Lessons from history by historians Will & Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History

if we don't learn the lessons of history we will likely make its mistakes

By:  Will and Ariel Durant

Book Review


 Will and Ariel Durant, a husband-wife team and authors of the massive 10 volume, 10,000 page The Story of Civilization, distilled a lot of history’s wisdom into a little gem of a book called The Lessons of History.  As a meaty survey of 5000 years of  unchanging human nature, it's a powerful guide to understanding the likely future results of choices we're making today.  This page and its subpages share some distilled highlights from the book that are relevant to our current political situation. 

In the chapter pages, the Highlights sections share what the Durants captured from history, while the Lesson sections share what the page author considers the most important lessons we should learn from their observations. 

Quotations are directly from the book.  If you like what you learn, try reading the entire book; it is not very long.


Chapter III:  Biology and History

The first lesson of history is that “life is competition”; the second is that “life is selection.”

Out natural biological differences produce material inequality.  All efforts to eliminate that inequality through force necessarily destroy freedom.  That is the dilemma of our current age and every previous one. 

Chapter V:  Character and History

Man’s behavior has changed little over the course of recorded history. 

The main elements of history repeat themselves because human nature has changed very slowly over thousands of years, and character counts.  Change should be instituted gradually and carefully in order to avoid throwing away the legacy that has created our freedom and prosperity.

Chapter VI:  Morals and History

In spite of wars and tyrants, millions of people have lived moral lives

The immorality of brutal oppressive leaders and their wars are all too obvious.  It is the daily fare of history.  But the morals of the “common people” have frequently been much higher.  The history of kindness, brotherliness, and good family life has never really been told.

Chapter VII:  Religion and History

No society has maintained moral life without the aid of religion

Religion has been a key element in maintaining the moral character of civilization.  Without it, no society has maintained its moral character.

Chapter VIII:  Economics and History

Every society sooner or later has had to rely upon the profit motive to create prosperity

Societies oscillate over time between productive prosperity driven by freedom, and poverty created by collective redistribution.  Every state that has tried central planning has eventually had to resort to the incentive of profits to escape stagnation and grinding poverty. 

Chapter IX:  Socialism and History

Socialism and Communism are not new; they have been tried again and again for thousands of years

Centralized government ownership and/or control of the means of production and redistribution, that is the heart of statism (Socialism, Communism, Fascism), has been tried again and again in history, from the time of the earliest written records to the present.  Central planning was not a new idea when Karl Marx popularized it as Communism and gave it a scientific sounding basis. 

Chapter X:  Government and History

Complete freedom leads to chaos, followed by tyranny

Unless individual freedom is limited and channeled into socially beneficial pursuits by law, tradition and morals, it leads to anarchy and chaos.  Dictators arise out of the chaos, promising relief from anarchy, and establish tyranny.  Greece, Rome and America provide a window into what our future may look like if we do not learn the lessons of history. 

Chapter XII:  Growth and Decay

Civilization is the summation of a society’s culture, customs, morals, law, and economic order 

Civilization “… is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed.”  History is littered with the ruins of civilizations that ultimately failed.  History tends to repeats itself because human nature has changed little in thousands of years.  We can learn much from what has gone on before, including where we might be heading.  There is still hope that we can avoid the mistakes of the past, by learning from them.


The history of the world is the story of the accumulation and forced redistribution of wealth, of the piling up and leveling out of inequalities through revolutions and concentration of government power in the hands of demigods that become the new tyrants.  It is also the story of different political philosophies that have led to prosperity and ruin.  This historical cycle, from unequal prosperity to equal poverty is the trap that has held the population of the world in its grip for millennia. 

The only way escape this trap and break this cycle is for rich and poor alike to understand the potential benefits of productive inequality and how the accumulation and use of power must be controlled so man’s natural inequality produces prosperity for all, even if it is unequal.  See Hope for the Future (in development) to learn how we can avoid repeating this cycle and escape the trap


Simon and Schuster, 1968


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