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The Lessons of History Paperback – February 16, 2010
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"The Durants' masterpiece belongs in any home library and occupies a shelf in many."
--Dana D. Kelley, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
About the Author
Will Durant (1885–1981) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1968) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). He spent more than fifty years writing his critically acclaimed eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization (the later volumes written in conjunction with his wife, Ariel). A champion of human rights issues, such as the brotherhood of man and social reform, long before such issues were popular, Durant’s writing still educates and entertains readers around the world.
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And they succeed! The book packs a wealth of insights into a hundred pages. The authors discuss, in turn, the forces that have shaped history. The forces considered include natural (geography, biology), human behavior (character, morality), and human constructs (religion, economic systems, and government). The last essay considers the question "Is progress real?".
The essay on economics argues that wealth inequality is a natural and inevitable consequence of the "concentration of ability" within a minority of a society, and this has occurred regularly throughout history. The authors state: "The relative equality of Americans before 1776 has been overwhelmed by a thousand forms of physical, mental, and economic differentiation, so that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome."
This leads into the essay on socialism, which strives to counteract the forces that drive wealth inequality. The authors survey "socialist experiments" in ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Rome, China, and South America - all centuries before the industrial revolution. It was fascinating to read this history which contains a mixture of failures and successes. The authors argue that the trend is towards a synthesis of capitalism and socialism (rather than one system winning outright).
The next essay discusses the various forms of government and descibes the special circumstances that enabled democracy to take root and flourish in the American colonies. The authors argue that many of the favorable conditions that were present in the years following the American Revolution have disappeared. The essay ends with the haunting warning: "If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world."
Hopefully this review has provided a flavor for how the authors have distilled the insights they have gained from years of study. It should not come as a surprise that the lessons gleaned from several thousand years of recorded history continue to ring true today.
This is a book that I wish I'd read in high school or perhaps Freshman year of college. It's a wonderfully written study of how we got to where we are today.
- “Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.”
- “[…] the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations.”
- “[…] the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.”
- “History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.”
Durant's strategy for explaining the how and why of History's lessons make sense and helps readers understand to compartment their own world, yet maintain the connectedness among all the compartments.
A delightful work that reminded me of what I once loved about History and Historiography.
In another portion of the book, Durant points out how civil liberties and individuality of citizens typically are inversely proportional to the degree of real or perceived threat a society faces. Patriotic Act anyone?
In addition to the factual information, the writing style and examples keep the reader engaged. This is one of the best books of the 20th century.
It's an easy read, clear flowing language with digestible chapters that leave much for further discussion(s).
A few of the most interesting ideas:
- Freedom and equality are diametrically opposed
- The disparity of man’s abilities make inequality inevitable in a complex society, only unable men desire equality and able men are better at bending societal rules
- societies get less religious as they get more educated, however, as long as there is poverty, there will be religion
- man’s motivations haven’t changed much over the centuries, we just have the luxury of inheriting a richer set of culture