Book Review: The Lessons of History

December 27th, 2013

 

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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 more fertile and productive than that patch) with some men being more 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 blog. (7,133, 415, 700 at time of posting.)

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.

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