The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

Rating: 9/10

Read More on AmazonGet My Searchable Collection of 200+ Book Notes

High-Level Thoughts

One of the most knowledge-dense books I’ve ever picked up. It’s short, but you’ll learn more than you expect about how trends of the past can influence our thinking about today.

Summary Notes

The Biological lessons of history:

  • “The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition”, we cooperate with our group or tribe in order to strengthen it relative to other groups and tribes. “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.”
  • “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.” There is no true equality, “Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.” These inequalities grow with the advancement of civilization as a natural consequence.
  • Freedom and equality are opposites, you cannot have perfect freedom without extreme inequality, and you cannot have perfect equality with any freedom.
  • “Only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way.”
  • “Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups.”
  • “The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly.”

“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.”

“Pugnacity, brutality, greed, and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for existence. 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 the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.”

Religion:

  • “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.”
  • “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the United States, and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order.”

Money:

  • ” Unquestionably the economic interpretation illuminates much history . The money of the Delian Confederacy built the Parthenon; the treasury of Cleopatra’s Egypt revitalized the exhausted Italy of Augustus, gave Virgil an annuity and Horace a farm. The Crusades, like the wars of Rome with Persia, were attempts of the West to capture trade routes to the East; the discovery of America was a result of the failure of the Crusades. The banking house of the Medici financed the Florentine Renaissance; the trade and industry of Nuremberg made Dürer possible. The French Revolution came not because Voltaire wrote brilliant satires and Rousseau sentimental romances, but because the middle classes had risen to economic leadership, needed legislative freedom for their enterprise and trade, and itched for social acceptance and political power.”
  • “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.””

“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.”

War:

  • “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.”
  • ““Polemos pater panton” said Heracleitus; war, or competition, is the father of all things, the potent source of ideas, inventions, institutions, and states. Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.”
  • “A world order will come not by a gentlemen’s agreement, but through so decisive a victory by one of the great powers that it will be able to dictate and enforce international law, as Rome did from Augustus to Aurelius. Such interludes of widespread peace are unnatural and exceptional; they will soon be ended by changes in the distribution of military power.”

“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.”

Progress:

  • “Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends— the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.”
  • “…science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build.”
  • “Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.”
  • “Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval.”
  • “It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage— for certainly the child is the happiest of the three.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.