The Lessons of History | Will Durant

Summary of: The Lessons of History
By: Will Durant


Dive into the fascinating world of ‘The Lessons of History,’ where Will Durant unearths the foundations of humanity’s growth and development through the lens of geography, human nature, and societal changes. Explore the impact of geographical conditions and technological advancements on humanity’s progress and the role of competition and inequality in shaping our societies. Uncover the fluidity of morality across generations, the relationship between various governance systems, and the persistent presence of war in human history. This enlightening summary takes you on a guided tour through the building blocks and indispensable components of history with the aim of illustrating how the past has shaped our present world.

The Impact of Geographical Conditions on Civilization

The geographical conditions of a city or region play a significant role in its development and success. Throughout history, people have settled near rivers, lakes, and oceans for their plentiful supply of water, food, and transportation. The space between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia allowed civilizations like the Sumerians and Babylonians to develop and thrive. Similarly, ancient Egypt and Rome prospered beside the Nile and Tiber rivers. However, extreme climates and changes in geographical conditions can cause civilizations to decline or fall. With advancements in technology for transportation, a civilization’s dependence on geographical factors has decreased. Trade routes are no longer bound to rivers or seas with the invention of cars, trains, and planes. As a result, the commercial advantage of coastal countries like England and France has declined, while landlocked countries like Russia, China, and Brazil have gained an advantage.

The Natural Order of Inequality

Humans are inherently competitive due to their ancestral proclivity for violence. Cooperation only comes about to gain a competitive edge against other groups. States arose from this competition for protection. Our competitive nature means inequality is natural and reducing it comes at the cost of freedom. Genetics determine our physical and mental strengths, making us unequal from birth. As societies become more complex, our inherent inequalities become greater, necessitating the restriction of freedom to create more equality. The freer people are, the more unequal they become, as freedom allows certain individuals to gain unfair economic power.

Race and Civilization

The traditional belief that white people are genetically superior to other races was brought about by Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, a French aristocrat who is believed to have inspired modern racial thinking. Gobineau argued that physical and mental abilities were determined by race, believing that only the white race could create civilization while other races could not. He claimed that environmental advantages and political institutions could not explain the rise of civilization. Gobineau also believed that white civilization degenerates when whites intermingle with other races. However, advanced cultures have existed all over the world, including in China, Central and South America, and ancient Greece and Rome, which drew a lot of influence from Asia Minor. Therefore, civilization is not a product of race but rather of geography.

Human Nature and Cultural Evolution

Human nature may have evolved biologically, but our basic instincts have remained the same. However, cultural evolution has radically transformed us and determined our social behavior. Innovative individuals have put new ideas into society, and their success has been measured by the majority of people’s response to them. Throughout history, our species has undergone a great deal of economic, political, intellectual, and moral change. Still, it’s our cultural environment that ultimately shapes our behavior. Thus, if a baby could be adopted from Ancient Greece into present-day France, they’d grow up to behave like a modern-day French citizen. The prophet Mohammed, Napoleon, Marx, and Lenin are some prominent personalities who have left their mark on society. Human evolution has been social, not biological.

The Evolution of Morality

Morality is not set in stone and undergoes change over time. The moral standards of people from different eras and cultures vary. In the hunting phase of human history, survival traits such as greed, brutality, and aggression were necessary for men. However, during the agricultural period, virtues such as industriousness, cooperation, and peacefulness became crucial. The family was considered to be the main unit of production on a farm, and children were an economic asset. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, individuality became more important than unity, and free love was encouraged. Moral codes are still subject to change, and what is considered right or wrong today may not be the same in the future. Moral standards evolve over time, and they are highly influenced by historical and environmental conditions. Thus, the morality of people from the Middle Ages would be different from ours today.

The Catholic Church: Past and Present

The Catholic Church, once a leader in morality and charity, became corrupt in the Middle Ages and focused on promoting orthodoxy through the Inquisition. This caused them to fail in playing a role in the abolition of slavery, which was taken on by other groups, often led by philosophers. Despite losing followers due to modernization and secularization, the Church still provides comfort and hope for the future.

The Catholic Church has been a prominent institution for centuries, but its influence and power have diminished in recent years. Despite this, it remains strong due to the hope it provides people. However, the Church’s role in promoting morality and charity has shifted over time. Initially, the Church fought against slavery, family feuding, and other forms of national conflict and violence. Still, gradually, its stance on related issues was reversed, and it became aligned with corrupt leaders who used Church as a political tool to gain more power.

This shift in focus caused the Church to become corrupt during the Middle Ages and to fail in playing a role in one of the most important moral issues of the modern world: the abolition of slavery. Instead, other groups and institutions, often led by philosophers, took on this task. The Church became focused on promoting orthodoxy and religious doctrine through the Inquisition, rather than fostering morality and goodwill.

Today, the Catholic Church has limited influence on people’s daily lives, given that laws are created by politicians, and academically trained teachers have taken priests’ place. Nevertheless, the Church continues to provide comfort and hope for the future and remains relevant to those who turn to it. Despite its tumultuous past and waning influence, it is unlikely that the Catholic Church will disappear anytime soon.

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