The Lessons of History

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10 thoughts on “The Lessons of History

  1. Roy Lotz Roy Lotz says:

    I am having trouble articulating the complex mix of opinions and emotions that I ve formed around Durant Several times I have come away from his books disappointed and yet I continue to read them One reason he fascinates me is that he is a species of American which is now almost entirely extinct a product of the Great Books paradigm in American higher education As far as I can tell, this paradigm in education was first popularized in 1909, when Charles W Eliot released his Harvard Classics the so called Five Foot Shelf which consisted of 51 volumes of classic works from western history The spirit of this idea was later epitomized in the Book of the Month club, about which Bertrand Russell, writing in 1930, penned his famous line There are two motives for reading a book one, that you enjoy it the other, that you can boast about it It was certainly a different time The philosopher George Santayana and the historian Arnold Toynbee were bestselling authors, both featured on the cover of Time magazine Will Durant, whose prose style strikes the modern ear as purple and grandiloquent, created a publishing sensation with his Story of Civilization, a series which totals four million words and ten thousand pages And the monstrously big, 54 volume Great Books of the Western World sold thousands of copies thousands even though it included works of Alexandrian astronomy, Greek mathematics, and German metaphysics, among other difficult material One suspects that the bragging motive was the operative one in the majority of these purchases The spirit of the Great Books paradigm is that of idolatry towards European intellectual history The tone of its advocates often sound ludicrously reverential, such as this excerpt from a speech delivered on the occasion of the release of the Great Books series This is than a set of books, and than a liberal education Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety Here are the sources of our being Here is our heritage This is the West This is its meaning for mankind As two World Wars wracked the European continent, and as the fear of communism and nuclear war covered the Western world with gloom, perhaps it is unsurprising to see American intellectuals and laypeople positioning themselves as the heirs of European civilization This idea held sway for a long time in American Universities, and perhaps is not altogether dead The swan songs of this pedagogical philosophy can be heard in Allan Bloom s The Closing of the American Mind 1987 and in Harold Bloom s The Western Canon 1994 , wherein both authors lament and eulogize the disappearance of the Great Books from American universities Educated at Columbia during the heyday of this phenomenon, Durant was formed by the Great Books ethos, and perhaps was one of its most eloquent proponents And it strikes me now that, in Durant s writings, one finds both the virtues and the vices of the Great Books idea illustrated with extreme precision Durant was broadminded and well rounded he could write ably about a multitude of subjects He was tolerant, kindly, witty, and had a firm belief in human progress and achievement His prose style was superb a model of clarity and grace which he used in his quest to disseminate as widely as possible the fruits of Civilization his all inclusive term for everything good in society Neither a genius nor a scholar, Durant was an enthusiast he was able to write so wonderfully about historical figures because he genuinely loved and revered them in fact, he almost literally worshiped them, as he himself admitted But he also had many weaknesses First, the Great Books mindset caused Durant to concentrate his attention overmuch on the high points in cultural achievement One gets an extremely skewed picture of European history if one focuses solely on the greatest thinkers and artists Of course, it is pleasant to contemplate these individuals, which is partly why Durant s books are so fun to read but such exclusive concentration also produces a kind of Pollyannish attitude, where history is seen through rose tinted glasses, and persecutions, wars, and bigotry are not given their due and the banality of daily life is wholly sidestepped A related consequence of the Great Books attitude is a somewhat reactionary mindset Since Durant so often equates the old with the good, tradition with right, age with quality, he can be remarkably, and sometimes stupidly, conservative For example, whenever Durant writes of sexual s, he comes across as a moralizing Sunday school teacher For Durant, promiscuity is immoral, and homosexuality a sin Long term, faithful heterosexual marriages are the mark of civilization Because Durant never justifies this opinion a habit of his I can only conclude that this was mere prejudice on his part Another obvious result of the Great Books philosophy is elitism Durant frequently mentions in this book that talent is unequally distributed and because of this natural inequality of man, the stupid majority are destined forever to toil under the dominance of the intelligent minority Now, of course I would not disagree that people are differently endowed from birth with various aptitudes But I am very far from believing that the inequality which we see throughout history and which persists today is simply the result of the skill of the wealthy and powerful Rather, I agree with Gibbon, that The generality of princes, if they were stripped of their purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society without a hope of emerging from their obscurity The Great Books program also has the shortcoming of emphasizing breadth over depth Durant certainly embodies this Although he can write about many subjects, he is an expert on none of them and this lack of serious expertise prevented him from advancing the state of knowledge in any field Durant s ideology also privileges the transmission of old ideas rather than the creation of new ones After all, if one worships the past, there is little motivation to re imagine the future Moreover, the Great Books doctrine stressed reputation at the expense of rigor Ideas are praised for their lasting influence, their grandness of scope, their contribution to a long standing debate but not for their accuracy In Durant, this produced a man who often cared about whether an idea was beautiful or interesting rather than whether it was true Fueling this tendency is another shibboleth of the Great Books school that simply by reading the greatest books of the ages, one could purge oneself of all provincial prejudices and look upon history as from a timeless perspective Durant seems to think this way, as the very title of this book shows The Lessons of History These conclusions are not his own theses, not his own ideas but lessons, which Durant can gather from the fabric of history as easily as a child can infer the lesson from a fairytale It goes without saying that this is nonsense Durant looked at history and found his own prejudices and this book is merely a collection of them I am sure you are wearied by this litany of accusations and complaints, so I will only mention in passing the other distinctive sins of this Great Books mindset namely, its glorification of Europe, and only Western Europe, at the expense of the rest of the world, as well as its underrepresentation of women and minorities This is wonderfully illustrated in Durant s plan of the Story of Civilization, wherein he dedicates one volume to all of Asia, and the rest of the eleven volumes to Europe and none to South America or to Africa At this point you may be wondering, If Durant has so many faults, which you are apparently so acutely aware of, why are you reading so much of him Well, this has to do with my own history At the end of my time in college, vaguely feeling that the education I received was not worth half of what I paid for it, I picked up Allan Bloom s Closing of the American Mind This book had a profound effect on me Bloom seemed to articulate my dissatisfaction with my education, as well point me in the direction where it could be rectified As soon as I finished, I looked up the list of the Great Books of the Western World, and dove in Now, despite all of the faults I listed above, I must still admit that one receives a stupendous education by reading the books recommended in the program I read rabidly, desperately, doing my best to make up for lost time and whatever may be my intellectual shortcomings now and they are many I am at least far better off than I was before I began But of course I still have not read all of these hoary books there are a lot and this is partly why I m interested in Will Durant for in him, I can see the end result of my own educational project Unfortunately, while Durant was truly an excellent writer, for the reasons I discussed above, he was a poor thinker This slim volume, the fruits of a massive research project, is a collection of vague homilies, baseless theorizing, and unsupported claims It is incredible and a bit depressing that so much learning could produce so little insight I still think I have much to learn from Durant and the other proponents of the Great Books school as well as from the books themselves, of course But now, hopefully, after sorting through Durant s writings, I will be better able to separate the good from the bad, the worthless from the valuable for I do think, after all, that there is something essentially precious in the idea.


  2. Jameson Jameson says:

    I inherited much of my father s library many years ago, including the entire eleven volume Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant Included in the set was the single slim volume they wrote afterward by way of an introduction, The Lessons of History Over the years I have frequently dipped into individual volumes of the main text for research, but I never read any entire volume until my wife came bouncing into my office one evening and thrust The Lessons of History under my nose and said, Read this chapter I read it, and immediately wondered why the hell I hadn t read the whole thing long ago I have now rectified that Not the whole eleven volume set, but I have read that one volume introduction and I was blown away by it.The Lessons of History is intended to be both an introduction and a survey of human history as a product of the human experience, of man s essential evolutionary nature The Durant s do not judge they do not say this system is better than that, or peace is better than war They do not even bang the drum of George Santayana s often misquoted maxim Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it What they do stress is that man will, in fact, continuously repeat the past because he cannot help himself Man has evolved to be a particular organism with particular needs and desires and drives and responses and those are the things that influence his behavior, over and over again throughout the millennia It will be many a long day before the lion evolves into a critter capable of lying down with the lamb, and it will be just as long before man evolves into a critter not driven by, acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride So what The Story of Civilization chronicles, and The Lessons of History summarizes, is the sequence of patterns of behavior that have been repeated continuously since the first known civilization s , with civilization being defined as a social order that promotes cultural creation But it is the laws of evolution that limit civilization, so that man s natural instincts of competition for food, mates, power , selection some men will always have better competitive skills than others, and so there will always be inequality , and reproduction influenced, obviously, by competition and selection will always be the limiting factors that cause a civilization to rise and fall And the rise and fall of civilizations all civilizations that have been or are yet to come is a given None will last forever, and the speed with which they appear and vanish can depend on a variety of factors geological, climatological, biological, or even political Do you doubt that last one Consider Communism Primitive communism, meaning a society based on communal sharing, actually worked in hunter gatherer societies that were constantly on the move pursuing game, but those are precisely the societies that have neither the leisure nor the wherewithal to pursue the cultural creation that defines a civilization The moment a society depends on continuous labor to feed itself with provision for the future as in agriculture, for example, as opposed to hunting and gathering selection comes into play, along with its concomitant concept of private property this patch of earth is fertile and productive than that patch with some men being successful than others, and communism ceases to be an effective tool for societal survival After all, if everything is going to be shared equally, I might as well just kick back here a take nap and let you do the heavy lifting.Competition between individuals means I run faster, fight harder, or outwit you In a society, that translates into war, and since man is what he is, wars will continue as long as man exists To quote the Durants writing in 1968 In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war The only silver lining in that dark cloud is that war does stimulate the tool using animal s creative impulses, and occasionally those instruments designed for destruction are converted to creative and beneficial uses Reproduction among individuals means, well, I hardly think we need go there, but in a society, it means pretty much that he who has the most children wins, which goes a long way to explaining why there are currently 7,132,780,410 people on earth, and that number will be over 7,132,800,000 before I finish this review.But it was the repetitive evolution of different political structures that really caught my eye The Durants used China under Wang An shih 1068 85 AD as an example of the failure of socialism Wang An shih decided the state should own and control everything, commerce, industry, agriculture, and succor the working classes by preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich For a while, everything was hunky dory, with great feats of engineering, pensions for the elderly and unemployed, an overhaul of the educational system, governmental boards in every district to administer every damn thing in the world Sounds a little like America today, doesn t it But it fell apart the Durants cite as reasons high taxes, an enormous army, and bureaucratic corruption, also much like America today , as socialism always has throughout all of history because, to quote the late Margaret Thatcher, Sooner or later you run out of other people s money That s me quoting her, obviously, not the Durants Instead, they wrote The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity As I was reading all this, I happened to watch the movie, Meet John Doe, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and its theme of Christ s message in today s world, and I started thinking about America today In the movie, the success of the John Doe Clubs that spring up across the nation is due to people and communities coming together to create work for their less fortunate neighbors Not once in the movie is there any mention of a handout or any form of money given away as opposed to earned The Lessons of History stresses that selection and the inevitable superiority of some people means that there will always be inequality, but not necessarily inequity There are two forms of equality that no society can ignore without fatal consequences equality under the law and equal opportunity for education, because education provides the opportunity for every man to rise according to his ability However, even if the law and educational opportunity are available for all, if the gap between rich and poor widens too much, and if there is no bridge of middleclass with which the poor can hope to overcome that gap, violent redistribution of wealth will inevitably occur It s one of the lessons of history.


  3. Danger Kallisti Danger Kallisti says:

    The first thing to understand about this book is that it was written by old people By this, I don t even mean that they were chronologically enhanced that they were trapped by that inflexible mindset which places tradition and an intense desire for belonging above a natural exploration of reality.The Durants were either intelligent people trying to reconcile their minds to the demands of the culture in which they were raised, or abject liars attempting to politick their way onto the bookshelves of the prosaic postwar American public The doublespeak and contradictory statements make the book read like a Kerry speech.One can t simultaneously say that greed and hoarding are positive human behaviors and praise the charitable throughout history for their generosity, or say that fear and respect for one s elders goes hand in hand with true creativity and individuality.This isn t thinking, it s highly skilled, well educated apery No wonder my father enjoys it so much, since he too is no and probably considerably less than the average street kid or drug dealer This is philosophy in its cheapest and most generic form.In the same way that they say statistics will be used to support any point, it would seem that 3500 years of chaotic human behavior may be used in the same manner Like anything created by mainstream Western, Judeo Christian culture, this book seeks only to preserve the foundations upon which it was built.I also saw a great deal of reactionary sentiment against the upstart 1960s youth culture A great deal of time is spent lamenting the decay of morality and religion even when they, themselves agree that these things are false societal constructs designed to keep power in the hands of those in control, and not natural or even particularly healthy attributes of mankind Is democracy responsible for the current debasement of art The debasement, of course, is not unquestioned it is a matter of subjective judgment and those of us who shudder at its excesses its meaningless blotches of color Pollack , its collages of debris pop art , its Babels of cacophony rock music are doubtless imprisoned in our past and dull to the courage of experiment The producers of such nonsense are appealing not to the general public which scorns them as lunatics, degenerates, or charlatans but to gullible middle class purchasers who are hypnotized by auctioneers and are thrilled by the new, however deformed As is shown repeatedly throughout the book, the Durants believe that the only art worthy of the title is the realism of Renaissance painters, the stark geometry of Greek architecture, or the predictable mathematics of classical music While I won t disagree that there were certainly some artists of these eras, for the most part those who are considered by the traditionally educated to be great artists are truly no than great technicians, capable of great dexterity and numerical understanding In my mind, true art is deconstruction of all that the educated human mind holds true and certain It is that which brings one back to the deeper, eternal, animal nature, which creates an anarchy of the soul and frees the viewer from the constraints attached by society It is that which is capable of undoing the indoctrination of life in the modern world and creating a direct channel between the Chaos Mind and the human spirit.


  4. Lori Tian Sailiata Lori Tian Sailiata says:

    The audio version is delightful It enhances the original text with interviews that are relevant to each section The intimacy between Will and Ariel is a treat Their playful arm wrestling over ideas and concepts makes for a better interview Sure, their world view is olderalthough he was a radical of his time But even for the faults, it s a delight to linger in his mind And an honor to be in the presence of Ariel s spirit.


  5. Ashok Krishna Ashok Krishna says:

    History repeats itself , Those who don t learn from history are forced to repeat it these are two of the quips about which I had been curious for so long Is it possible that we humans are living a cycle all through our lives Are we repeating the same things, events and experiences that our ancestors once went through Are we humans, so called most intelligent species of this planet, so inept at learning from our past that we go through the same pains and pleasures, events and experiences that keep staring at our face from the annals I was seeking answers to these questions and when recommended this book to me, I gladly accepted Will and Ariel Durant, the author couple, are renowned for their contribution to the field of History and The Story of Civilization , a series of eleven volumes in Western history, is their magnum opus And, when they offer to summarize all their learning in a little book, you can t help grabbing the same with both hands I am glad I did.In this book, Will and Ariel, categorize lessons of the past under various faculties The evolution of mankind, the overcoming of geological obstacles, the biological evolution and multiplication into innumerable life forms, racial and ethnic diversities, the development of our ethics and morals, the loosening grip of religion on our conscience, growth of economics, socialism, wars and the various forms of governments They end the book by discussing whether we have progressed by learning our lessons wisely from our past or are we running around in circles The whole book makes not just an interesting read but worthy of some deep contemplation too.The book is written in a plain, pragmatic and unostentatious manner They don t claim to know it all, but acknowledge that history is just a collection of varying perspectives, depending on our cultural, religious, social background and understanding Also, they present a neutral stance on our past, without nurturing a tender nostalgia for our past while having bleak fears about the future, or going gaga about the modern times while dismissing the past as full of darkness and barbaric beings The past is full of lessons for those who want to learn, and the lessons are neither hard, nor bitter We get what we seek from our past If you re looking for hope, it is full of it If you are pessimistic about human history, then past offers an abundance of excuses for that too It is all up to us to wisely choose lessons that suit us, learn from them, use the wisdom to sail through our present, while building a rich heritage for the future generations for whom we will soon be pages of history A lovely introduction into the various facets of human history and a book that no history buff should miss


  6. Heather Campbell Heather Campbell says:

    I m giving this book a high rating no because I agree with it But it is important to see where historiography was at in the 60 s Durants main point is that the strong,tenacious, breeding society will win the day and that the world will only unite as one when aliens attack us This is the antithesis of what Jesus taught Also Gandhi They also say the monarchy is the most stable successful form of government and that the church is important only because it serve as a personal behavior moderator and a societal babysitter They put no importance in spirituality, forgiveness or hope What a bleak picture they paint for the world The frightening thing is that this is what history teaches I do like the chapter they write explaining social Darwinism They make the case for it pretty well and the person who read the book before me ate it up Highlighted lines everywhere Scary But the Durants end the chapter with a short plea to treat each individual based on their merits But since they seem so Darwinian in their view of humanity I don t see why they would try to distance themselves fromthe social application of his work They do it weakly Historiographers need to read this It s part of our heritage as historians I m grateful I was not taught to think this way in graduate school although I got some of it growing up at home and in certain religious interpretations obsessed with knowing who could wield God s power and who could not based on inheritance My educators church and school encouraged me to hold tightly to ideals of humane living, tolerance, and hope for a better future If I had the Durants as teachers, I d slit my wrists.


  7. Wayne Wayne says:

    A Curiosity.I liked it, not because I agreed with it, but becauseit is such a rarity and an oddity.How often are historians brave enough or rash enough to take on the job challenge of offering a survey of human experience as Will and Ariel Durant say in their preface.Even if you disagree with or query their views, it makes you wonder what you yourself believe and think and whether you can justify it with facts and figures.You may not agree with much of this book, or then you may.But you will be stimulated by and alerted to everything it says because of the aims the authors have set themselves.My copy is scrawled with notes and underlinings, exclamation marks and mini essays I am as curious to reread it for these as I am for the printed text How much have I changed


  8. Roger Roger says:

    What a thoroughly disagreeable book Filled with conclusory opinionated claptrap unsupported by historical evidence Racist and homophobic.For example, only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality or All strong characters and peoples are race conscious, and are instinctively averse to marriage outside their own racial group or sin had flourished in every ageEven our generation has not yet rivaled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or intelligence is perpetually retarted by the fertility of the simple It goes one and and on and on, notwithstanding the fact that text is only 102 pages Totally puts the lie to the authors statement in the Preface in which they state that our aim is not originality but inclusiveness we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation While it is true they are not original there are lots of fuzzy thinking bigots in the world they are certainly not inclusive and the personal revelation they do, in fact, reveal is ugly and repulsive.


  9. Adam Meade Adam Meade says:

    Brilliant The Durant s offer a bird s eye view of human civilization and distill for us the principles and common threads that bind different peoples separated chronologically by thousands of years yet whom differ little to none in the passions and desires that motivate them I can t recall reading any other book that had such a low length to substance ratio It weighs in at only around 120 pages, but nearly every sentence seems pregnant with deep insights and wisdom that is as relevant today as it was millennia ago I believe that anyone with a high school education and an open mind will reap tremendous wisdom from their words, though the preliminary knowledge of history and the sciences one possesses, the they will benefit from it.


  10. Daniel Clausen Daniel Clausen says:

    This book is over 50 years old In some ways, the book now lives in the shadows of recent classics, such as Jared Diamond s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Yuval Noah Harari s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century In these contemporary books, we are also called to look at the lessons of history In these books, too, we are called on to be skeptical and hesitant in making sense out of the often nonsense of history History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances p 97 But each of these books owes something to this book Will and Ariel Durant s The Lessons of History In one hundred pages, the authors cover such topics as religion, race, war, economics, decay, and progress Though the chapters are often no longer than a few pages, the breadth of the analysis is the entirety of human history Often, the tone of the chapters is unabashedly speculative and whimsical The prose often reaches for something close to poetry And through this poetry, we can come to see our own circumstances as the recurrence of an old problem in a new garb Perhaps the most contentious issue of the book and perhaps the one that makes it the most dated is how it deals with human nature In this book, the recurrence of certain types of events is ascribed to human nature and the human condition History, the authors write, is a fragment of biology p 18 Scholars with a constructivist approach would probably take issue with analyses based on sweeping generalizations about human nature, that our primitive mental hardwiring can be seen as an essential cause for the reoccurrences of history And yet, we can find sympathetic books in Richard Dawkins s The Selfish Gene and Steven Pinker s The Blank Slate And even modern historians like Yuval Noah Harari ground their understanding of history in the actions of humans as only slightly evolved primates Perhaps it s the greatest value is its last chapter, which casts a skeptical gaze on progress and technology That skepticism is even valuable in these times when the internet and social media have unleashed a torrent of unintentional negative externalities in the form of fake news and tribalism Skeptically, the authors conclude that while decay is a recurrent theme in history, the progress of civilizations can survive through education Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reignsbut as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible p 101 So, then, why go back to a book written over 50 years ago One good reason is that the book has withstood the test of time Though the volume is short about 100 pages , compact, self consciously hesitant about its findings, it has withstood the test of time and continues to find its way onto reading lists as varied as scholastic and practical The book has moments where it is very specifically a product of its time It worries, for example, about the contest between capitalism and socialism Yet, its very datedness gives it value as a lesson in trying to deal with contemporary problems through a historical gaze It offers us a chance to back test two historians attempts to make sense of their modern times through history Their insights, while highly qualified, seems relevant to our current moment Finally, in its style, the book offers a modern example of how scholars might try to attempt to come up with their own lessons Most chapters are only a few pages, the whole book is about one hundred pages, and the book manages to make its points with minimal amounts of references Sometimes for taking on big questions of our time, we don t need overly complicated tools We can leave our extensive reading and numerous references in the background as we apply our knowledge in a concise and humble way Perhaps that is a historical lesson from this book too If we apply our deep knowledge in a concise and humble way, perhaps our own words can survive for fifty years.


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10 thoughts on “The Lessons of History

  1. Roy Lotz Roy Lotz says:

    I am having trouble articulating the complex mix of opinions and emotions that I ve formed around Durant Several times I have come away from his books disappointed and yet I continue to read them One reason he fascinates me is that he is a species of American which is now almost entirely extinct a product of the Great Books paradigm in American higher education As far as I can tell, this paradigm in education was first popularized in 1909, when Charles W Eliot released his Harvard Classics the so called Five Foot Shelf which consisted of 51 volumes of classic works from western history The spirit of this idea was later epitomized in the Book of the Month club, about which Bertrand Russell, writing in 1930, penned his famous line There are two motives for reading a book one, that you enjoy it the other, that you can boast about it It was certainly a different time The philosopher George Santayana and the historian Arnold Toynbee were bestselling authors, both featured on the cover of Time magazine Will Durant, whose prose style strikes the modern ear as purple and grandiloquent, created a publishing sensation with his Story of Civilization, a series which totals four million words and ten thousand pages And the monstrously big, 54 volume Great Books of the Western World sold thousands of copies thousands even though it included works of Alexandrian astronomy, Greek mathematics, and German metaphysics, among other difficult material One suspects that the bragging motive was the operative one in the majority of these purchases The spirit of the Great Books paradigm is that of idolatry towards European intellectual history The tone of its advocates often sound ludicrously reverential, such as this excerpt from a speech delivered on the occasion of the release of the Great Books series This is than a set of books, and than a liberal education Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety Here are the sources of our being Here is our heritage This is the West This is its meaning for mankind As two World Wars wracked the European continent, and as the fear of communism and nuclear war covered the Western world with gloom, perhaps it is unsurprising to see American intellectuals and laypeople positioning themselves as the heirs of European civilization This idea held sway for a long time in American Universities, and perhaps is not altogether dead The swan songs of this pedagogical philosophy can be heard in Allan Bloom s The Closing of the American Mind 1987 and in Harold Bloom s The Western Canon 1994 , wherein both authors lament and eulogize the disappearance of the Great Books from American universities Educated at Columbia during the heyday of this phenomenon, Durant was formed by the Great Books ethos, and perhaps was one of its most eloquent proponents And it strikes me now that, in Durant s writings, one finds both the virtues and the vices of the Great Books idea illustrated with extreme precision Durant was broadminded and well rounded he could write ably about a multitude of subjects He was tolerant, kindly, witty, and had a firm belief in human progress and achievement His prose style was superb a model of clarity and grace which he used in his quest to disseminate as widely as possible the fruits of Civilization his all inclusive term for everything good in society Neither a genius nor a scholar, Durant was an enthusiast he was able to write so wonderfully about historical figures because he genuinely loved and revered them in fact, he almost literally worshiped them, as he himself admitted But he also had many weaknesses First, the Great Books mindset caused Durant to concentrate his attention overmuch on the high points in cultural achievement One gets an extremely skewed picture of European history if one focuses solely on the greatest thinkers and artists Of course, it is pleasant to contemplate these individuals, which is partly why Durant s books are so fun to read but such exclusive concentration also produces a kind of Pollyannish attitude, where history is seen through rose tinted glasses, and persecutions, wars, and bigotry are not given their due and the banality of daily life is wholly sidestepped A related consequence of the Great Books attitude is a somewhat reactionary mindset Since Durant so often equates the old with the good, tradition with right, age with quality, he can be remarkably, and sometimes stupidly, conservative For example, whenever Durant writes of sexual s, he comes across as a moralizing Sunday school teacher For Durant, promiscuity is immoral, and homosexuality a sin Long term, faithful heterosexual marriages are the mark of civilization Because Durant never justifies this opinion a habit of his I can only conclude that this was mere prejudice on his part Another obvious result of the Great Books philosophy is elitism Durant frequently mentions in this book that talent is unequally distributed and because of this natural inequality of man, the stupid majority are destined forever to toil under the dominance of the intelligent minority Now, of course I would not disagree that people are differently endowed from birth with various aptitudes But I am very far from believing that the inequality which we see throughout history and which persists today is simply the result of the skill of the wealthy and powerful Rather, I agree with Gibbon, that The generality of princes, if they were stripped of their purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society without a hope of emerging from their obscurity The Great Books program also has the shortcoming of emphasizing breadth over depth Durant certainly embodies this Although he can write about many subjects, he is an expert on none of them and this lack of serious expertise prevented him from advancing the state of knowledge in any field Durant s ideology also privileges the transmission of old ideas rather than the creation of new ones After all, if one worships the past, there is little motivation to re imagine the future Moreover, the Great Books doctrine stressed reputation at the expense of rigor Ideas are praised for their lasting influence, their grandness of scope, their contribution to a long standing debate but not for their accuracy In Durant, this produced a man who often cared about whether an idea was beautiful or interesting rather than whether it was true Fueling this tendency is another shibboleth of the Great Books school that simply by reading the greatest books of the ages, one could purge oneself of all provincial prejudices and look upon history as from a timeless perspective Durant seems to think this way, as the very title of this book shows The Lessons of History These conclusions are not his own theses, not his own ideas but lessons, which Durant can gather from the fabric of history as easily as a child can infer the lesson from a fairytale It goes without saying that this is nonsense Durant looked at history and found his own prejudices and this book is merely a collection of them I am sure you are wearied by this litany of accusations and complaints, so I will only mention in passing the other distinctive sins of this Great Books mindset namely, its glorification of Europe, and only Western Europe, at the expense of the rest of the world, as well as its underrepresentation of women and minorities This is wonderfully illustrated in Durant s plan of the Story of Civilization, wherein he dedicates one volume to all of Asia, and the rest of the eleven volumes to Europe and none to South America or to Africa At this point you may be wondering, If Durant has so many faults, which you are apparently so acutely aware of, why are you reading so much of him Well, this has to do with my own history At the end of my time in college, vaguely feeling that the education I received was not worth half of what I paid for it, I picked up Allan Bloom s Closing of the American Mind This book had a profound effect on me Bloom seemed to articulate my dissatisfaction with my education, as well point me in the direction where it could be rectified As soon as I finished, I looked up the list of the Great Books of the Western World, and dove in Now, despite all of the faults I listed above, I must still admit that one receives a stupendous education by reading the books recommended in the program I read rabidly, desperately, doing my best to make up for lost time and whatever may be my intellectual shortcomings now and they are many I am at least far better off than I was before I began But of course I still have not read all of these hoary books there are a lot and this is partly why I m interested in Will Durant for in him, I can see the end result of my own educational project Unfortunately, while Durant was truly an excellent writer, for the reasons I discussed above, he was a poor thinker This slim volume, the fruits of a massive research project, is a collection of vague homilies, baseless theorizing, and unsupported claims It is incredible and a bit depressing that so much learning could produce so little insight I still think I have much to learn from Durant and the other proponents of the Great Books school as well as from the books themselves, of course But now, hopefully, after sorting through Durant s writings, I will be better able to separate the good from the bad, the worthless from the valuable for I do think, after all, that there is something essentially precious in the idea.


  2. Jameson Jameson says:

    I inherited much of my father s library many years ago, including the entire eleven volume Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant Included in the set was the single slim volume they wrote afterward by way of an introduction, The Lessons of History Over the years I have frequently dipped into individual volumes of the main text for research, but I never read any entire volume until my wife came bouncing into my office one evening and thrust The Lessons of History under my nose and said, Read this chapter I read it, and immediately wondered why the hell I hadn t read the whole thing long ago I have now rectified that Not the whole eleven volume set, but I have read that one volume introduction and I was blown away by it.The Lessons of History is intended to be both an introduction and a survey of human history as a product of the human experience, of man s essential evolutionary nature The Durant s do not judge they do not say this system is better than that, or peace is better than war They do not even bang the drum of George Santayana s often misquoted maxim Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it What they do stress is that man will, in fact, continuously repeat the past because he cannot help himself Man has evolved to be a particular organism with particular needs and desires and drives and responses and those are the things that influence his behavior, over and over again throughout the millennia It will be many a long day before the lion evolves into a critter capable of lying down with the lamb, and it will be just as long before man evolves into a critter not driven by, acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride So what The Story of Civilization chronicles, and The Lessons of History summarizes, is the sequence of patterns of behavior that have been repeated continuously since the first known civilization s , with civilization being defined as a social order that promotes cultural creation But it is the laws of evolution that limit civilization, so that man s natural instincts of competition for food, mates, power , selection some men will always have better competitive skills than others, and so there will always be inequality , and reproduction influenced, obviously, by competition and selection will always be the limiting factors that cause a civilization to rise and fall And the rise and fall of civilizations all civilizations that have been or are yet to come is a given None will last forever, and the speed with which they appear and vanish can depend on a variety of factors geological, climatological, biological, or even political Do you doubt that last one Consider Communism Primitive communism, meaning a society based on communal sharing, actually worked in hunter gatherer societies that were constantly on the move pursuing game, but those are precisely the societies that have neither the leisure nor the wherewithal to pursue the cultural creation that defines a civilization The moment a society depends on continuous labor to feed itself with provision for the future as in agriculture, for example, as opposed to hunting and gathering selection comes into play, along with its concomitant concept of private property this patch of earth is fertile and productive than that patch with some men being successful than others, and communism ceases to be an effective tool for societal survival After all, if everything is going to be shared equally, I might as well just kick back here a take nap and let you do the heavy lifting.Competition between individuals means I run faster, fight harder, or outwit you In a society, that translates into war, and since man is what he is, wars will continue as long as man exists To quote the Durants writing in 1968 In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war The only silver lining in that dark cloud is that war does stimulate the tool using animal s creative impulses, and occasionally those instruments designed for destruction are converted to creative and beneficial uses Reproduction among individuals means, well, I hardly think we need go there, but in a society, it means pretty much that he who has the most children wins, which goes a long way to explaining why there are currently 7,132,780,410 people on earth, and that number will be over 7,132,800,000 before I finish this review.But it was the repetitive evolution of different political structures that really caught my eye The Durants used China under Wang An shih 1068 85 AD as an example of the failure of socialism Wang An shih decided the state should own and control everything, commerce, industry, agriculture, and succor the working classes by preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich For a while, everything was hunky dory, with great feats of engineering, pensions for the elderly and unemployed, an overhaul of the educational system, governmental boards in every district to administer every damn thing in the world Sounds a little like America today, doesn t it But it fell apart the Durants cite as reasons high taxes, an enormous army, and bureaucratic corruption, also much like America today , as socialism always has throughout all of history because, to quote the late Margaret Thatcher, Sooner or later you run out of other people s money That s me quoting her, obviously, not the Durants Instead, they wrote The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity As I was reading all this, I happened to watch the movie, Meet John Doe, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and its theme of Christ s message in today s world, and I started thinking about America today In the movie, the success of the John Doe Clubs that spring up across the nation is due to people and communities coming together to create work for their less fortunate neighbors Not once in the movie is there any mention of a handout or any form of money given away as opposed to earned The Lessons of History stresses that selection and the inevitable superiority of some people means that there will always be inequality, but not necessarily inequity There are two forms of equality that no society can ignore without fatal consequences equality under the law and equal opportunity for education, because education provides the opportunity for every man to rise according to his ability However, even if the law and educational opportunity are available for all, if the gap between rich and poor widens too much, and if there is no bridge of middleclass with which the poor can hope to overcome that gap, violent redistribution of wealth will inevitably occur It s one of the lessons of history.


  3. Danger Kallisti Danger Kallisti says:

    The first thing to understand about this book is that it was written by old people By this, I don t even mean that they were chronologically enhanced that they were trapped by that inflexible mindset which places tradition and an intense desire for belonging above a natural exploration of reality.The Durants were either intelligent people trying to reconcile their minds to the demands of the culture in which they were raised, or abject liars attempting to politick their way onto the bookshelves of the prosaic postwar American public The doublespeak and contradictory statements make the book read like a Kerry speech.One can t simultaneously say that greed and hoarding are positive human behaviors and praise the charitable throughout history for their generosity, or say that fear and respect for one s elders goes hand in hand with true creativity and individuality.This isn t thinking, it s highly skilled, well educated apery No wonder my father enjoys it so much, since he too is no and probably considerably less than the average street kid or drug dealer This is philosophy in its cheapest and most generic form.In the same way that they say statistics will be used to support any point, it would seem that 3500 years of chaotic human behavior may be used in the same manner Like anything created by mainstream Western, Judeo Christian culture, this book seeks only to preserve the foundations upon which it was built.I also saw a great deal of reactionary sentiment against the upstart 1960s youth culture A great deal of time is spent lamenting the decay of morality and religion even when they, themselves agree that these things are false societal constructs designed to keep power in the hands of those in control, and not natural or even particularly healthy attributes of mankind Is democracy responsible for the current debasement of art The debasement, of course, is not unquestioned it is a matter of subjective judgment and those of us who shudder at its excesses its meaningless blotches of color Pollack , its collages of debris pop art , its Babels of cacophony rock music are doubtless imprisoned in our past and dull to the courage of experiment The producers of such nonsense are appealing not to the general public which scorns them as lunatics, degenerates, or charlatans but to gullible middle class purchasers who are hypnotized by auctioneers and are thrilled by the new, however deformed As is shown repeatedly throughout the book, the Durants believe that the only art worthy of the title is the realism of Renaissance painters, the stark geometry of Greek architecture, or the predictable mathematics of classical music While I won t disagree that there were certainly some artists of these eras, for the most part those who are considered by the traditionally educated to be great artists are truly no than great technicians, capable of great dexterity and numerical understanding In my mind, true art is deconstruction of all that the educated human mind holds true and certain It is that which brings one back to the deeper, eternal, animal nature, which creates an anarchy of the soul and frees the viewer from the constraints attached by society It is that which is capable of undoing the indoctrination of life in the modern world and creating a direct channel between the Chaos Mind and the human spirit.


  4. Lori Tian Sailiata Lori Tian Sailiata says:

    The audio version is delightful It enhances the original text with interviews that are relevant to each section The intimacy between Will and Ariel is a treat Their playful arm wrestling over ideas and concepts makes for a better interview Sure, their world view is olderalthough he was a radical of his time But even for the faults, it s a delight to linger in his mind And an honor to be in the presence of Ariel s spirit.


  5. Ashok Krishna Ashok Krishna says:

    History repeats itself , Those who don t learn from history are forced to repeat it these are two of the quips about which I had been curious for so long Is it possible that we humans are living a cycle all through our lives Are we repeating the same things, events and experiences that our ancestors once went through Are we humans, so called most intelligent species of this planet, so inept at learning from our past that we go through the same pains and pleasures, events and experiences that keep staring at our face from the annals I was seeking answers to these questions and when recommended this book to me, I gladly accepted Will and Ariel Durant, the author couple, are renowned for their contribution to the field of History and The Story of Civilization , a series of eleven volumes in Western history, is their magnum opus And, when they offer to summarize all their learning in a little book, you can t help grabbing the same with both hands I am glad I did.In this book, Will and Ariel, categorize lessons of the past under various faculties The evolution of mankind, the overcoming of geological obstacles, the biological evolution and multiplication into innumerable life forms, racial and ethnic diversities, the development of our ethics and morals, the loosening grip of religion on our conscience, growth of economics, socialism, wars and the various forms of governments They end the book by discussing whether we have progressed by learning our lessons wisely from our past or are we running around in circles The whole book makes not just an interesting read but worthy of some deep contemplation too.The book is written in a plain, pragmatic and unostentatious manner They don t claim to know it all, but acknowledge that history is just a collection of varying perspectives, depending on our cultural, religious, social background and understanding Also, they present a neutral stance on our past, without nurturing a tender nostalgia for our past while having bleak fears about the future, or going gaga about the modern times while dismissing the past as full of darkness and barbaric beings The past is full of lessons for those who want to learn, and the lessons are neither hard, nor bitter We get what we seek from our past If you re looking for hope, it is full of it If you are pessimistic about human history, then past offers an abundance of excuses for that too It is all up to us to wisely choose lessons that suit us, learn from them, use the wisdom to sail through our present, while building a rich heritage for the future generations for whom we will soon be pages of history A lovely introduction into the various facets of human history and a book that no history buff should miss


  6. Heather Campbell Heather Campbell says:

    I m giving this book a high rating no because I agree with it But it is important to see where historiography was at in the 60 s Durants main point is that the strong,tenacious, breeding society will win the day and that the world will only unite as one when aliens attack us This is the antithesis of what Jesus taught Also Gandhi They also say the monarchy is the most stable successful form of government and that the church is important only because it serve as a personal behavior moderator and a societal babysitter They put no importance in spirituality, forgiveness or hope What a bleak picture they paint for the world The frightening thing is that this is what history teaches I do like the chapter they write explaining social Darwinism They make the case for it pretty well and the person who read the book before me ate it up Highlighted lines everywhere Scary But the Durants end the chapter with a short plea to treat each individual based on their merits But since they seem so Darwinian in their view of humanity I don t see why they would try to distance themselves fromthe social application of his work They do it weakly Historiographers need to read this It s part of our heritage as historians I m grateful I was not taught to think this way in graduate school although I got some of it growing up at home and in certain religious interpretations obsessed with knowing who could wield God s power and who could not based on inheritance My educators church and school encouraged me to hold tightly to ideals of humane living, tolerance, and hope for a better future If I had the Durants as teachers, I d slit my wrists.


  7. Wayne Wayne says:

    A Curiosity.I liked it, not because I agreed with it, but becauseit is such a rarity and an oddity.How often are historians brave enough or rash enough to take on the job challenge of offering a survey of human experience as Will and Ariel Durant say in their preface.Even if you disagree with or query their views, it makes you wonder what you yourself believe and think and whether you can justify it with facts and figures.You may not agree with much of this book, or then you may.But you will be stimulated by and alerted to everything it says because of the aims the authors have set themselves.My copy is scrawled with notes and underlinings, exclamation marks and mini essays I am as curious to reread it for these as I am for the printed text How much have I changed


  8. Roger Roger says:

    What a thoroughly disagreeable book Filled with conclusory opinionated claptrap unsupported by historical evidence Racist and homophobic.For example, only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality or All strong characters and peoples are race conscious, and are instinctively averse to marriage outside their own racial group or sin had flourished in every ageEven our generation has not yet rivaled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or intelligence is perpetually retarted by the fertility of the simple It goes one and and on and on, notwithstanding the fact that text is only 102 pages Totally puts the lie to the authors statement in the Preface in which they state that our aim is not originality but inclusiveness we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation While it is true they are not original there are lots of fuzzy thinking bigots in the world they are certainly not inclusive and the personal revelation they do, in fact, reveal is ugly and repulsive.


  9. Adam Meade Adam Meade says:

    Brilliant The Durant s offer a bird s eye view of human civilization and distill for us the principles and common threads that bind different peoples separated chronologically by thousands of years yet whom differ little to none in the passions and desires that motivate them I can t recall reading any other book that had such a low length to substance ratio It weighs in at only around 120 pages, but nearly every sentence seems pregnant with deep insights and wisdom that is as relevant today as it was millennia ago I believe that anyone with a high school education and an open mind will reap tremendous wisdom from their words, though the preliminary knowledge of history and the sciences one possesses, the they will benefit from it.


  10. Daniel Clausen Daniel Clausen says:

    This book is over 50 years old In some ways, the book now lives in the shadows of recent classics, such as Jared Diamond s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Yuval Noah Harari s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century In these contemporary books, we are also called to look at the lessons of history In these books, too, we are called on to be skeptical and hesitant in making sense out of the often nonsense of history History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances p 97 But each of these books owes something to this book Will and Ariel Durant s The Lessons of History In one hundred pages, the authors cover such topics as religion, race, war, economics, decay, and progress Though the chapters are often no longer than a few pages, the breadth of the analysis is the entirety of human history Often, the tone of the chapters is unabashedly speculative and whimsical The prose often reaches for something close to poetry And through this poetry, we can come to see our own circumstances as the recurrence of an old problem in a new garb Perhaps the most contentious issue of the book and perhaps the one that makes it the most dated is how it deals with human nature In this book, the recurrence of certain types of events is ascribed to human nature and the human condition History, the authors write, is a fragment of biology p 18 Scholars with a constructivist approach would probably take issue with analyses based on sweeping generalizations about human nature, that our primitive mental hardwiring can be seen as an essential cause for the reoccurrences of history And yet, we can find sympathetic books in Richard Dawkins s The Selfish Gene and Steven Pinker s The Blank Slate And even modern historians like Yuval Noah Harari ground their understanding of history in the actions of humans as only slightly evolved primates Perhaps it s the greatest value is its last chapter, which casts a skeptical gaze on progress and technology That skepticism is even valuable in these times when the internet and social media have unleashed a torrent of unintentional negative externalities in the form of fake news and tribalism Skeptically, the authors conclude that while decay is a recurrent theme in history, the progress of civilizations can survive through education Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reignsbut as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible p 101 So, then, why go back to a book written over 50 years ago One good reason is that the book has withstood the test of time Though the volume is short about 100 pages , compact, self consciously hesitant about its findings, it has withstood the test of time and continues to find its way onto reading lists as varied as scholastic and practical The book has moments where it is very specifically a product of its time It worries, for example, about the contest between capitalism and socialism Yet, its very datedness gives it value as a lesson in trying to deal with contemporary problems through a historical gaze It offers us a chance to back test two historians attempts to make sense of their modern times through history Their insights, while highly qualified, seems relevant to our current moment Finally, in its style, the book offers a modern example of how scholars might try to attempt to come up with their own lessons Most chapters are only a few pages, the whole book is about one hundred pages, and the book manages to make its points with minimal amounts of references Sometimes for taking on big questions of our time, we don t need overly complicated tools We can leave our extensive reading and numerous references in the background as we apply our knowledge in a concise and humble way Perhaps that is a historical lesson from this book too If we apply our deep knowledge in a concise and humble way, perhaps our own words can survive for fifty years.


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