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The Lessons of History

by Will and Ariel Durant

Date finished: 12 Apr 2023

Amazing book written by a couple who studied History for their entire lives. The Durants present what History taught them about topics like Equality, Religion, Economics, and Government in short chapters. While compact, I found it incredibly insightful and powerfully calming to read. The most profound realization for me was that human society is in constant flux and that we have been in social-economic-political situations similar to today's many times in the past.

All Book Notes | Amazon page


Author’s opening remark: It is impossible to compress the entire human history into a 100 pages of conclusions.


Equality

Equality is biologically incompatible. Variety is a fundamental biological mechanism. We are all born unequal, subject to physical, psychological, and social heredity. We have different health, strength, mental capacity, and character.

Inequality grows with invention, discovery, and economic growth. The competitive and strong become stronger and the comparatively weak become weaker.

Under total freedom (lack of control), inequalities grow.

People below average economic ability desire equality. People with superior ability desire freedom.

In the best case, humans can have approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.


Race

Racial antipathy is likely predominantly created through differences in culture rather than ethnic origin. Broadened education 1 reduces it.


Character

Behavioral characteristics are similar among humans across time and space. Greeks in Plato’s discourses behaved like modern French, and Romans behaved like modern English. Poor and rich have similar impulses, but the poor have less opportunity or skill to implement them.

99 out of 100 new ideas are inferior to the established ones they aim to replace. New ideas should be heard because they might be useful or true. Challenge and criticism help filter out mediocre and bad ideas, leaving only the good ones 2.


Morals

Morals vary over time (and place), and sometimes contradict each other. Changes often coincide with the rise or decay of great civilizations. However, morals are part of every society in every historical period, they just change depending on each context.

Socratean Athens, Augustean Rome, and post-world-war West experienced similar relaxation of morality.

Plato, through Socrates more than 2000 years ago, expressed moral concerns that might have very well been expressed today on Twitter.

Homosexuality was popular in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and rising in popularity today.

Written history is different to lived history. Historians tend to record the exceptional, extraordinary, interesting events. Everything else that is “normal” remains unwritten.

Morality changed fundamentally when humans transitioned from hunting-gathering to agriculture 3, a transition that took hundreds of years. We do not know yet if the current relaxation of morality is because of the shift from agriculture to industrialism or because the current dominant civilization is decaying.


Religion

Religion has been incredibly useful in the history of mankind.

Most prevalent theologies were dualistic, a good spirit versus a bad spirit. Nature and History do not agree with religion’s definition of good and bad. Good is that which survives and bad is that which perils.

The moral development of Greeks weakened their belief in the flawed gods of Olympus. Similarly, Christian ethics weakened belief in the vengeful God of traditional theology.

Modern secularity is a result of the Industrial Revolution. Laws are not commandments of god-given kings, but of confused and fallible humans. Colleges are run by businessmen and scientists. Holydays are now holidays.

Religion’s popularity varies across centuries. Repression of senses and desires rises when laws are weak, and morals keep people in check. Expression and skepticism rises in powerful governments where stability of the state is not endangered by decline of morality, church, and family.

There is no significant example in history of society successfully maintaining moral life without aid of religion.

“As long as there is poverty, there will be gods.”


Economics

Economic interpretation explains a lot of history:

Motives are often economic, but outcomes depend on mass passions. Sometimes, power drives economics, not the other way around.

In many cases motives are economic, but the outcome is determined by the passionate mass. In other instances, political or military power drives economics rather than the other way around.

Bankers influence history: Medicis, Fuggers, Rotshschilds, Morgans sat in councils of governments, financed wars and popes, and sparked revolutions. They utilize the fact that history is inflationary and money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.

All economic systems need the profit motive to stir productivity. Slavery, supervision, ideology are unproductive, expensive, or transient. Generally, people are judged by their ability to produce. (In war they are ranked by their ability to destroy)

Concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable. When disparity in wealth distribution reaches a critical mass, tension increases and we need partial redistribution. This can be either violent or peaceable.


Socialism

There have been several socialistic experiments throughout history. They were usually established as war economies. Usually they failed because economic control became increasingly expensive, taxes too high, and bureaucracy overwhelming.

“The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality. East is West and West is East, and soon the twain will meet.”


Government

Freedom of individuals in society requires regulation of conduct, so, counter-intuitively, limitation of freedom is a condition for its existence. Absolute freedom results in chaos. The prime task of government is to establish order.

Most governments have been oligarchies. An entire population can rarely organize itself towards united, directed, and specific action.

Aristocracy is a particularly interesting form of oligarchy, where an individual is trained from birth in statesmanship, culture, morals, knowledge, manners, standards, tastes, etc.

History doesn’t justify revolutions. Economic developments often achieve similar goals without upheaval. Wealth is often thought as accumulation of goods, but it is more about production and exchange of goods, and it relies on trust (e.g. credit). Violent revolutions rather destroy wealth than redistribute. Human inequality quickly leads to a new imbalance in wealth and power, with a new elites replacing old ones.

Democracy is the hardest form of government since it requires the widest spread of intelligence. Education improved but intelligence is biologically hindered by the high fertility among the less educated.

People cannot be equal (due to biological differences), but we can make access to education and opportunity nearly equal.

The current economy of freedom will turn to dictatorship if it fails to distribute wealth as ably as it created it.


War

History shows that long peace can weaken the martial ability of a nation, often leading to its decline or perish.


Civilization growth and decay

Inequality rises in a growing economy, dividing society into a cultured minority and a less educated majority 4. The majority holds back cultural progress.

As education spreads and religion loses influence, secularism and skepticism rise. This in turn results in moral decay, which results in corruption, which in the end results in civilization decline.

Civilizations are like generational legacies, passed down to heirs across time and space. Today, technology is uniting nations and preserving the shared heritage of humanity.


Is progress real?

History is so vast and varied that one can find examples to support almost any argument.

Happiness is a bad metric for progress. The average child is happier than the adult or sage.

Scientific and technological progress brought both good and harm.

  1. Education and indoctrination are different. Indoctrination is much easier to achieve, as it doesn’t require skilled reasoning or understanding, and is the method predominantly used for dealing with sociopolitical topics as much today as in the past. 

  2. Inertia-in-physics-is-similar-to-habitude-in-human-behavior. Societal resistance to new ideas is as if humanity behaves like a swarm intelligence, with the goal of minimizing false positives. We are cautious of embracing ideas that seem to be good but turn out to be oopsies two generations later. Similarly to how companies like Google want to minimize false positives when hiring. While in Google it is by design, I don’t think that is the case for collective society. It’s interesting that abundance of good options drives actors to adopt risk averting strategies (minimizing false positives). #TODO: make this a separate note and link. 

  3. In hunting, qualities like aggression and greed were good.Agriculture favored industriousness, peace, and family units. Early marriage, chastity, and monogamy were vital. This moral code endured for centuries in Christian Europe and its colonies. 

  4. This holds true even given equal beginnings, since in a growing economy the biologically lucky minority will always get ahead faster regardless of the sociopolitical environment. Only by artificially hindering the high performers can we sustain equality. 

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