Book Review: Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History

Edward R. Dougherty

Having completed the 10th volume of The Story of Civilization (with The Age of Napoleon yet to come), Will and Ariel Durant took time to reflect in The Lessons of History. It is a short book, less than 100 pages, in which they comment on lessons they have learned from history as it pertains to the earth, biology, race, character, morals, religion, economics, government, and war.

I come to The Lessons of History later in life, having read The Story of Civilization three times. This provides a different perspective on the book than one would get reading the Durants for the first time. One sees the same authors in both, but their attitude is different in The Lessons. They are clearly historians in The Story, taking the view, in Will Durant’s words, that “the real history of man is…in the lasting contributions made by geniuses to the sum of human civilization and culture.” In The Lessons, they are advocates, learning from history but also using history to buttress their philosophical positions. Perhaps this is to be expected from people making judgments on the human condition. These “lessons” appear in The Story; however, there they appear as commentary lightly interspersed within the overall mass of the eleven volumes.

Reading The Lessons, one must first keep in mind that the Durants are atheists. An atheist will draw different lessons than a devout Moslem, orthodox Christian, or Talmudic Jew from the same events. Each sees the events through a different filter. Unlike many of our contemporary atheists, who seem oblivious to the monumental personal and societal consequences of the decision not to believe, the Durants understand and frequently cite the cost of disbelief. Second, they are cultivated liberals of the sort common in the United States up through the end of the 1980s. Their atheism and liberalism are apparent in The Story but not intrusive. In The Lessons, their filters are more active. They should be read with this perspective in mind. With this clarification, I will briefly review some of the chapters and then make some concluding remarks.

For the Durants (Chapter 3), “the laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history,” the laws pertain “to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest,” and there are three lessons: (1) “life is competition,” (2) “life is selection,” and (3) “life must breed.” The reader is informed at the outset that human life has no eternal meaning and there are no universal moral norms. If man is to somehow find meaning or social harmony in life, these must be created by man himself in a world of tooth and claw.

The Durants argue that a solid knowledge of history teaches us that there is an underlying unity to moral codes (Chapter 6). These “differ because they adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions;” nevertheless, basic necessities are required to maintain social order. They see the moral decline of the West as the collapse of a moral code suitable for an agrarian society coming apart in an industrial age. They draw an analogy between Europe and America after two world wars and ancient Rome: “After the wars of Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Antony and Octavius… a shallow sophistication prided itself upon its pessimism and cynicism.” But this decline is not a certain harbinger of a final collapse. Perhaps a new morality will be forged. They remind us that Rome did not finally fall to the barbarian hordes until 465. Having written The Lessons prior to 1968, when the Christian moral code was still prevalent, perhaps they would not be so hopeful were they writing today when that code has virtually disappeared from public life and has been replaced by a pervasive hedonistic narcissism.  

“Does history support a belief in God?” they ask (Chapter 7). No: “If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive.” Not only does history not support belief, the reality of God is ruled out by the primary biological assumptions, as is any idea that the moral order has a transcendental basis. The decline of Christianity began with Copernicus (1543) and “the death of God as an external deity” commenced in the early part of the 17th century. Today, the modern state has allowed “paganism to resume its natural way.” Our historians are not so naïve as to feel fully at ease with atheism: “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion…France, the United States, and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order.” What would the Durants say today, a half century after writing The Lessons, with religion now essentially banned from the public square and the Supreme Court quashing the First Amendment?

While recognizing the roles of nationalism, religion, passion, and power, the Durants put great weight on the role of economics in history, giving numerous instances where wealth has played a major role (Chapter 8). They see an endless battle between liberty and equality, and the recurring theme of class warfare. They discuss the wisdom of Solon in creating the first Athenian constitution in the 6th century B.C. as opposed to the uncompromising stand of the Roman aristocracy in the hundred-year class war from the Gracchi brothers through Marius to Caesar. They conclude, “All economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.” The Durants desire liberty because with liberty comes the free play of the mind, but liberty concentrates wealth and must eventually be restricted, either peacefully or with thousands of heads rolling in the streets.

The Durants comment that “monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government,” they praise the 150-year Pax Romana that followed the ascendance of Augustus, and they concur with Gibbon’s assessment that “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous” during the period beginning with the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius (Chapter 10). Nevertheless, they judge that “all in all, monarchy has had a middling record” and that most governments have been oligarchies. On democracy, they quote both Thucydides and Plato as to its dangers and cite both Athens before its subjugation by Phillip of Macedon and the demise of the Roman Republic ending with rise of Augustus as validating Plato’s sequential formula of monarchy to aristocracy to democracy to dictatorship. But their hearts are with democracy as they argue that the ancient democracies “did not deserve the name” and that true democracy began with Magna Carta and Protestantism, “which had opened the way to religious and mental liberty.” The chapter closes with a warning on the evils of militarism and unequal distribution of wealth being the threats to modern democracy. Is it that back in 1968 the Durants could believe that local government and the spirit of religion, two basic Tocquevillian supports of democracy in America, were safe? Or did their progressivism blind them to the need for the former and their atheism bias them to discount the latter?  

Chapter 11 poses the salient historical question: “Are there any regularities, in this process of growth and decay, which may enable us to predict, from the course of past civilizations, the future of our own?” The Durants consider theories of Virgil, Saint-Simon, and Spengler. They could have included many others, most notably Hegel. They argue that there are no such regularities but that does not rule out common factors. They state their central criterion: “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through…the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.” They discuss challenges, including economics and religion. In reference to the century before Christ and us today, they write, “Caught in the relaxing interval between one moral code and the next, an unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and a restless disorder of family and morals….Few souls feel any longer that it is beautiful and honorable to die for one's country.” “Is this a depressing picture?” they ask. “Not quite….Nations die. Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change. Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him.” Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus comes to mind: “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile….The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Is it?

Finally, in Chapter 12 they ask, “Is Progress Real?” That depends on the definition of progress. They provide one: “We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life….Our problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.” Posed this way, the answer is obvious: yes, there has been much progress. They point out many ways in which modern life is better or at least as good as during the greatest periods of ancient Greece and Rome. Ultimately, the Durants are educators and they end on that note. They warn of the need to transmit civilization or “we should be savages again.” They caution those who would whine about this or that imperfection: “None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten thousand years.” The struggles, crimes, wars, and catastrophes of the past cannot obscure that history is “a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.” But all of this must be transmitted or it will disappear. The burden falls on our educators not to let it die and condemn mankind to a depressing world of mere survival. Writing The Lessons when they did, the Durants were optimistic; ten years later that optimism may have faded; today they might be looking to the next civilization.

In a day when, for most students, history has either vanished or become a litany of hackneyed social issues, The Lessons can serve as a stimulus to seriousness. Many readers will acknowledge the importance of the topics and, should they read the book, they will get a glimpse of thousands of years of thought and struggle that have gone into addressing man’s deep (and irresolvable) problems. Some will thirst for the kind of profound thinking that has been virtually eliminated from our dysfunctional education system and go to The Story of Civilization to look for what they have been missing. Once there, they will find the panorama of human life, not as a collection of dreary tales or pop Marxism, but as, in the words of Will Durant, “men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little farther ahead; men carving marble into forms ennobling men; men molding peoples into better instruments of greatness; men making a language of music and music out of language; men dreaming of finer lives, and living them.” 


Edward R. Dougherty is the Robert M. Kennedy '26 Chair and a Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University.

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