"The Lessons of History" is a collection of short essays based on Will and Ariel Durant’s acclaimed eleven volume "The Story of Civilization". It begins with a great disclaimer: "Only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed."
And they succeed! The book packs a wealth of insights into a hundred pages. The authors discuss, in turn, the forces that have shaped history. The forces considered include natural (geography, biology), human behavior (character, morality), and human constructs (religion, economic systems, and government). The last essay considers the question "Is progress real?".
The essay on economics argues that wealth inequality is a natural and inevitable consequence of the "concentration of ability" within a minority of a society, and this has occurred regularly throughout history. The authors state: "The relative equality of Americans before 1776 has been overwhelmed by a thousand forms of physical, mental, and economic differentiation, so that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome."
This leads into the essay on socialism, which strives to counteract the forces that drive wealth inequality. The authors survey "socialist experiments" in ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Rome, China, and South America - all centuries before the industrial revolution. It was fascinating to read this history which contains a mixture of failures and successes. The authors argue that the trend is towards a synthesis of capitalism and socialism (rather than one system winning outright).
The next essay discusses the various forms of government and descibes the special circumstances that enabled democracy to take root and flourish in the American colonies. The authors argue that many of the favorable conditions that were present in the years following the American Revolution have disappeared. The essay ends with the haunting warning: "If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or other 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; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world."
Hopefully this review has provided a flavor for how the authors have distilled the insights they have gained from years of study. It should not come as a surprise that the lessons gleaned from several thousand years of recorded history continue to ring true today.
This is a book that I wish I'd read in high school or perhaps Freshman year of college. It's a wonderfully written study of how we got to where we are today.
- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (13 February 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 143914995X
- ISBN-13: 978-1439149959
- Product Dimensions:: 14 x 0.8 x 21.4 cm
- Shipping Weight: 113 g
- Customer reviews: 602 customer ratings
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: 1,614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)