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History + Philosophy

The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant

 

History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with out generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque. Perhaps, within these limits, we can learn enough from history to bear reality patiently, and to respect one another’s delusions.

The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. Man, not the earth, makes civilization.

History is a fragment of biology. We are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. If some of us seem to escape the strife or the trials it is because our group protects us; but that group itself must meet the tests of survival. 

 

First biological lesson of history: life is competition

Competition is not only the life of trade, it the trade of life — peaceful when food abounds, violent when mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law.

Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of completion; we cooperate in our group — our family, community, club, church, party, “race”, or nation — in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups. Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. 

 

Second biological lesson: life is selection.

In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. Since nature (here meaning total reality and its processes) has not read carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man, we are all born unfree and unequal: subject to our physical and psychological heredity, and to the customs and traditions of our group; diversely endowed in health and strength, in mental capacity and qualities of character. 

Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. 

 

Third biological lesson of history: life must breed

Nature has a passion for quantity as a prerequisite to the selection of quality. 

Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education. 

Our of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it — perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection. 

Moral codes differ because they adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions. If we divide economic history into three stages — hunting, agriculture, industry — we may expect that the moral code of one stage will be changed in the next.

So we cannot be sure that the moral laxity of our times is a herald of decay rather than a painful or delightful transition between a moral code that has lost its agricultural basis and another that our industrial civilization has yet to forge into social order and normality. 

 

On the existence of God:

Does history support a belief in God? 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. 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. 

“As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”

 

Economics:

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient. 

 

Government:

As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions.

A government that governed least was admirably suited to liberate those individualistic energies that transformed America from a wilderness to a material utopia, and from the child and ward to the rival and guardian of Western Europe. 

Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.

Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. 

 

Progress:

Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances are merely new means of achieving old ends — acquisition of goods, pursuit of sex, overcoming of competition, fighting of wars. 

Our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all. Once colleges were luxuries, designed for the male half of the leisure class; today universities are so numerous that he who runs may become a Ph.D.

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