Notes From Lessons of History

The Lessons of History
by Will and Ariel Durant


Geography

  • As technology evolves, the influence of geography is diminished
  • The prosperity of civilizations is closely tied to geography notably rivers and coasts
  • Ultimately, humans create culture, not the earth

Biological lessons of history

  • Life is competition
  • We rely on the protection of our tribes and may cooperate within its confines but this is adaptive behavior in service of a wider competitive landscape. Until a group is as large as a state it will “continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage”
  • Life is selection
  • Nature knows nothing of our egalitarian ideals or Bill of Rights. “Freedom and equality are sworn enemies”. If people are free, relative advantages will grow nearly geometrically. Inequality is inborn, we can only aspire to ideals such as equal access to education and justice.
  • Natural selection benefits from the diversity and range of natural ability as it is the basis of evolution.
  • Life must breed; birth rates shape history
  • Nature cares only about the species, not the individual. Diversity and large “litters” are the fertile grounds that natural selection needs as fuel. Nature’s check on overpopulation is famine, pestilence, war.
  • Higher birth rates can give rise to stronger tribal powers while progression into a higher standard of livings and industry appears to slow the birth rates as the tribe advances.
  • To track the future of ideas, it may be instructive to watch birth rates; weakened ties to ethnicity or tribalism can leave the incumbent group vulnerable (Caesar and Augustus were aware of this and sought to penalize birth control; Italy’s ethnicity diluted over time making the empire vulnerable to its neighbors)
  • On race: “A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a cooperative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it; it is it common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lonely, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.”

Government

  • Monarchy has been the historical norm while democracies have been ‘hectic interludes’
    • Roman democracy crumbled under class wars giving way to Pax Romana, a 200 year succession of benevolent dictators until the murder of Caesar. This period was followed by disgraceful monarchs including Caligula before giving way to the greatest succession of monarchs ever, the last being Marcus Aurelius. Some of these monarchs had no heirs and promoted by merit until Aurelius died. Afterward his son Commodus ruled when no heir was named.
    • Monarchy has a mixed record, typically at its worst is when it is determined by blood and accompanying incompetence
  • Most modern, complex governments¬† are oligarchies — ruled by a minority
    • Aristocracy by birth
    • Theocracy by religion
    • Democracy by wealth
  • Plato reduced the cycle to monarchy->aristocracy->democracy->dictatorship. Repeat. This was based on Greece and repeated with the Romans. Democracies are overthrown or conquered as envy amongst the majority tires of the ‘sham’ of having a vote and uses the state to seize wealth. Other oligarchies fall when they wield their great power to narrowly or incompetently.
  • The US democracy started from a wider base and in unity against British rule. Rural land-owning enhanced the sense and dedication to freedom, while geographic isolation created a national sense of freedom. These conditions have given way as land as sparse and cities have grown “Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability and intensifies the concentration of wealth and [power]”
  • Democracy is a difficult form of gov’t since effective mob rule requires widespread intelligence to avoid manipulation by ‘the forces that mold public opinion’.
  • Democracy, however, has done the most good and it can maintain its promise only if it affords equal opportunity for education [my own thought is this will always be uneven, and the unevenness grows with population size. For a small population, it is reasonable that the average access to education can be even]
  • “If a race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side…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”

History and War

  • Competition via war is often for the same reasons as competition amongst individuals however while individuals are restrained by law and morals a state ‘acknowledges no substantial restraint either because it is strong enough to defy any interference…or because there is no superstate to offer its basic protection, and no international law or moral code wielding effective force’
  • Religious wars in the 16th century and the wars of the French Revolution were battles between aristocracies leaving the masses to maintain mutual respect for their foreign counterparts while wars of the 20th century in accordance with technology and ‘means of indoctrination’ made war all-consuming ‘struggles between people’ and completely destroying centuries of labor and property.
  • He presents the general case for the inevitability of war — competitive human nature, envy, beliefs so fundamentally different that cannot be settled by negotiation. Perhaps and only if we were united against aliens could we imagine our species not warring with each other. The opposing view is that the imperative to avoid large scale war because of the destructive power of current technology will prevail over any disagreements over ways to organize our lives and economies.

Progress

  • Are we the ‘same trousered apes’ merely armed with increased tech, locomotion, and knowledge but weighed down by the persistent features which moor us to our primitive ancestors? Progress is defined not by happiness or similar measure but to the degree in which we may control our environment. By this standard, as evidenced by our increased adaptability¬†and lifespans we have made tremendous progress. While subject to lapses and regressions, the avergae human has been the beneficary of an accumulated history and knowledge which has been succeeds in being recorded and transmitted to subsequent generations so that they may continue to build on this heritage from its most advanced point.

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