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Synopsis

The Lessons of History is the authors’ accumulation of knowledge and experiences from five decades of The Story of Civilization. They provide insight into our modern human experience and how our forebears’ lives have paved the way for our current existence. Lessons of History provides an in-depth outline of why certain civilizations were successful and developed more effectively. Geographical location was the most important factor for developing historical civilizations. However, the authors argue that technology has left these traditional forms of development as secondary. Additionally, the book explains the historical performance of our current economic, moral, and democratic approaches to society. The outcome is lessons from history that we can apply to improve our civilizations today. 

About Will Durant

Will Durant was an American writer, historian, and philosopher best known for his work ‘The Story of Civilization.’ This book was written in collaboration with his wife. Will attended Saint Peter’s College for undergraduate and subsequently completed a Ph.D. at Columbia University. Despite his academic background, Will started his career as a reporter and then worked as a teacher for several years. After meeting his wife, Ariel, he decided to quit his job as a teacher and pursue his passion for the philosophy of society. Will was also politically active throughout his life. He fought for equal wages, women’s suffrage, and fairer working conditions for the American labor force. 

About Ariel Durant

Ariel Durant was born as Chaya Kaufmann in Proskurov, Russia, on May 10, 1898. She was the daughter of Ethel Appel Kaufman and Joseph Kaufman, a clothing store salesman who emigrated to America. They brought their family over in search of a better life in 1901. When Chaya was 14, she transferred from the New York City public schools to the anarchist-inspired progressive Ferrer Modern School. Here she would meet Will, who was actually her teacher. After World War II, both Durants became involved in a movement to lessen the racial and religious tensions in the United States. Although Will was the key figure behind the “Declaration of Interdependence,” Ariel took an active role. The Durants were elected to the Institute of Arts and Sciences. Ariel was chosen as one of the five women of the year in 1965 by the Los Angeles Times.

Technology Dampens the Impact of Geography

“The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact…Man, not the earth, makes civilization.” The Durants

The Importance of Water

Historically, geographical conditions have been one of the most crucial factors influencing the development of cities. This is why almost all the world’s largest cities are based near rivers, lakes, or oceans. Bodies of water were crucial for water and food, but also for transportation and trade of resources. The authors provide an example of Mesopotamia. This ancient city is generally considered the birthplace of human civilization. Importantly, Mesopotamia was built between two huge rivers: Euphrates and Tigris. The Sumerians and Babylonians who lived there excelled due to the opportunities provided by the flowing water. Mesopotamia is not an anomaly. Instead, Ancient Egypt was called the Gift of Nile, and Ancient Rome grew based on three bodies of water nearby.

Technology’s Impact on Geography

As well as helping civilizations to excel, geography also has the potential to push out civilizations. Geographies are not static. For example, climate extremes have led to over-growth in Central American jungles and no growth in parts of Central Asia. In both instances, large and powerful civilizations were diminished. Despite this, technology is now limiting the impact of geography on city development. For example, technology is now the primary factor underpinning the transportation of goods. Subsequently, countries and cities no longer need to be close to the water to develop economically. Subsequently, countries like England and France have started to lose their grip on the world economy. Cars, trains, and planes have reduced the importance of these countries’ coastal nature. On the other hand, countries like Russia, China, and Brazil are no longer limited by their vast landmass. Digital products and different forms of transportation have limited the impact of geography on development in the modern world. 

Humans Are Not Born Equal

Humans are naturally competitive due to our evolutionary past. Our ancestors’ survival depended on fighting and killing. Subsequently, we have adopted this same competitiveness. Even social cooperation between humans has the sole purpose of bettering our chances of succeeding. For example, developing family structures, communities, and nations is just a way of improving your ability to compete.

The Durants provide an outline of a few ways in which humans are not naturally equal, and competitiveness is intuitive:

  1. Inequality is a natural part of human nature. Attempting to reduce it will only come at the cost of individual freedom.
  2. Genetics is the most important factor underpinning being physically or mentally stronger than somebody else. We can improve ourselves, but we cannot change our genetics. Hence, inequality is there from birth.
  3. Social complexity, which is increasing with the development of technology, only exaggerates our genetic inequalities.

Race Has No Impact on Development

Historically, certain groups have viewed race as the reason certain societies have flourished. Subsequently, there were arguments made that white people are naturally more intelligent. However, this is not the case. All of these differences in development can be attributed to geography. A famous French aristocrat, Joseph Arthur, argued against the importance of geography. He pointed to Native Americans having the same favorable conditions as the Ancient Egyptians. The reality, though, is that advanced cultures have developed throughout the world and are independent of each other. For example, China had a highly developed civilization long before Ancient Egypt or Rome. Plus, Incas, Mayans, Indians, and Africans have all, at one point, been home to the most advanced civilization on the Earth. Hence, race has nothing to do with development.

Personalities and Morals Are a Product of Culture

Human genetics have remained relatively stable throughout history. Despite this, we would struggle to relate to somebody from Ancient Egypt. The primary difference between them and us is our culture. The authors explain that the only thing that has significantly changed over this time is technology. Therefore, technology and cultural innovation are factors that impact our morals and beliefs. For example, innovative individuals introduce new ideas into society, and those widely accepted are integrated into the culture of that time. Hence, people like Napoleon, Marx, and Lenin changed the culture during their time. However, not all of these ideas complement the present technology. Therefore, Napoleon’s ideas are no longer accepted within our modern culture.

Morals Evolve Over Time

It can be challenging looking back at historical figures and accepting how they could hold certain moral values. For example, people from the Middle Ages would have seen burning an accused witch on the stake as a moral act. Today we would see this as a morally wrong act. The reason behind this difference in morals is that ethical values evolve. Morals are associated with the economic phases of our history. The authors outline that humans have passed through three economic phases: hunting, agriculture, and industry.

Within each phase, certain values were encouraged. Firstly, during the hunting phase, food was scarce and men had a significantly higher death rate than women. Therefore, as sexual reproduction was more important than ever, the traits of greed, brutality, and sexual aggression were encouraged. These traits would have formed the moral values of the time. Subsequently, the agricultural age required a different set of skills and values. Industriousness, cooperation, and peacefulness became more important than aggression and violence. Hence, brutality became ethically wrong. Additionally, children and families grew in importance. Subsequently, the most morally reprehensible behaviors were abortion and bigamy. Families were seen as a farm’s production unit. Hence, parental authority was vital since children worked with their parents and had to obey them. Finally, the industrial revolution was marked by young children being encouraged to leave home and find work. Hence, individuality became the foundation of morality. Marriage and children became less important as children no longer offered an economic advantage. 

Concentration of Wealth Is Natural

Throughout history, wealth has shifted towards those who have the required skills for the period they are living in. Hence, there has always been a minority of people commanding the majority of wealth. The authors explain that its moral values and economic freedom determine a society’s wealth distribution. Democracy exists to increase the freedom of its citizens. 

Subsequently, democracies generally place more wealth in the hands of the minority population.

Although the authors suggest that inequality is natural within democracies, they also argue that redistribution has to occur when inequality reaches a certain level. Historically, this redistribution has occurred when the sheer number of poor people outweighs the wealth and power of the minority. In the past, this redistribution has either occurred through legal reformation or force. One example of the former is Athens in 594 BC. The lower classes were considering revolting, and the wealthy were prepared to protect their wealth by force. However, Solon, an Athenian noble statesman, decided to adopt a different approach. He reformed the system by reducing the currency’s value, which then reduced debt and allowed the poor to survive easier. The alternative is far less effective. Roman Senates have previously refused to redistribute wealth. This resulted in Rome being ravaged by a civil war between the classes that persisted from 133 BC until 30 BC.

Socialism Paired With Capitalism Can Work

Many societies have attempted socialism as a way of redistributing wealth, but it has always failed. Despite this, the authors explain that these failures are mostly due to socialism being attempted alone. Socialism can work if it is paired with other concepts. For example, the Incas in South America were all employees of the state in exchange for security and food. However, this was combined with a sovereign delegate who was viewed as the Sun God. This approach was a success until Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1533. This is an example of socialism and monarchism working together. 

The authors argue that socialism can also work alongside capitalism. In fact, they believe that merging these two concepts could produce a more sustainable social system. Today’s socialism allows people to have more physical and intellectual freedom, thus stimulating their overall production. Capitalist societies by themselves are failing with regard to redistribution of wealth. Combining the two could allow both sides to compromise and find an effective middle-ground. The threat of capitalism has encouraged socialist thinkers to broaden their freedom. The threat of socialism has encouraged capitalist thinkers to increase equality. 

Democracy Requires Education

“Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.” – The Durants

Democracies are now considered the best approach for society. Subsequently, the majority of the West is democratically governed. Despite the widespread nature of democracy, the authors explain that democracies are a relatively new concept in human history. Democracies are effective in allowing the development of science and enterprise. However, they do not guarantee equal rights for all. For example, democracies can still deny women the right to vote. 

Despite the benefits of democracies, they are also extremely fragile. Even the most stable democracies are constantly under the threat of being overthrown by a dictator. Suppose a country is threatened by war or an economic crisis. In that case, it’s easier for an individual to take advantage of it and rise to power in a democracy. A democratic society’s only defense against this is education. People can only resist corrupt leaders if they have the education to understand what’s going on.

Achievements From History Guide Future Civilizations

“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.” – The Durants

Societies do not have to restart every time a civilization falls. Instead, the best achievements and ideas of the previous civilizations can be incorporated into future societies. We no longer have any of the great ancient civilizations. However, a considerable number of their inventions still live on in modern society. We still use basic technology from our past, such as fire, the wheel, and writing systems. Plus, agricultural practices and certain moral codes remain unchanged. We may be the same biological beings as thousands of years ago. Still, we have more advanced human rights, judicial systems, intellectual freedoms, and technological innovations. We have taken the good from previous civilizations and mixed them with our own society’s significant achievements. The authors describe this as our heritage. Our biology is the same, but our heritage is more prosperous. We have learned from the lessons of history and improved human civilization. The authors suggest that we need to continue looking at historical successes as potential guidance. For example, the success of the historical merging of socialism and capitalism. 


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