# THE LESSONS OF HISTORYÂ¶

• Will & Ariel Durant

The celebrated collection of essays compiling over 5,000 years of history by two of the greatest thinkers of our time.

## PREFACEÂ¶

After finishing The Story of Civilization to 1789, we reread the ten volumes with a view to issuing a revised edition that would correct many errors of omission, fact, or print.

## I. HESITATIONSÂ¶

“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”

“the historian always oversimplifies, and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.

In 1909 Charles Peguy thought that “the world changed less since Jesus Christ than in the last thirty years”

“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding”

## II. HISTORY AND THE EARTHÂ¶

Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty.

History is subject to geology. To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.

Climate no longer controls us as severely as Montesquieu and Buckle supposed, but it limits us. Man’s ingenuity often overcomes geological handicaps.

Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home.

The influence of geographic factors dimities as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain many offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact; and only a similar combination (as in Israel today) can make a culture take form over a thousand natural obstacles. Man, not the earth, makes civilization.

## III. BIOLOGY AND HISTORYÂ¶

History is a fragment of biology: the life of man is a portion of the vicissitudes of organisms on land and sea.

The laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and survival of fittest to survive. If some of us to escape the strife or the trials it is because our group protects us, but that group itself must meet the tests of survival.

So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life - peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-opeartion because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our stats become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.

The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. We are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group, diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities, every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group.

Even when repressed, inequality grows; 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. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states.

The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. When Rome fell the Franks rushed in from Germany and made Gaul France; if England and America should fall, France, whose population remained almost stationary through the nineteenth century, might again be overrun.

If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.

There is a limit to the fertility of the soil.

In the U.S., the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxons has lessened their economic and political power; and the higher birth rate of Roman Catholic families suggests that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will the dominant force in national as well as municipal or state governments.

## IV. RACE AND HISTORYÂ¶

Comte Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, announced that the species man is composed of distinct races inherently different in physical structure, mental capacity, and qualities of character; and that one race, the “Aryan” was by nature superior to all the rest.

Everything great, noble, or fruitful in the works of man on this planet, in science, art and civilization derives from a single starting point, is the development of a single germ; … it belongs to one family alone, the different branches of which have reigned in all the civilized countries of the universe… history shows that all civilization derives from the white race, that none can exist without its help, and that a society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it.

The rise, success, decline, and fall of a civilization depend upon the inherent quality of the race. The degeneration of a civilization is what the word itself indicates - a falling away from the genus, stock, or race. “People degenerate only in consequence of various mixtures of blood which they undergo.” Hence the superiority of the whites in the U.S. and Canada to the whites in Latin America. Only those who are themselves the product of such enfeebling mixtures talk of the equality of races, or think that “all men are brothers”. All strong characters and people are race conscious, and are instinctively averse to marriage outside their own racial group.

An American, Madison Grant, in The Passing of the Great Race (1916), confined the achievements of civilization to that branch of the Aryans which he called “Nordics” - Scandinavians, Scythians, Baltic Germans, Englishmen, and Anglo-Saxon American. Cooled to hardness by northern winters, one of another tribe of these fair-haired blue-eyed “blond beasts” swept down through Russia and the Balkans into the lazy and lethargic South in a series of conquests marking the dawn of recorded history.

By the year 2000, Grant predicted, the Nordics will have fallen from power, and with their fall Western civilization will disappear in a new barbarism welling up everywhere from within and from without. He wisely conceded that the Mediterranean “race”, while inferior in bodily stamina to both the Nordics and the Alpines, has proved superior in intellectual and artistic attainments, to it must go the credit for the classic flowering of Greece and Rome; however it may have owed much to the intermarriage with Nordic blood.

Difficulties remain even if the race theory is confined to the white man. The Semites would recall the civilizations of Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, Palestine, phoenicia, Carthage, and Islam.

The ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were evidently the product of geographical opportunity and economic and political development rather than of racial constitution, and much of their civilization had an Oriental source.

Attempts to relate civilization to race by measuring the relation of brain to face or weight have shed little light on the problem.

The role of race in history is rather preliminary than creative. Varied stock, entering some locality from diverse directions at divers times, mingle their blood, traditions and ways with one another or with the existing population, like two diverse pools of genes coming together in sexual reproduction. Such an ethnic mixture may in the course of centuries produce a new type, even a new people. When the new type takes form its cultural expressions are unique, and constitute a new civilization - a new physiognomy, character, language, literature, religion, morality and art. It is not the race that makes civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people: circumstances geographical, economic, and political create a culture, and the culture creates a human type.

Viewed from this point, American civilization is still in the stage of racial mixture. Between 1700 and 1848 white Americans north of Florida were mainly Anglo-Saxon, and their literature was a flowering of old England on New England’s soil. After 1848 the doors of America were opened to all white stocks; a fresh racial fashion began, which will hardly be complete for centuries to come. When out of this mixture, a new homogeneous type is formed, America may have its own language (as different from English as Spanish is from Italian), its indigenous literature, its characteristics arts, already these are visibly are raucously on their way.

“Racial” antipathies have some roots in ethnic origin, but they are also generated perhaps predominantly by differences of acquired culture - of language, dress, habits, morals, or religion. A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a co-operative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it, it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.

## V. CHARACTER AND HISTORYÂ¶

Society is founded not on ideals but on the nature of man, and the constitution of man rewrites the constitutions of states. But what is the constitution of man?

We may define human nature as the fundamental tendencies and feelings of mankind. The most basic tendencies we shall call instincts, though we recognize that much doubt has been cast upon their inborn quality.

We may describe human nature through the “Table of Character Elements”.

In this analysis human beings are normally equipped by “nature” with six positive and six negative instincts, whose function it is to preserve the individual, the family, the group, or the species. In positive personalities the positive tendencies predominate, but most individuals are armed with both sets of instincts , to meet or to avoid the basic challenges or opportunities of life.

Each instinct generates habits and is accompanied by feelings. Their totality is the nature of man.

But how far has human nature changed in the course of history? Theoretically there must have been some change; natural selection has presumably operated upon psychological as ell as upon physiological variations. Nevertheless, known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. The Greeks of Plato’s time behaved very much like the French of modern centuries. 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. Nor does human nature alter as between classes: by and large the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skip to implement them.

#### TABLE OF CHARACTER ELEMENTSÂ¶

                Instincts       Habits          Feelings
Positive        Action          Play            Buoyancy
Work            Energy
Curiosity       Eagerness
Manipulation    Wonder
Thought         Absorption
Resolution
Innovative      Aesthetic
Art             feeling

Negative         Sleep          Rest            Fatigue
Sloth           Inertia
Indifference    Boredom
Hesitation      Doubt
Dreaming        Vacuity
Imitation       Acceptance
Disorder        Confusion

Positive        Fight           Approach        Courage
Competition     Rivalry
Pugnacity       Anger
Mastery         Pride

Negative        Fight           Retreat         Anxiety
Co-operation    Friendliness
Timidity        Fear
Submission      Humility

Positive        Acquisition     Eating          Hunger
Hoarding        Greed
Property        Possessiveness

Negative        Avoidance       Rejection       Disgust
Spending        Prodigality
Poverty     Insecurity

Positive        Association     Communication   Sociability
Seeking approval    Vanity
Generosity      Kindliness

Negative        Privacy         Solitude        Secretiveness
Fearing disapproval Shyness
Selfishness     Hostility

Positive        Mating          Sexual activity     Sexual imagination
Courtship           Sexual love

Negative        Refusal         Sexual perversion   Sexual neurosis
Blushing            Modesty

Positive        Parental care   Homemaking      Parental love

Negative        Filial dependence   Filial rebellion    Filial resentment



Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or eduction. Custom and tradition within a group correspond to type and heredity in the species, and to instincts in the individual; they are ready adjustments to typical and frequently repeated situations. New situations, however, do arise, requiring novel, unstereotyped responses; hence development, in the higher organisms, requires a capacity for experiment and innovation, the social correlates of variation and mutation. Social evolution is an interplay of custom with origination.

History in the large is the conflict of minorities, the majority applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.

Intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional repossess which the propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.

So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.

## VI. MORALS AND HISTORYÂ¶

Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members and associations to behaviour consistent with its order, security and growth. So for 16 centuries the Jewish enclaves in Christendom maintained their continuity and internal peace by a strict and detailed moral code, almost without help from the state and its laws.

Moral codes differ because they adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions. Insecurity is the mother of greed, as cruelty is the memory of time when the test of survival was the ability to kill.

History does not tell us just when men passed from hunting to agriculture. Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets, birth control was made immoral. Each normal son matured soon in mind and self-support; at fifteen he understood the physical takes of life as well as he would understand them at forty; all that he needed was land, a low, and wiling arm. For 15 hundred years this agricultural moral code of continence, early marriage, divorcees monogamy, and multiple maternity maintain itself in Christian Europe and its white colonies. It was a stern code, which produced some of the strongest characters in history.

Gradually, then rapidly and ever more widely, the Industrial Revolution change the economic form and moral superstructure of european and American life. Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals, individually paid, in factories built to house not men but machines. Children no longer were economic assets, marriage was delayed; premarital continence become more difficult to maintain. The city offered every discouragement to marriage, but it provided every stimulus and facility for sex. The rebellious youth was no longer contained by the surveillance of the village, he could hide his sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd.

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting, because it is exceptional. Even in recorded history we find so many instances of goodness, even of nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the crueltis of battlefields and jails. How many times, even in our sketchy narratives, we have sen men helping one another - Farinelli providing for the children of Domenico Scarletti, divers people scoring your Haydn, Conte Litta paying for Johann Christina Bach’s studies at Bologna, Joseph Black advancing money repeatedly to James Watt, Puchberg patiently lending and lending to Mozart. Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?

Perhaps discipline will be restored in our civilization through the military training retried by the challenges of war.

## VII. RELIGION AND HISTORYÂ¶

Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified.

Religion does not seem at first to have had any connection with morals.

Though the Church served the state, it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power. It taught men that patriotism unchecked by a higher loyalty can be a tool of greed and crime.

## VIII. ECONOMICS AND HISTORYÂ¶

History, according to Karl Marx, is economics in action. The contest, among individuals, groups, classes, and states, for food, fuel, materials and economic power. Political forms, religious institutions, cultural creates, are all rooted in economic realities.

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. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expense, or too transient. Normally and generally men are judged by their ability to produce, except in war, when they are ranked according to their ability to destroy.

Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies with the economic freedom permitted by morals and the laws. In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strengths of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.

The Roman Senate, so famous for its wisdom, adopted an uncompromising course when the concentration of wealth approached an explosive point in Italy; the result was a hundred years of class and civil war.

We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution.

## IX. SOCIALISM AND HISTORYÂ¶

The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth. The capitalist, of course, has fulfilled a creative function in history: he has gathered the savings of people into productive capital by the promise of dividends or interest, he has financed the mechanization of industry and agriculture, and the rationalization of distribution; and the result has been such a flow of goods from producer to consumer as history has never seen before. Meanwhile completion compels the capitalist to exhaustive labor, and his products to ever-rising excellence.

There is much truth in such claims today, but they do not explain why history so resounds with protests and revolts against the abuses of industrial mastery, price manipulation, business chicanery, and irresponsible wealth.

About 290 B.C. the famous Museum and Library of Alexandria were founded. Science and literature flourished; at uncertain dates in this Ptolemaic era some scholars made the “Septuagint” translation of the Pentateuch into Greek.

China has had several attempts at state socialism. Szuma Ch’ien (B.C. 145) informs us that to prevent private individuals from “reserving to their sole use the riches of the mountains and the sea in, order to gain a fortune, and from putting the lower classes into subjection to themselves”, the emperor Ru Ti (140BC - 87BC) nationalized the resources of soil, extended governmental direction over transport and trade, laid a tax upon comes, and established public works, including canals that bound the rivers together and irrigated the fields. The state accumulated stockpiles of goods, sold these when prices were rising, bought more when prices were falling; thus, says Szuma Chi’ien, “the rich merchants and large shop-keepers would be prevented from making big profit, … and prices would be regulated in the Empire”. For a time, we are told, China prospered as never before. A combination of “acts of God” with human deviltry put an end to the experiment after the death of the Emperor. Floods alternated with droughts, created tragic shortages, and raised prices beyond control. Businessmen protested that taxes were making them support the lazy and the incompetent.

A thousand years later Wang An-Shih, as premier (1068 - 85) understood a pervasive governmental domination of the Chinese economy.

## X. GOVERNMENT AND HISTORYÂ¶

Alexander Pope thought that only the fool would dispute over forms of government. History has a good word to say for all of them and for government in general. Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society reprise some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands. Power naturally converges to a centre, for it is ineffective when divided, diluted, and spread, as in Poland under the liberum veto; hence the centralization of power in the monarchy by Richelieu or Bismarck, over the protest of feudal barons, has been praised by historian. A similar process has centred power in the federal government in the U.S.; it was of no use to talk of “states’ rights” when the economy was ignoring state boundaries and could be regulated only by some central authority.

Monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government, since it applies to the group the authority of the father in a family or of the chieftain in a warrior band. If we were to judge forms of government from their prevalence and duration in history we should have to give the palm to monarchy; democracies, by contrast, have been hectic interludes.

Does history justify revolutions? This is an old debate, well illustrated by Luther’s bold break from the Catholic Church vs. Erasmus’ plea for patient and orderly reform, or by Charles James Fox’s stand for the French Revolution vs. Edmund Burke’s defines of “prescription” and continuity. American would have become the dominant factor in the English-speaking world without any revolution. To break sharply with the pst is to court the madness that may follow the shock of sudden blows or multilations.

In strict usage of the term, democracy has existed only in modern times, for the most part since the French Revolution.

In America democracy had a wider base. It began with the advantage of a British heritage: Anglo-Saxon law, which, from Magna Carta onward, had defended the citizens against the state; and Protestantism, which had opened the way to religious and mental liberty. The American Revolution was not only a revolt of colonials against a distant government, it was also an uprising of a native middle class against an imported aristocracy.

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. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. “You can’t fool all people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.

All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighted its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank ad place. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. “that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal.”

The rights of man are not rights to office and power, but the rights of entry into every avenue that may nourish and test a man’s fitness for office and power.

## XI. HISTORY AND WARÂ¶

War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. We have acknowledged war as at present the ultimate form of competition and natural selection in the human species. Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.

The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery. The state itself acknowledges no substantial restraints, either because it is strong enough to defy any interference with its will or because there is no superstate to offer it basic protection, and no international law or moral code wielding effective force.

It is clear that the U.S. must assume today the task that Great Britain performed so well in the nineteenth century, the protection of Western civilization from external danger.

## XII. GROWTH AND DECAYÂ¶

We have defined civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation”. It is political order secured through custom, morals, and law, and economic order secured through a continuity of production and exchange; it is cultural creation through freedom and facilities for the origination, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners, and arts. It is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed.

## XIII. IS PROGRESS REAL?Â¶

Our progress in science and technique have involved some tincture of evil with good. Our comforts and conveniences may have weakened our physical stamina and our moral fibre.

Has there been any progress at all in philosophy since Confucius?

## WILL and ARIEL DURANTÂ¶

After spending over fifty years completing the critically acclaimed series The Story of Civilization, were awarded the Pulitzer prize for General Nonfiction in 1968. In 1977, the Durants were presented wit the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

willdurant.com