Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

This book attempts to distill authors' previously written and incredibly popular multi-tome historical "The Story of Civilization" into under 100 pages. Full disclaimer: I haven't read the original. I found this one is a bit of a mixed bag. Overall, I say read it, since it's so short (~100 short pages). I found the flourishing writing style and strong opinions sometimes leads to funny dated read. Similar in some ways to Jacob Bronowski writing.

Random but interesting ideas:

  • Freedom and equality are at odds.
  • Authors seem to rely on group selection. Still unclear what I think about the idea.
  • Interesting coverage of the great man theory of history. A nod to both the causes of greatness in the environment and also personal originality that can bridge gaps.
  • Also insight into the yin yang nature of liberal vs conservative thought.
  • Interesting that Rome took 500 years to collapse from its nadir in 60 BCE.
  • Revolutions rarely succeed in redistributing wealth, mainly in destroying it.
  • In Chapter X, authors express concern about a despot ruining America democracy.

A lot of interesting thinking on morality and history:

  • In general the idea that morality follows the times.
  • Intimate relationship between Bible and agriculture. Biblical morals developed to help with agriculture, and have deteriorated as a result of industry.
  • Was every vice once a virtue? Pugnacity, brutality, greed, and sexual readiness were virtues for the hunter age.
  • The idea that most times in history have been full of sin. Examples from the Renaissance.

Some things that felt dated and detracted from the experience:

  • The chapters are mostly named "History and _". This obtuse naming gets old quickly, and skimming the contents is completely useless.
  • The authors make predictions that geography no longer matters because airplanes, completely ignoring reality of efficiency. They end pompously on "man, not earth, makes civilization"
  • At some points the authors express fear that Catholics will take over US politics. This is likely top of mind for the authors writing the book the Kennedy era. I looked up the authors' religious affiliations and they come from a Jewish background (squee!)

The authors allude to some historical patterns:

  • History that is written is different from history that is lived.
  • The church as an organization that stands above Christian nation states. Kind of like a religious version of the UN. Like an alternative to the international system. Except while the International System is really vague and doesn't really seem to have much power, the Church worked once.
  • Prevalence of the cycle between religion and atheism. And I think that Sam Harris is wrong about the end of faith.
  • Cycles pervade economic inequality. This has a tendency to increase until the poor can't take it anymore and revolt. Or until the ruling class realizes and course corrects.
  • Now irrelevant but quite prescient that they would apply Hegelian thinking to industrialization. Meaning that industrialization is thesis, communism is antithesis and now we need a synthesis. (Evidence points to Liberal welfare states?)
  • Again the idea of compensation and balance in a great quote from Plato "dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated fork of tyranny and slavery out if the most extreme fork of liberty."
  • Monarchy - aristocracy - democracy - dictatorship (and so on). Cycle appears over and over in history.

Civilizations don't die completely. There are more readers of Homer today than ever before.