New Book Summary: The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

Published 5 months ago • 1 min read

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant is a sweeping examination of history, human nature, and the patterns that we can see when we adopt a long-term perspective. My latest book summary looks at the lessons we might glean from the past.

As usual, the key takeaways are below, and you can find the full summary by clicking the link above.


  • Natural forces play a key role in shaping history:
    • Geology and climate limit us, but less so as technology grows.
    • Natural selection requires competition, quantity, and diversity.
  • Morals and religion maintain social order:
    • Moral codes are universal and necessary, but change over time according the context. Values that made sense during an agricultural era evolved after the Industrial Revolution.
    • Religion was borne out of fear — the link to morality came afterwards, and strengthened the role of religion.
    • Religion and morals play a bigger role in maintaining social order when laws are weaker, and vice versa.
  • Economic forces throughout history:
    • Though leaders may have appealed to non-economic matters (e.g. religion and nationalism) to motivate the masses, the hidden, underlying motive for war was often economic.
    • Inequality is natural and inevitable, because men are born with different abilities. The only way to constrain inequality is to constrain freedom — but doing so will make a society more vulnerable to external threats.
    • Redistribution occasionally breaks up concentrations of wealth. Peaceful redistributions redistribute wealth whereas violent ones just redistribute poverty.
    • Past examples of socialism failed as government bureaucracies grew too large (and corrupt), and required increasingly high taxes to fund them.
    • The authors believe socialism and capitalism will keep moving closer and eventually converge.
  • Government and power
    • Minority rule is natural, because centralised power is more effective than diluted power.
    • Democracy is historically rare and difficult to sustain. However, it has done more good than any other form of government.
  • War is a constant. Peace is unstable and maintained only by a balance or acknowledged supremacy of power.
  • Progress and decay in human history:
    • Human nature is slow to change: This is why history repeats itself, though not exactly.
    • There has been progress, as defined by the average person’s ability to control the conditions of their life, rather than by “happiness”.
    • However, progress is neither continuous nor universal. There will be setbacks along the way.
    • Decay is natural, but it gives new civilisations an opportunity to rise. And civilisations never truly die, anyway — they live on through memories and records.

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Until next time,

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