Notes on the Lessons of History

A summary of Will & Ariel Durant's 'The Lessons of History', with a theoretical model for civilisation.



Author(s): Will & Ariel Durant

Published: 1968

Genre: History, Philosophy

Description: The Lessons of History is the philosophy of history espoused by the Durants, distilled from their 10-volume work of universal history 'The Story of Civilization'.

Inspectional Reading


What follows is how I conducted an initial, inspectional reading of this book, followed by analytical notes, and concluding with syntopical notes. You can compare the various stages to see the progress and difference as I move through the stages and take inspiration from it in developing your own webs of knowledge. Notion is an especially powerful tool to help you not just develop a good writing habit, but to develop effective and clean storing of information.

Summary Notes

Short summary
  • Durant proposes a humble approach to history, seeking out objective truth but knowing that only some measure of subjective truth may ever be achieved, due to the constraints of our own mental faculties, our lack of historical sources for much of history, and the sheer complexity of the many facets of life.
  • An essay summarising the main issues of history, to 'illuminate present affairs, future probabilities, the nature of man, and the conduct of states'.
Introduction (ch. Hesitations)
  • Begins with an exploration into a historian's intentions in studying history, what have they learned, and whether objective history can truly exist.
  • Impartiality is impossible; our biases shine through in the choice of facts, sources and narratives we assemble.
  • Historiography is an art, industry, and philosophy, not a science; an art by establishing meaningful order in the chaos of materials, a philosophy by seeking perspective and enlightenment, an industry by ferreting out facts.
  • Relativity rules; all formulas are suspect. "History is baroque."
  • Many bodies of knowledge form what we call civilisation and how it interacts with man. Man is: a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a uni of an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or soldier in an army.
  • Civilisation (and the contents of the main body of this book) are made up of: astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, amd war. All of these things can be looked at through the lens of history to identify the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.
  • Would be interesting to pair with E.H. Carr's 'What is History?' as a companion to historiography and philosophy of history.

Conclusion (ch. Is Progress Real?)
  • If there is no substantial change in man's nature, all technological advances are new means of achieving old ends - acquisition of goods, pursuit of one sex by another, overcoming competition, and fighting wars.
  • Francis Bacon - knowledge is power. But maybe the mythology and art of the Middle Ages-Renaissance may be wiser than us with our science and power.
  • Our emancipation from theology does not necessarily mean that we have developed a moral code independent of religion that can restrain our vices.
  • Has modernity improved philosophy, literature, music, architecture?
  • How do we even define progress? Durant defines it as the 'increasing control of the environment by life.' Progress isn't continuous or universal.
  • 'If a man is fortunate he will gather his civilised heritage and transmit it to his children, and he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that is it our nourishing mother and our lasting life.'
  • Would be interesting to pair with Hallaq's critique of progress in 'The Impossible State'.
Bibliography, notes, index
  • Nada.

Analytical Reading


What follows is my analytical reading of the book, including detailed notes of every chapter and discussion points summarising my understanding of this book, my views on these ideas, and further points for discussion.

Main Body Notes

  • Defines history as 'the events or record of the past.'
  • History is subject to geology: climate change determines migration and settling patterns; humans cluster around rivers and water sources, heat/cold determines our productivity and much of our nature.
  • 'The the geologic eye the surface of the earth is a fluid form'. Things are constantly in flux, and civilisation depends on stability. We could be snuffed out by tornadoes, storms, even a lack of rainfall.
  • The influence of geography diminishes as technology grows - our ability to escape land through flight, our ability to terraform the Earth; man, not Earth, forms civilisation. But this requires 'the initiative of leaders and the hardy industry of followers', e.g. western fetish for Israel depends on the narrative of a few westerners going into the desert and civilising it.
  • Predicts the rise of China!
  • The laws of biology are the fundamental laws of history: the process and trials of evolution, the struggle for existence, and survival of the fittest. However, the weaker are protected from these things that would otherwise kill them, by the stronger - asabiya. Strength in numbers.
  • First biological law of history: life is competition.
    • Cooperation is a tool and form of competition; we cooperate to strengthen our group (family, community, religion, etc) against other groups. They possess same scaled up attributes of individuals: partisanship, pride, acquisitiveness. States take this to a higher level, and war is the ultimate form of competition.
  • Second biological law of history: selection.
    • Nature hasn't read the US declaration of independence or the French rights of man; we are all born unfree and unequal. These inequalities are a produce of physical/psychological heredity, customs and traditions of our group, mental capacity and quality of character. Difference is necessary for selection and evolution - no two peas are alike.
    • Inequality grows with the complexity of civilisation. Hereditary inequalities breed social inequalities; every invention makes its founders stronger; economic development creates specialisation which sorts people into "usefulness" - applying Pareto principle to civilisation, the ability of the top 20% of people combined is superior to the 80% of people.
    • Liberty doesn't solve equality but accentuates it. Laissez-faire is winner take all. Those aware of their 'economic ability' desire equality, while those who are aware of their superior ability desire freedom. The latter usually wins out against the former. This cannot be solved by utopian plans but through legal justice (and distribution) and educational opportunity.
  • Third biological law of history: breeding.
    • Breeding determines whether a civilisation exists or not. High or low culture doesn't determine who wins in the competition of life; only that, over a long enough timespan, one tribe lives while the other dies and takes their ways with them.
    • There must be balance due to food supply and living space; nature restores this balance through famine, pestilence, and war (Malthus). Like technology's taming of geography (to an extent), it has helped us to time this balance as we massively expanded food supply, medicinal capabilities and contraceptive technology. But there must always be an equilibrium of production and reproduction.
    • Over time, the 'upper class' are outbred by the lower class who eventually replace them. Eugenic understanding of civilisation cannot account for the fact that the lower class persist throughout history as the upper class melt away time and time again; yet, civilisation persists, and technological advancement continued. Physical vitality > intellectual pedigree. Nietzsche: the best blood in Germany was in peasant veins; philosophers are not the fittest material from which to breed the race.
    • Ends with an interesting prediction about Catholics outproducing Protestants in America, becoming a majority by 2000 and dominating national, state, and municipal government. This did not come to pass; Catholics dominate the judiciary but little else, and culturally largely assimilated to American liberal norms.
  • Cycles through white race theories, e.g. Ayranism and Teutonism.
  • Talks about their flaws: China, Mesoamerica, India, Islam. The Mediterranean is not "white" - the heritage of Greece and Rome are more connected to the Orient than to northern Europe.
  • The role of race cannot measure civilisation. It is preliminary, not creative; the mixing of races creates the conditions for a new flowering of culture, character, language, literature, religion, morality, art. It is not the race that makes the civilisation; it is the civilisation that makes the people: geographical, economic, and political circumstances create a culture, which in turn creates a human type.
  • Society is founded on the nature of man, not his ideals. Human nature is defined as the fundamental tendencies and feelings of mankind, i.e. instincts.
  • History shows little alteration in human nature. Means and instruments change, motives and ends remain the same.
  • Evolution has been social, not biological over recorded history; economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted by imitation, custom, or education. Custom and tradition can be subject to new situations requiring novel responses. Social evolution is an interplay of custom with origination.
  • The initiative individual - or Founder - is a formative force in history, grown out of his time and land, a product and symbol of events and their agent and voice. But he needs a context, and only when that context exists can he develop and inflate to a level and power that matches his ambition. Events take place through him and around him, his ideas and decisions are vital to the course of history. In this, the imitative majority follow the innovative minority, who follow the initiative individual.
  • Intellect is a vital force in history, but can also destroy things. 99/100 new ideas are inferior to the traditional responses. No one man can accumulate the wisdom needed in one lifetime to entirely overturn his people's customs and traditions, as it is the product of centuries of tinkering by many people in the laboratory of history.
  • It is good that there are conservatives and radicals, young and old, gender and class divisions, which enable a sort of equilibrium exist through constant, but balanced tension of ideas and wills.
  • Jewish enclaves managed to maintain 16 centuries of communal cohesion through a detailed moral code.
  • Small historical understanding concludes morals are negligible due to variability. Large understanding stresses their universality and necessity.
  • Variability comes from historical and environmental conditions: hunter-gatherers need different moral codes to survive than agriculturalists, e.g. HG's eat to the brim because they don't know when next meal is; agriculturists see this as glutton, a sin.
  • Likewise, industrial revolution changes moral codes: marriage delayed, children no longer economic assets, premarital sex increases. Women were "emancipated" (Durant calls this 'industrialized' - I like it) with contraceptives, professional work etc. Individualism destroyed authority of parents, old religious codes die as scientific/materialist education spreads.
  • Sin has existed in every age: homosexuality, adultery, gambling, etc.
  • But behind the seeming disorder of history: wars, poverty, adultery, murder etc, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate, troubled and happy with children. 'Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?'
  • Natural inequality creates poverty and misery, which is only alleviated by religion, the sole alternative to despair. Without it, class war intensifies - and communism grows.
    • The evidence of immorality in history is not absence of morality from religion; religion ameloriates the worst excesses of immorality.
    • Men desire religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth.
    • The decline of religion in Christendom: Copernicus, Francis Bacon, the Protestant Reformation, Deism, the French and American revolutions, and industrialisation and technological progress. Industrialisation was the key trigger for secularisation. Schools and colleges are secularised (with the professionalised teacher-academic body a new "priesthood"), theatres fill and churches empty, families disintegrate.
  • Catholicism survives because it offers hope and its mythology consoles the poor, and high fertility rates ensure survival. It lost the support of intellectuals but gained the support of the poor. If Christendom is devastated by another Great War, the Catholic Church will survive as it did after Rome's collapse and again rule.
  • God and religion die repeatedly only to rise again. Men cannot exist without religion.
  • Puritanism and paganism alternate like a pendulum across history (cyclical theory). Modern excess may well trigger moral renewal; atheists will send their children to religious schools for discipline and education.
  • Previous chapter on religion discusses the role of industrialisation in secularising Christendom. Further developed in this chapter by discussing the fact that economic (material) reality underlies political forms, religious institutions, and cultural creations.
  • The Industrial Revolution spawned democracy, feminism, birth control, socialism, the decline of religion and loosening of morals, the liberation of literature from aristocratic patronage, etc.
  • Marx underestimated the role played by noneconomic incentives in the behaviour of masses.
  • Political or military power causes economic operations, not its result. E.g. conquest of Al-Andalus, Mongol conquests, and Mughal conquests of India were poorer but militarily superior people dominating far richer people.
  • Men manage men who manage things; men who manage money manage all. 'Having studied the fluctuations of prices, they know history is inflationary, and money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.'
  • Profit motive is an important motive for productivity. Slavery, police supervision and ideological enthusiasm are poor substitutes.
  • The majority of ability in society is gathered in a minority of men (Pareto principle). The concentration of wealth follows this concentration of ability. Despotism hinders concentration while democracy helps accelerate it. Rome saw 100 years of war at the end of the Republican period before Augustus restored control through distribution and imperialism.
  • The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable/partial redistribution. Economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism.
  • Monarchy is the most natural form of government because it is like the father's authority in the family, and their longevity (compared to the short nature of democracies). But it has a middling record; great periods of kingship (Pax Romana) and bad periods (general kingship).
  • If the majority of abilities are held by a minority of people, minority government is inevitable. The majority can only periodically throw one elite out and set up another in their place.
  • Violent revolution rarely achieves change; economic developments force those change to come over time anyway. E.g. French Revolution replaced a king with an emperor, but England allowed for natural evolution and saw peace for 300 years+.
  • Wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange, not accumulation of goods, and is a trust in men and institutions rather than the intrinsic value of the money. Violent revolutions don't redistribute wealth, just destroy it.
  • 'Real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.'
  • The 'cycle' of political evolution according to Plato: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, dictatorship. Seems to be echoed throughout history. American democracy avoided this fate so long as it maintained its strong Jeffersonian character ("a Republic of yeoman farmers"), limited government, strong love for liberty, Anglo common law, family, etc. These things are now breaking down.
  • 'Democracy is the hardest form of government as it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.'
  • Militarism will destroy democracy and lead to Caesarism.
  • Durant writes a dialogue between a general and a philosopher: is war worth it?
  • Out of 3500 years of recorded history, only 268 have been without war.
  • Competition (through war) is the father of all things: ideas, inventions, institutions, and states. Peace is unstable and preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.
  • War used to be a contest between aristocracies; now it is between entire peoples. One great war can destroy centuries of civilisation, although the science and technology developed to do war in the first place can then be applied to develop civilisation afterwards. A worthy bargain?
  • Peace will only come through a decisive victory by one power over all, or an attack from a non-Earth species that unites humanity against a different enemy.
Growth & Decay
  • Civilisation as:
    • social order promoting cultural creation
    • cultural creation through freedom and facilities for organisation, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, leters, manners, and arts
    • political order secured through custom, morals, and law
    • economic order maintained through a continuity of production and exchange
    • an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, alboriously built and readily destroyed
  • History repeats itself not through specific events but through general outlines, e.g. the rise and decline of states and civilisations, the progress from agriculture to commerce, from monarchy to democracy to autocracy, etc.
  • Social contract theory is nonsense; most polities took form through the conquest of one group by another, and establishment of continuing force over the conquered by the conqueror by their laws, which overtime merge with the conquered people's customs to create a new social order. Economic provision and prevision based on the organisation of production and labour create another element of growth. Cultural exchange and synthesis may promote intellectual and cultural activity. War can also make or break a nation - Britain collapsed after WWII, America rose to dominance.
  • The source of decay is not by some mystic limitation but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change, e.g. climate change, taxation and productivity issues, foreign competition, inequality by wealth concentration, or the failure to manage the transition from one moral order to another.
  • Civilisations don't really die - they pass on their artifacts to other civilisations who keep them alive to the present day. More people read Plato and Homer today than Greeks were alive around their time.

Syntopical Analysis


What follows is my syntopical analysis of multiple books around history and civilisation and my attempt at deriving the fundamental principles of history based off their works and my own wider thoughts on the matter. Influences include: Ibn Khaldun, Malik Bennabi, and others whose names I forget but owe my knowledge to.

The Four Principles of Civilisation (a personal contrivance)

Civilisation (الحضارة) can be divided into the Four Principles with further subdivisions:

  1. The Three Elements - Iron, Blood, Earth (الحديد والدم والأرض)
  • Iron represents all metals. Gold for trade, iron for war, steel for building.
  • Blood represents biology: humanity, reproduction, family, tribes.
  • Earth represents the soil that nourishes and homes us (and tries to kill us).
  1. The Twin Arches - Culture & Religion (الثقافة والدين)
  • Religion provides the arche that acts as the moral basis of civilisation.
  • Culture is the lens in which we translate it all via mythologies, rituals, Gods, languages, and so on.
  1. The Twin Legitimacies - War & Jurisprudence (الحرب والفقه)
  • War is the capture of power, and a declaration of one's legitimate right to it by strength of arms. War depends on the Three Elements.
  • Jurisprudence is the exercise of power, and the confirmation of its legitimacy through justice, order, and sometimes, mercy. Jurisprudence depends on the Twin Arches.
  1. The Universal Matters - Time & Space (الزمان والمكان)
  • Space is finite and physical, defining where we can move and how fast we can move.
  • Time is intangible and inexorable, defining the window of opportunity in which we have to act in this universe.

Civilisation is made up of the Four Principles. It is built by the Three Elements, restricted by the Matters, and organised by the Twin Legitimacies. This "equation" that we call civilisation is managed subjectively across space-time (the Universal Matters) by what we call culture (the first arche). Culture is the intuitive management of the Four Principles through intangible knowledge (intellectual dark matter) such as norms and traditions (rituals, mythologies, religions, etc). Religion (the second arche) gives us the moral system which elevates us above mere animals.

Technology allows us to distort the Universal Matters primarily through advances made in transport and communications technology. The development of railways, cars, telegraphs, and phones in the 19th-20th centuries followed by the internet of the 21st century are all technologies that collapse space-time as nations seek greater advantages over each other in trading at faster and bigger volumes and frequencies, communicate information to each other at greater speeds, and being able to deliver bigger payloads at a faster rate in wars. Technology also allows us to increase the productivity of the Three Elements, producing more food, more metals, more people, more armaments and material for war - which are then turned into commercial and "civilian" uses, e.g. post-WWII economic growth was a direct result of wartime technologies being commercialised.

Software creates the possibility for a fourth element: bits. Iron, blood, and Earth are atoms, and tended to be what our wealth production was based on, but software opens up a vast expanse of bit wealth: software companies, digital currencies, digital content, etc. I am still hesitant about this owing to its lack of endurance, a requisite for being part of the Four Principles. We will only know a thousand years from now. Minerva's owl has a long flight.

Should any one of these principles fail, it can first be seen reflected through cultural rot as creativity declines and rent seeking and mimicry reign, and civilisation is beginning to collapse. As such, maintaining our tawjih, i.e. our conscious orientation of the Four Principles embodied through our culture, is necessary for the stewardship of advanced civilisation. Should this fail, humanity will not be wiped out. As always, it will stubbornly survive. However, it will be forced back into survival conditions for a while before it begins to rebuild what we have squandered. This could be centuries, millennia, or even never for certain races.