Past examples of socialism failed as government bureaucracies grew too large (and corrupt), and required increasingly high taxes to fund them.
    • The authors believe socialism and capitalism will keep moving closer and eventually converge.
  • Government and power
    • Minority rule is natural, because centralised power is more effective than diluted power.
    • Democracy is historically rare and difficult to sustain. However, it has done more good than any other form of government.
  • War is a constant. Peace is unstable and maintained only by a balance or acknowledged supremacy of power.
  • Progress and decay in human history:
    • Human nature is slow to change: This is why history repeats itself, though not exactly.
    • There has been progress, as defined by the average person’s ability to control the conditions of their life, rather than by “happiness”.
    • However, progress is neither continuous nor universal. There will be setbacks along the way.
    • Decay is natural, but it gives new civilisations an opportunity to rise. And civilisations never truly die, anyway — they live on through memories and records.

Detailed Summary of The Lessons of History

Natural forces

Geography

Geology and climate limit us. Water provides inexpensive routes for transport and trade. Excessive rainfall creates jungles; not enough creates deserts.

However, the impact of geography diminishes as technology grows. The airplane will be a gamechanger because trade routes won’t depend so much on rivers and seas. So countries with extensive coastlines like England and France will lose their advantage while the handicaps of countries like Russia, China and Brazil will be reduced.

Biology

Three biological lessons:

  • Life is Competition. When food is plentiful, there is peace; when food runs out, violence is rife. Although co-operation exists, it still serves competition. We co-operate in groups only so that our group can outcompete other groups.
  • Life is Selection. Difference and variety is necessary for selection and evolution. Inequality is therefore natural, and grows with the complexity of civilisation.
  • Life must Breed. Nature likes quantity so that there can be selection. Nature is more interested in the species than in the individual. If there are more humans than there is food, nature has three ways to restore the balance: famine, pestilence and war.

Race

The authors believe that the only cure for racial antipathies is education.

In the past, men like Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, Madison Grant and Hitler, have argued for the inherent superiority of certain races. However, a civilisation can develop under any race. Civilisation is a co-operative product, and nearly all people have contributed to it. Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations had an Oriental [Eastern] source, and were the product of geographical opportunity and economic and political development rather than race.

Morals and Religion

A society uses moral rules to exhort its members to behave in ways consistent with order, security and growth.

Knowing a little history will make you think that moral codes are unimportant because they’re different in different times and places, and sometimes contradict each other. But knowing more history, you’ll see that moral codes are pretty much universal, and therefore necessary.

Moral codes differ according to historical and environmental conditions

In the hunter-gatherer era, pugnacity, brutality, greed and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for survival. Death rates in men were presumably higher than in women, so some men had to take several women.

During the agricultural era, industriousness, regularity, thrift and peace became more important than bravery and violence. Paternal authority ruled as the family was the unit of production on the farm. Monogamy became the norm as the sexes approximately equalled each other. Couples married young, so refraining from sex before marriage was not too hard. And children were economic assets, so birth control became “immoral”.

After the Industrial Revolution, young people left home to work in factories individually. Parental authority lost its economic foundation. Both economic maturity and marriage came later, making it harder to abstain from sex before marriage. Children stopped being economic assets.

Concerns over moral decay are overrated

“Sin” has flourished in every age:

  • Homosexuality was more popular in ancient Greece, Rome and Renaissance Italy than it is now.
  • Prostitution and gambling have occurred in every age.
  • So too have dishonesty and corruption.

Today’s “moral laxity” may not be a sign of decay, but merely a transition between moral codes — the old one has lost its agricultural basis and we are developing a new one founded on an industrial civilisation. (See more on decay below.)

Religion and morality are linked — but were not always

Religion was initially borne out of fear (of hidden forces in nature, winds, rivers, etc), and did not have any connection to morals. Priests later linked these fears to support morality and law, making religion a force strong enough to rival the state.

Religion did promote morality and reduce class warfare. Christianity, for example, laboured to reduce family feuds and national strife. It also sought to replace trial by combat or ordeal with judgements of established courts, softened the penalties under Roman or barbarian law, and vastly expanded the scope of charity. Religion also gives people supernatural hope — an alternative to despair. Given the natural inequality of men [a common theme in this book], many are destined for poverty or defeat. Without that hope, class war would have been stronger.

However, religion is not the only basis for morality. The men in the Church often proved to be biased and corrupt. Philosophers took the lead in abolishing slavery, with religion playing only a modest part.

Education has led to religion’s decline

History does not support a belief in God. At its core, history is a natural selection of the fittest — not the most righteous.

The spread of education has led to the decline of religion. The moral code loses its force and aura when people realise that rules are man-made, and that God isn’t there to watch and impose sanctions on bad behaviour. In Ancient Greece, as in many other European nations, the philosophers destroyed the old faith among the educated classes.

As religion has declined, its role has been taken by patriotism, capitalism and Communism. Holydays give way to holidays.

Religion is stronger when laws are weak

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives and a tendency to resurrect — particularly when laws are weak and morals play a bigger role in maintaining social order. The rationalism that was dominant during the time of the Founding Fathers in America gave way to a religious revival in the 19th century.

In contrast, scepticism increases when the law and government are alone strong enough to preserve order. In the Buddha’s youth, atheism was widespread in India.

Economics, wealth and inequality

The impact of economic forces on history is often underrated

Many things we think have some other, more noble cause, actually have some underlying economic cause:

  • It was economic ambition, not the face of Helen of Troy, that launched a thousand ships.
  • Similarly, the Crusades and Rome’s wars with Persia were attempts to capture trade routes.
  • The French Revolution came about because the middle classes had risen, not because of Voltaire and Rousseau’s brilliant writings.

However, while the motives of the leaders were often economic (and hidden), they used non-economic incentives, including religious fervour and nationalism to motivate the masses.

Relationship between wealth and power

Economic power does not guarantee victory — the relationship is often the other way around. History shows many cases where military power allowed the poorer side to triumph and gain economic control. Examples include the Moorish conquest or Spain, the Mongol conquest of Western Asia, or Mogul conquest of India.

On an individual basis, wealth does seem to lead to power. Bankers have held a lot of power throughout history — e.g. the Medici, the Fuggers, the Rothschilds and the Morgans.

Inequality is natural and inevitable

Men are naturally unequal as people are born with different abilities. In nearly all societies, the majority of abilities is concentrated in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth therefore naturally follows this concentration of ability.

Freedom and equality are incompatible opposites. The level of economic freedom affects the rate of concentration of wealth:

… only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom …
— Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History

Despotism may slow the concentration (for a while), but democracy accelerates it. In the 19th century in England and America, laissez-faire policies gave men greater freedom and inequalities multiplied. And as the economy grows more complex, the premium on superior ability grows, which leads to greater concentration of wealth and power.

The only way to curb inequality is by curbing freedom, like in Russia after 1917. But a society that lets all abilities develop will be able to outcompete other groups. So utopias of equality are ultimately doomed. The best we can hope for is “an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity”.

But inequality is occasionally broken up by redistribution

The concentration of wealth is occasionally interrupted by redistribution, when the strength of the many poor matches the strength of the few rich.

Redistribution can be either a peaceful redistribution of wealth or a violent redistribution of poverty. Solon of Athens is an example of the former, while a hundred years of war in Rome after the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC is an example of the latter.

Violent revolutions tend to destroy wealth rather than redistribute it. Wealth is actually an order of production and exchange and trust in men and institutions, more than it is an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods or the intrinsic value of paper money or checks. Even though revolutions can redistribute land, the natural inequality of men will soon recreate an inequality of possessions and privileges anyway.

Socialism vs capitalism

Socialism vs capitalism is part of the cycle of concentration and distribution of wealth.

Ancient examples of socialism

There have been many socialist experiments throughout history, as a response to abuses and irresponsibility of business and wealth. We see it in Sumeria (around 2100 BC), Babylonia (1750 BC), Egypt under the Ptolemies (323 to 30 BC), Rome under Diocletian (300 AD), and China at multiple points.)

In these examples, popular leaders protected the working classes with measures such as:

  • setting wage floors and price ceilings for important goods and services;
  • undertaking public works to give people jobs; and
  • providing low-interest loans.

However, this tended to require a large and growing (and corrupt) bureaucracy that had to be funded by high taxes. This led to things like tax avoidance and migration to escape taxation.

The longest-lasting socialism regime seems to have been the Incan system in Peru in the 13th century. The system endured for around 300 years, until Pizarro’s conquest in 1533.

Modern socialism

It was around the time of the Industrial Revolution that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto (1847) and Das Kapital (1867-96). Marx and Engels thought that England would embrace socialism first, because industry was most developed there and had a reached a degree of centralisation that made it more attractive for the government to appropriate private property.

Instead, socialism came first to Russia, where capitalism was in its infancy. The authors think the Russian Revolution of 1917 took on a Communistic form because it was a war economy. The new state faced external attack, which always prompts people to give up their individual freedoms until order and security are restored. [The book switches between “socialism” and “communism” — I’m just matching it.]

Convergence

Every economic system must eventually rely on the profit motive to make people work and produce things. Alternatives like slavery, police supervision or ideological enthusiasm always prove to be too unproductive, expensive or transient.

The authors are not sure whether Communism in Russia will last, but they believe it will gradually erode if peace continues. They note that socialism in Russia is already becoming more individualistic, to make the system more productive.

Overall, the authors believe that capitalism and socialism will keep moving closer and largely converge:

Year by year the role of Western governments in the economy rises, the share of the private sector declines. … The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality. East is West and West is East, and soon the twain will meet.
— Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History

Government

The main task of government is to establish order. Though men love freedom, absolute freedom will lead to chaos, which then kills freedom.

Minority rule is natural

Power naturally converges to a centre because it is ineffective when it is diluted and spread out. Most governments have been oligarchies, ruled by a minority. That minority can be chosen by birth (aristocracy), religion (theocracy) or by wealth (democracy). [Interesting that the authors think of democracy as being a case of minority rule, by wealth, rather than of majority rule.]

It is unnatural for a majority to rule because they can’t organise and act with the same unity that a minority can. Moreover, if the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government will be just as inevitable as the concentration of wealth.

Monarchy

Throughout history, monarchy has been the most prevalent and long-lasting form of government. But its record is “middling”. A hereditary monarchy is likely to feature stupidity, nepotism, irresponsibility and extravagance.

In Rome’s golden age, monarchy was adoptive — the emperor’s successor was not necessarily his offspring, but the most competent man the emperor could find, who he adopted as a son. The system worked pretty well, particularly because several emperors never had sons (or had sons that died young). But then Marcus Aurelius had a son, Commodus, who succeeded him — and that led to chaos. [Marcus Aurelius was the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome.]

Aristocracy

The argument for aristocracy is that government office requires a lot of special preparation and training. By withdrawing a few men from the “exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition” and training them from birth, aristocracy can best prepare men for government.

However, some aristocracies have decayed as aristocrats pursue hedonism, a “lifelong holiday” in which men enjoyed their privileges and ignored their responsibilities. When that happened, or became too oppressive, the majority would band together and revolt.

Democracy

Democracies are relative aberrations in history. It is the most difficult form of government, as it requires the widest spread of intelligence. But the authors say that “intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple”. [Wow.] Yet ignorance doesn’t rule for long, because others can easily manipulate it in order to obtain power.

In the strict sense, democracy has only existed in modern times, largely since the French Revolution. Though Ancient Greece is famous for its democracy, only around 10-15% of its population had the right to vote. Slaves, women, most labourers, shopkeepers and tradesmen, and resident aliens could not vote. Those who could vote fell into two broad groups: the aristocracy and the demos (the lower class of citizens). The two groups were often at odds and literally killed each other on several occasions. Modern democracy is quite different and has a wider base.

Overall, the authors think democracy has done less harm and more good than any other form of government. It has given freedom to thought, science, and enterprise, and broken down walls of privilege and class. In doing so, it raises ability from every rank and place. The authors believe that equality of educational opportunity will further buttress democracy: “though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal”.

However, democracy is vulnerable. Forces such as war, the desire to rule the world, race or class divisions, and excessive inequality of wealth can open up a path to dictatorship to any man who can persuasively promise security to all.

War and revolutions

War is the ultimate form of competition and natural selection. Some conflicts are simply too fundamental to be resolved by negotiation. War is therefore a constant in history. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war. [Obviously measured from the time of writing in 1960s. Note that Chris Blattman in Why We Fight takes a different view and argues that war is rare because it’s so ruinous. In my opinion, Blattman is more convincing.]

Peace is an unstable equilibrium, maintained only be acknowledged supremacy or equal power. Peace is unnatural and exceptional, and will end when the distribution of military power changes. States will only unite when they face an external threat. The authors believe that the people of Earth will only unite as one if we enter into an interplanetary war with another species.

Revolutions

Whether or not revolutions are justified is a longstanding debate. The authors believe that in most instances, the effects achieved by revolution would have come instead through the gradual compulsion of economic developments.

For example, America would have gained dominance even without the American Revolution. And while the French Revolution replaced the landowning aristocracy with the business or merchant class, a similar result occurred in 19th century England without civil war.

Growth and decay

History repeats itself … but not exactly

The reason history repeats itself is because human nature is slow to change — evolution in man has been social rather than biological. All technological advances are merely new means of achieving old ends. So we respond to frequently occurring situations in similar ways.

However, we cannot know for sure if the future will repeat the past:

History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.
— Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History

As civilisation has grown more developed and complex, individuals have also grown to be more differentiated and unique. Our instinctive responses may therefore change. Custom recedes, reasoning spreads, and the results are less predictable.

How states form

No one takes serious the idea that states grew out of a “social contract”. Most states probably arose from the conquest of one group by another, and are sustained by the conqueror’s continuing force.

Is progress real?

Whether progress is real depends on what we mean by “progress”:

  • If we’re talking about an increase in happiness, then no — no matter how many difficulties we surmount or how many ideals we realise, we’ll always find an excuse to be miserable. However, the authors think it would be silly to define progress in this way, as this measure would make the average child far more advanced than the adult or the sage.
  • Instead, the authors suggest defining progress as the ability of the average person to control the conditions of his life. On this front, we better when taking a long-range view.

There has certainly been progress throughout history. Though we may occasionally feel tempted to idealise the simplicity of pre-civilised ways, this is just a flight of fancy. Primitive tribes had higher rates of infant mortality, greater susceptibility to disease, shorter life spans, and less stamina and speed. Over the last three centuries, life expectancy has tripled among European and American whites. Knowledge and education is higher than it’s ever been in history.

But there will be setbacks

Even though we’ve made progress, it doesn’t mean progress is continuous or universal. Science is neutral — it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us as readily as it can build. We may have improved conditions for skilled workers and the middle class, but cities still fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.

The authors also question whether we’ve truly outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological or racial hostilities.

There’ll inevitably be setbacks, and different eras will emphasise different needs. A nation may advance in one area even as it regresses in another. It would be unfair to compare the state of progress at one point to the best of everything that’s gone before.

Decay

Societies face many challenges, such as foreign threats or environment disasters. Challenges can come from many sources, and may repeat or combine to become destructive.

Whether a challenge will be met depends on whether there initiative and creative individuals exist. A challenge is successfully met if it does not exhaust the nation and makes it more able to take on future challenges. Groups or civilisations that fail to meet the challenges will decline.

We should not feel disturbed by the thought that our civilisation will die at some point. Death is natural, and it may be desirable for new civilisations and centres should have their turn to shine. Besides, civilisations never truly “die”. People are resilient and can move to other places, taking their memories and knowledge with them. Greek civilisation still lives on in records — more people read Homer today than in his own time.

To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.
— Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History

My Thoughts

The Lessons of History was certainly an interesting read. The book was published in 1968, over 50 years ago, which makes it trickier to judge. Clearly, some of the assertions it makes just wouldn’t fly today, such as how inequality is inevitable because the majority of ability is contained in a minority of men. And not only is the statement that intelligence is “perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple” terribly un-PC, it also seems to be factually wrong. The book also contains a fair bit of anti-Communist rhetoric, no doubt influenced by the Cold War.

It’s hard to gauge how insightful the lessons actually were. I’d heard a lot of the ideas before, but I have no idea what the discourse was like back in the 1960s — their ideas may have been much more novel back then. While some of the forces they point out are evident from just a cursory examination of recent history, I still found it useful to see the larger context. Economics: The User’s Guide for example doesn’t really discuss economic history before 1500, whereas Durant and Durant make clear that arguments around redistribution and the role of the state in economic affairs has been around for much longer. It’s somewhat reassuring to see that the problems we face are not always new problems — even if they aren’t solved problems, either.

Though the authors are undoubtedly very knowledgeable about history, their opinions and predictions are still fallible like the rest of ours. For example, the authors predicted that, in the US, “by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as well as in municipal or state governments”. The benefit of hindsight shows that this did not pan out, which calls into question their other judgements, too. Moreover, at about 100 pages, The Lessons of History is also too short to really explain and back up their claims. I’d therefore recommend treating the authors’ opinions as merely ideas to be explored further, rather than as “lessons” to learn from.

Lastly, I confess I did not find the book particularly easy to read. The sentences are often dense, containing many ideas to unpack, and the authors don’t help you out with clear headings or anything. There were also a fair few historical references that I didn’t grasp. But admittedly, my history knowledge is not very strong, so the book may be more accessible if you have a stronger grounding in history.

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Have you read this book? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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3 thoughts on “Book Summary: The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

  1. Thanks for this. I actually had it on my list to read after a ringing endorsement from Kevin Simler (https://meltingasphalt.com/what-im-reading/) but reading your summary I don’t think I will…

    Not sure if I’ve mentioned it to you, but one of the most interesting books I’ve read is Kevin Simler’s own book with Robin Hanson: Elephant in the brain.

  2. Yeah, The Lessons of History does seem to come highly recommended by many people but it wasn’t really my thing.

    I’ve heard of Elephant in the Brain before, but not from you. It does look interesting – I’ve just added it to my list.

  3. ‘Lessons…’ put everything you know in order. I read it several times in the last decade and will read again.

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