Saturday, December 03, 2005

(***) Lessons of History by Will Durant

Lessons of History by Will Durant

Bear in mind that this book was written in 1968 and will remain timeless. True to the title, history can teach us much about the future. Just read the excerpts and compare them to what has unfolded in recent history to discover how prescient Durant was. This short tome is a must read for all.

Freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically… To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Communism. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way… Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that one can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have the survival advantage in the competition of groups. [Durant was betting that laissez faire capitalism would triumph over Communism.] This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states. [This sentence foreshadows the pains of globalization. Just think about US software programmers competing with Indians because the internet and telecommunications have broken the borders between these 2 countries.] p21

By and large the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them. Nothing is clearer in history than the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they were accustomed to condemn in the forces they deposed. P34

In the hunting stage a man had to be ready to chase and fight and kill. When he had a caught his prey he ate to the cubic capacity of his stomach, being uncertain when he might eat again; insecurity is the mother of greed, and cruelty is the memory of a time when the test of survival was the ability to kill. Presumably the death rate in men was higher than in women… Pugnacity, brutality, greed, and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for existence. Probably every vice [today] was once a virtue. P38

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the US, and some other modern nations have divorced their governments from the church, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order… The state may wink at the restoration of supernatural beliefs as an aid in quieting discontent. ‘As long as there is poverty there will be gods.’ P51 [Is Durant predicting the rise of the religious right and the political power granted to it.]

“The men who can manage men manage men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.” P54 [Tell your children to grow up to become bankers. History will be on their side of success.]

1000s of Romans [under Diocletian], to escape the taxgatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility, and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all his debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began. P61

Chinese leaders, circa 1080 AD, argued that human corruptibility and incompetence make governmental control of industry impracticable, and that the best economy is a laissez-faire system that relies on the natural impulses of men. P63 [700 years before Adam Smith, the Chinese figured it out. Unfortunately, Mao didn’t read his history books.]

Communism [was born and forged in Russia from] a war economy. Perhaps it survives through continued fear of war [remember this was written in 1968 during the Cold War]; given a generation of peace it would presumably be eroded by the nature of man. P67 [Could Durant be any more accurate in this prediction? Precisely a generation, 21 years, later, the Berlin wall came down, and Communism died at the hands of a generation that indeed had never faced war.]

It was of no use to talk about ‘States’ rights’ [in the nascent US] when the economy was ignoring state boundaries and could only be regulated by some central authority. Today international government is developing as industry, commerce, and finance override frontiers and take international forms. P68 [Durant hints of the coming of globalization and agencies like the WTO to help regulate global trade, hastening the erosion of national sovereignty.]

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. It is unnatural for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for united and specific action, and a minority can. P70

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence… Education must spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. P78

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. P79

In the last 3,421 [upto 1968] of recorded history only 268 have seen no war. P81 [The past 37 years have not been improved this track record at: Vietnam, Afghanistan/Soviets, Gulf War, Afghanistan/US, Iraq, etc.]

When the states of Europe freed themselves from papal overlordship and protection, each state encouraged nationalism as a supplement to its army and navy. If it foresaw conflict with any particular country it fomented, in its people, hatred of that country, and formulated catchwords to bring that hatred to a lethal point; meanwhile it stressed its love of peace. P82 [Care to remember the ‘Axis of Evil’ speech Bush made after 9/11?]

Perhaps we should first define what progress means to us. If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight. Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable…We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man. P98

If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment, then the tables of mortality proclaim the advance of man. P99

Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again. So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all. P101

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life. P101

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it. P102

[Feel better about studying and paying attention to your history know?]


Paula said...

My favourite quote was about how what was once a virtue can become a vice. I think that just means we need to be adaptable and let go of things that no longer serve us.
Good post!

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Anonymous said...

hai Mr.Ben Sharma,

I am delighted to go through your blog. it is a fine effort on your part to review the back ground of this monumental book with the current affairs.
CONGRATULATIONS. Many years back i tried to read the books of Will Durant.After months of struggle i gave up as i could not muster that much of time. Ultimately, in the library i touched all the books of Will Durant and conveyed to the author my appreciation of his great effort in writing such voluminous work spanning over forty years. I thank you for giving highlights of one of his books. Keep it up.
Yours sincerely,

Marc Mooney said...

Ben Shawarma has put together a delicious blog. I ate up many of the excerpts from the Durant book. And not a few of Shawarma's comments were tasty morsels of insight.

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