The Lessons of History

Date written Oct 25, 2020
Filed under Literature in cult

The Lessons of History by Will Durant, Ariel Durant is quite an extraordinary piece of work. Summarizing their own seminal volume on history of civilizations into just 100 pages is a momumental feat.

The short book opens with an extremely powerful set of questions, that I just cannot stop thinking about.

As his studies come to a close the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nations and ideas, and retelling "sad stories of the death of kings"? Have you learned more about the human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book? Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgements and policies, any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change? Have you found such regularities in the sequeuence of past events that you can predict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states? Is it possible that, after all, "history has no sense," that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destiined to make on a larger stage and scale?

Reading this book, past, present, and future seem grim. Plato's reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship seems uncomfortably fitting. This book makes me uneasy about the future. I can only hope that the history presented in this book is never used to justify the regressive ideas that many of our ancestors have fought hard against. The cycle of despair that our civilization has kept falling into needs to end.

We can surely do better. Hindsight bias tends to dominate when reading and presenting history. While history repeats itself, it only repeats in the outline. As the famous quip, the devil is in the details. This is comforting and concerning at the same time. I am comforted by instances of this in scientific research -- ideas in vogue often fall out of favor, but can come back stronger with fresh insights. On the other hand, this is precisely what is concerning because nature doesn't discriminate between right or wrong. The hope is that enough of us "do the right thing".