Written in 1968, ‘The Lessons of History’ is very much relevant in the 2020s… as with all great history books, they never expire.
The book was written by wife and husband Ariel and Will Durant, two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians with philosophical leanings and a fantastic ability to provide lessons from empires and famous (sometimes infamous) leaders.
Their explanations serve as warnings but also carry an optimistic outlook for the future of humanity.
I found The Lessons of History to be a book that can help guide individuals and countries during geopolitical volatility while serving as a great reminder that even though things may appear unprecedentedly negative in the world today, they’re nothing new; and, in fact, sometimes necessary for progress and meaningful change.
Without being a spoiler, I wanted to share three interesting findings from reading ‘The Lessons of History’ by Will and Ariel Durant…
1. The Durants believed war has been the ultimate form of competition between nations and their leaders while also demonstrating their ability to reason. Before considering the Durants’ perspective, I viewed war as a failure of nations to succeed/grow (on their own) economically and diplomatically. To kill another human is the ultimate failure in my eyes. But I digress…
Durant points out that humanity lives for competition, and it’s no surprise that in roughly the last 3,400 years of human existence (as of the time of writing the book), only 268 have been without a war somewhere on the globe. That’s less than 8% of the time…
The causes of war, the Durants explain, are the same as they are for individual competition: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride.
2. Societies can (and often do) make progress and regress at the same time.
It’s easy for us to focus on one issue in our country, which we believe to be negative or destructive while ignoring positive change and improvement domestically…
Much of the populous overlooks positive development and chooses to be single-issue voters — focusing on an issue that stirs up emotions.
Durant astutely explained how when he wrote the book, America was making rapid advancements in technology (which was improving people’s lives and the nation’s economy) while simultaneously regressing in art and graphic design.
When economies boom (GDP increases unusually fast) society often overlooks the arts for the advancement of economics and wealth — mistakingly disregarding the value (both socially and, yes, economically) of things like music, film, artwork, etc. Booming economies seek output over the outlook and overall sentiment.
3. The pursuit of higher education may be humanity’s greatest achievement. This focus on gaining knowledge and wisdom started thousands of years ago — for western civilization with the Greeks and their pursuit of learning, establishing schools about philosophy for their children.
Durant cautions that our pursuit of higher education and all the benefits it has brought can be ruined and lost by one century of people having been removed from it. Imagine a world that forgets the lessons of history, the mistakes and amazing accomplishments we have made, and how to build on new technologies… a hundred years of washing that away could lead us back to barbarism and savagery.
I think the most valuable learning from The Lessons of History is context…
The context that today is no worse than similar moments in history, yet better than many bygone eras that we look back on fondly, even though you and I never lived during those times.
Humanity will always face challenges, and if we don’t have obstacles, we’ll often create them for ourselves. Having said that, we are clearly making progress on innumerable fronts and have been for thousands of years.
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