The Lessons of History - Deepstash
The Lessons of History

Shailendra Singh's Key Ideas from The Lessons of History
by Will Durant

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  • The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.
  • We must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities.
  • Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads—astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war—what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.


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History & The Earth

  • Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty.
  • History is subject to geology. 
  • Climate no longer controls us but it limits us.
  • Geography is the matrix of history, its nourishing mother and disciplining home.
  • The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.
  • Only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact.
  •  Man, not the earth, makes civilization.


44 reads

Biology & History

  • History is a fragment of biology: the life of man is a portion of the vicissitudes of organisms on land and sea.
  • We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest to survive.
  • So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.
  • Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition.
  • War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition.
  • The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection.
  • Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution.
  • Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.
  • 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 has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality.
  • Biologically, physical vitality may be, at birth, of greater value than intellectual pedigree.
  • So the birth rate, like war, may determine the fate of theologies.


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Character & History

  • Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man, and the constitution of man rewrites the constitutions of states.
  • Human beings are normally equipped by “nature” with positive and negative instincts, whose function it is to preserve the individual, the family, the group, or the species.
  • Each instinct generates habits and is accompanied by feelings.
  • Their totality is the nature of man.
  • Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological.
  • Imitation is opposed to innovation, but in vital ways it co-operates with it.
  • As submissive natures unite with masterful individuals to make the order and operation of a society, so the imitative majority follows the innovating minority, and this follows the originative individual, in adapting new responses to the demands of environment or survival.
  • History in the large is the conflict of minorities; the majority applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.


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Religion & History

  • Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under.
  • Religion does not seem at first to have had any connection with morals. It was fear that first made the gods. Only when priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital and rival to the state.
  • Religion has conferred meaning and dignity upon the lowliest existence.
  • Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up. Puritanism and paganism—the repression and the expression of the senses and desires—alternate in mutual reaction in history.
  • Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order.
  • There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
  • As long as there is poverty there will be gods.


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Economics & History

  • All economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.


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History & War

  • War is one of the constants of History and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. “Polemos pater panton” said Heracleitus; war, or competition, is the father of all things, the potent source of ideas, inventions, institutions, and states.
  • Peace is an unstable equilibrium, which can be preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.


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Government & History

  • Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires 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 center, for it is ineffective when divided, diluted, and spread.
  • Monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government. 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.
  • When it is hereditary it is likely to be more prolific of stupidity, nepotism, irresponsibility, and extravagance than of nobility or statesmanship
  • The complexity of contemporary states seems to break down any single mind that tries to master it.
  • Hence most governments have been oligarchies—ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies.
  • If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another.
  • In some cases outworn and inflexible institutions seem to require violent overthrow. But in most instances the effects achieved by the revolution would apparently have come without it through the gradual compulsion of economic developments
  • Since wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange rather than an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods, and is a trust (the “credit system”) in men and institutions rather than in the intrinsic value of paper money or checks, violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it. There may be a redivision of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old. The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
  • 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. A cynic remarked that “you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.” However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that “you can’t fool all the people all the time,” but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.
  • Democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the 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.


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