50 Profound Quotes & 5 Deep Questions from “The Lessons of History” (Book Summary)

Sloww
Sloww
Sep 30 · 13 min read
Sloww Durant The Lessons Of History Book Summary
Sloww Durant The Lessons Of History Book Summary

Looking for the full book summary? You can find it here: 35 Human Learnings from “The Lessons of History” by Will & Ariel Durant (Book Summary)

Civilization owes Will and Ariel Durant a debt of gratitude for dedicating their lives to the study and understanding of history. It could be said that The Lessons of History is the definitive summary of their 50+ years of expertise.

As mentioned in the previous post, I also found a transcript of two hours of interviews with the Durants that Farnam Street posted. I’ve incorporated highlights from the interview content into the book summary to give you the richest look possible into the Durant’s historical expertise. Enjoy!

Quick Housekeeping:

  • All quotes are from the authors unless otherwise stated.
  • I’ve added emphasis to some quotes in bold.

Post Contents:

50 Profound Quotes

5 Deep Questions:

  1. What is the meaning of history?
  2. What is civilization?
  3. Has human nature changed throughout history?
  4. Does history repeat itself?
  5. Is progress real?

50 Profound Quotes from The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant

  1. “The meaning of history is it is man laid bare.”
  2. “History as usually written…is quite different from history as usually lived.”
  3. “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”
  4. “The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
  5. “The record of the past can have a great deal of significance, but the events themselves have significance only if you approach them from a philosophical standpoint and ask the right questions.”
  6. “The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.”
  7. “There are many things profounder than reason which should enter into a man’s judgement and understanding of life.”
  8. “I’m not quite sure the common man is ruling today. Common people never rule anything.”
  9. “Man, not the earth, makes civilization.”
  10. “Civilization itself is the most remarkable thing that has ever happened on the planet from our point of view. Certainly the most remarkable thing that man has done.”
  11. “We’ve become civilized by absorbing civilization, but we don’t become civilized by nature.”
  12. “Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man, and the constitution of man rewrites the constitutions of states.”
  13. “The basic lesson of history is that man is essentially what he has been all through history and he changes his habits, but he does not change his instincts.”
  14. “Human behavior has changed, but not human nature.”
  15. “The biological factors remain unchanged. The social factors change.”
  16. “Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same.”
  17. “Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological.”
  18. “It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people.”
  19. “History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.”
  20. “Civilizations go through the same stages, but naturally, the details are different.”
  21. “Progress is an improvement in the means that we use for achieving the same old ends. I sometimes wonder if whether the progress is only of means without any progress in ends.”
  22. “We are the same at birth that we used to be, but in a sense, we progress by the rise of the pedestal of the social heritage.”
  23. “Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life.”
  24. “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”
  25. “Naturally, you would expect that the educated would inherit the Earth. The fertile inherit the Earth…it teaches the law of biology that you have to breed as well as breathe.”
  26. “Ideas are the strongest things of all in history, because even a gun was originally an idea.”
  27. “Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace.”
  28. “No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”
  29. “The ideas of today are the politics of tomorrow, and the philosophy of today is the literature of tomorrow.”
  30. “The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.”
  31. “The hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man.”
  32. “The first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.”
  33. “When we made ourselves free, we forgot to make ourselves intelligent.”
  34. “I think freedom has reached a point where it is creating disorder and forgetting that order was its mother. It is destroying its mother.”
  35. “If you have excess order, you still have order, but if you have excess liberty, you have chaos.”
  36. “Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.”
  37. “A right is not a gift of God or nature but a privilege which it is good for the group that the individual should have.”
  38. “War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.”
  39. “Tradition is the memory of the race. Insanity is the loss of memory.”
  40. “In the individual, pride gives added vigor in the competitions of life; in the state, nationalism gives added force in diplomacy and war.”
  41. “The state has our instincts without our restraints.”
  42. “The Ten Commandments must be silent when self-preservation is at stake.”
  43. “The word sin is relevant only in the context of the individual versus a group.”
  44. “Science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build.”
  45. “We are the Romans who imported Greek civilization. We imported European civilization, and our chief function in history is apparently to be a transmission line for that great heritage.”
  46. “The details are rather unimportant in determining the future of a civilization.”
  47. “Our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all.”
  48. “There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past. Every year is an adventure.”
  49. “There is something greater than history. Somewhere, sometime, in the name of humanity, we must challenge a thousand evil precedents, and dare to apply the Golden Rule to nations.”
  50. “Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?”

5 Deep Questions from The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant

1. What is the meaning of history?

“The meaning of history is it is man laid bare. You see, there are two ways of arriving at a large perspective, which would be a definition of philosophy, a large perspective. One is by studying the external world through science in all its aspects…The other is to examine how man has behaved for the last six or ten thousand years. Consequently, history becomes the best guide we have to what man is, and we have to presume that one of the lessons of history is it continues to behave basically in each generation as it behaved in the generations before. Its instincts are the same. The basic situations that he faces are the same. Naturally, he makes similar responses…the present is the past rolled up for action. The past is the present unrolled for understanding.”

  • “History is the record of the activities of mankind, and it has two sides. One is the crimes and absurdities. The other is the contributions to civilization, the lasting developments which enabled each generation to proceed with a larger heritage than the one before. That to me is the meaning of history.
  • “To find out how man behaves and how he will probably behave in the future, you have to study history. That is the map of human character.”
  • “The record of the past can have a great deal of significance, but the events themselves have significance only if you approach them from a philosophical standpoint and ask the right questions. Otherwise it would be just the same thing all over again.”

2. What is civilization?

“We have defined civilization as ‘social order promoting cultural creation.’ It is political order secured through custom, morals, and law, and economic order secured through a continuity of production and exchange; it is cultural creation through freedom and facilities for the origination, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners, and arts. It is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed.

  • “Man, not the earth, makes civilization.”
  • “Civilization itself is the most remarkable thing that has ever happened on the planet from our point of view. Certainly the most remarkable thing that man has done, but the trouble is that it requires a perpetual delicate balance of the social impulses with the animal impulses.”
  • “We’ve become civilized by absorbing civilization, but we don’t become civilized by nature. Human nature is uncivilized. It’s almost contra-civilization. By nature we’re so pugnacious and inquisitive and erotic that you need all kinds of inhibitions and restraints and moral codes to make us civilized, and these things of course are required in the lifetime of the individual. They are not a native gift.”

3. Has human nature changed throughout history?

“By and large, human nature does not change in the historic period. It may have changed in the biological career of man, let us say from the old stone age 50,000 years before Christ, though again it’s very hard to tell because the only knowledge that we have of the old stone age is bones. We can hardly tell what sort of nature they had, so while I might admit that human nature changes, I should say it changes with geological leisureliness and that you can assume without going far wrong that it hasn’t changed in the last 2,000 years.

  • “We may define human nature as the fundamental tendencies and feelings of mankind.”
  • “Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man, and the constitution of man rewrites the constitutions of states.”
  • “The basic lesson of history is that man is essentially what he has been all through history and he changes his habits, but he does not change his instincts.”
  • “Human behavior has changed, but not human nature, and consequently the basic responses of man are the same; sexual, commercial, there’s the same sort of person.”
  • “The biological factors remain unchanged. The social factors change. When I was born, I think I was born with the same impulses in nature that men were born with 50,000 years ago. The only difference is that there was a greater social heritage that I might absorb. There was an immense accumulation of intellectual advances, of moral restrictions, of aesthetic achievements, music and art. All those things were laid at my feet when I was born, but I was the same savage at birth that Neanderthal man was, but he didn’t have this heritage. If I become different from him, it is in the course of the individual life after birth. It’s not that my nature has changed, it’s that my acquisitions have, well let me see, grown.”
  • “But how far has human nature changed in the course of history? Theoretically there must have been some change; natural selection has presumably operated upon psychological as well as upon physiological variations. Nevertheless, known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind.”
  • “Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same: to act or rest, to acquire or give, to fight or retreat, to seek association or privacy, to mate or reject, to offer or resent parental care. Nor does human nature alter as between classes: by and large the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them. Nothing is clearer in history than the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they were accustomed to condemn in the forces they deposed.”
  • “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.”

4. Does history repeat itself?

“History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large. We may reasonably expect that in the future, as in the past, some new states will rise, some old states will subside; that new civilizations will begin with pasture and agriculture, expand into commerce and industry, and luxuriate with finance; that thought…will pass, by and large, from supernatural to legendary to naturalistic explanations; that new theories, inventions, discoveries, and errors will agitate the intellectual currents; that new generations will rebel against the old and pass from rebellion to conformity and reaction; that experiments in morals will loosen tradition and frighten its beneficiaries; and that the excitement of innovation will be forgotten in the unconcern of time.”

  • “It usually has strong religious beliefs at the beginning and as the civilization develops science and philosophy, those beliefs run into conflict that is supposed to be the progress of knowledge. Then there is a terrific struggle which may unsettle the moral base of the civilization because the moral basis is usually tied up with religious belief and instruction. Then two things can happen. One or the other of them happens to every civilization. Either the civilization decays from within through moral disintegration, which may be happening to us at this minute. Or there is a change of trade routes which leaves the country off the direct line of communication and wealth…in the large, civilizations go through the same stages, but naturally, the details are different.
  • “History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness, and man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex. But in a developed and complex civilization individuals are more differentiated and unique than in a primitive society, and many situations contain novel circumstances requiring modifications of instinctive response; custom recedes, reasoning spreads; the results are less predictable. There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past. Every year is an adventure.

5. Is progress real?

“If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it. History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use…If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.”

  • “We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man.”
  • “Our problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.”
  • “Progress is an improvement in the means that we use for achieving the same old ends. I sometimes wonder if whether the progress is only of means without any progress in ends.”
  • “Against this panorama of nations, morals, and religions rising and falling, the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape. Is it only the vain and traditional boast of each ‘modern’ generation? Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends — the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars. One of the discouraging discoveries of our disillusioning century is that science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build.”
  • “We should never use the word progress to imply progress in everything. Obviously we are progressing in some things, and retrogressing in others.
  • “If we take a long-range view and compare our modern existence, precarious, chaotic, and murderous as it is, with the ignorance, superstition, violence, and diseases of primitive peoples, we do not come off quite forlorn. The lowliest strata in civilized states may still differ only slightly from barbarians, but above those levels thousands, millions have reached mental and moral levels rarely found among primitive men.”
  • “If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment, then the tables of mortality proclaim the advance of man, for longevity in European and American whites has tripled in the last three centuries.”
  • “We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die…Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states: the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, and parental care; social organization, morality, and charity; and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race. These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next. They are the connective tissue of human history.”
  • “If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again. So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all…We may not have excelled the selected geniuses of antiquity, but we have raised the level and average of knowledge beyond any age in history.”
  • “Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life. The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before.
  • “The technique of disseminating the heritage and of absorbing it has grown immensely. Consequently an individual today can become much more learned today than Aristotle because the heritage has grown since Aristotle. He can inherit the Renaissance and all its great artists which Aristotle couldn’t do and so forth. In short, the pedestal on which we are born grows with the years. We are the same at birth that we used to be, but in a sense, we progress by the rise of the pedestal of the social heritage.

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Be sure to check out the full book summary: 35 Human Learnings from “The Lessons of History” by Will & Ariel Durant

You can see all book summaries here.


Sloww

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Deeper Art of Living for Holistic Humans & Well Beings → Sloww.co • Lighter Living • Higher Purpose • Centeredness • Simplicity • Consciousness • #slowliving

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