The Lessons of History Book Review

In The Lessons of HistoryWill and Ariel Durant summarize what they’ve learned as historians. 

The study of history can be arduous. The social media feeds we inhabit, such as Facebook and Twitter have a recency bias. Most of what we consume is less than 24 hours old. 

The Lessons of History is short and straightforward. It compresses 100 centuries of history into 100 pages of conclusions. It focuses on timeless truths, not today’s trends – the antithesis of social media. The book highlights the lessons of history, not the events that define it. 

All of life, from the simplicity of single-celled organisms to the complexity of humans, is governed by the laws and trials of evolution. 

The laws of biology double as the fundamental lessons of history. All beings are subject to the processes and trials of evolution, to the struggle for existence. Only the fittest survive.

“The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life – peaceful when food abounds, violent when the 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 competition; we co-operate in our group – our family, community, club, church, party, “race”, or nation – in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.”

We are born unequal. Physical and psychological strengths shape us. Over time, the strong get stronger; the weak get relatively weaker. 

In a free society, inequality is the norm, not the exception.

“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. Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution.

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.”

Today, we debate how to cope with said inequality.

Should we strive for equality of opportunity? Equality of outcome? Should we allow for wealth creation at the expense of equality? 

“The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view, all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.”

I’ve discovered that America is a great place to be wealthy, but a terrible place to be poor. In New York, where I live, I once watched a celebrity step out of a stretch limousine, who consciously diverted a homeless man begging for a quarter, hoping to escape the frigid winter streets. Magnificent wealth contrasts with extreme poverty throughout the city. 

Australia has the opposite problem. During a recent visit, I spoke with a number of locals about the “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” where people of high status are resented, attacked and cut down when they break away from the pack and begin to succeed. Tall Poppy Syndrome is common in cultures that see prestige as zero-sum, where superiority is frowned upon. According to the Australians I spoke with, many high achievers escape the country in response. 

Despite tall poppy syndrome — or maybe even because of it — the Australian quality of life is fantastic. Relative to New York, Australia is more communal. Education is free and homelessness is not as common. Australian cities also have higher wages; in Melbourne, I met a barista who makes $33/hour. 

The New Yorkers I know live to work, but the Australians I met work to live.

History reminds us that freedom and equality are at odds.

Freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way.

I still don’t know which system is best.

I admire how America props up its best and provides an environment where they can generate tremendous wealth for themselves and society at large. Meanwhile, I’m sympathetic to those who are oppressed by systemic racism or inhibited by a broken healthcare system. 

Dialogue is imperative. Only through debate can we properly balance the virtues of creation with the wisdom of tradition. Culture is protective and tyrannical, a gift and a curse. 

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 heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”

What would Will and Ariel Durant say about modern society?

They’d say that we need diverse perspectives from both liberals (defined as open to new ideas, not Democrats) and conservatives (defined as holding traditional values, not Republicans). 

What’s new has to integrate with what’s stable. A society without the openness of liberals will become dogmatic and tyrannical; a society without the orderliness of conservatives will become chaotic and unproductive.

If liberals are the gas, conservatives are the brakes. 

We should praise liberals for their openness, but remember that the vast majority of ideas are inferior to the traditional ones they seek to replace. Likewise, we should praise conservatives for their orderliness but remember that a society that doesn’t evolve will decay towards death. New ideas should be heard. But they should not be adopted until they’ve gone through the mill of objection and opposition. 

We need a harmony of virtues. 

Additional Excerpts


Morality changes. Moral codes differ because they adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions. Probably every vice was once a virtue, a quality that led to survival. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.

A little knowledge of history stresses the variability of moral codes, and concludes that they are negligible because they differ in time and place, and sometimes contradict each other. A larger knowledge stresses the universality of moral codes, and concludes to their necessity.

Moral codes differ because they adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions.

Probably every vice was once a virtue—i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.

Imitation is opposed to innovation, but in vital ways it co-operates with it. As submissive natures unite with masterful individuals to make the order and operation of a society, so the imitative majority follows the innovating minority, and this follows the originative individual, in adapting new responses to the demands of environment or survival.


Why did modern socialism come first in a Russia where capitalism was in its infancy and there were no large corporations to ease the transition to state control? Centuries of peasant poverty and reams of intellectual revolt had prepared the way, but the peasants had been freed from serfdom in 1861, and the intellectuals had been inclined toward an anarchism antipodal to an all-absorbing state. Probably the Russian Revolution of 1917 succeeded because the Czarist government had been defeated and disgraced by war and bad management; the Russian economy had collapsed in chaos, the peasants returned from the front carrying arms, and Lenin and Trotsky had been given safe conduct and bon voyage by the German government. The Revolution took a Communistic form because the new state was challenged by internal disorder and external attack; the people reacted as any nation will react under siege—it put aside all individual freedom until order and security could be restored.

Socialism in Russia is now restoring individualistic motives to give its system greater productive stimulus, and to allow its people more physical and intellectual liberty. Meanwhile capitalism undergoes a correlative process of limiting individualistic acquisition by semi-socialistic legislation and the redistribution of wealth through the “welfare state.”

If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another.

The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality. East is West and West is East, and soon the twain will meet.

Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order. 

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. And while rural isolation enhanced the freedom of the individual, national isolation provided liberty and security within protective seas.

Human Nature

Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.

Human nature drives everyone. Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same. Nothing is clearer in history than the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they condemned in the forces they disposed.


Since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified.. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.

Though the Church served the state, it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power. It taught men that patriotism unchecked by a higher loyalty can be a tool of greed and crime. Over all the competing governments of Christendom it promulgated one moral law. Claiming divine origin and spiritual hegemony, the Church offered itself as an international court to which all rulers were to be morally responsible.

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the United States, and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order.

If the socialist regime should fail in its efforts to destroy relative poverty among the masses, this new religion may lose its fervor and efficacy, and the state may wink at the restoration of supernatural beliefs as an aid in quieting discontent. “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”


Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.

The development of the airplane will again alter the map of civilization. Trade routes will follow less and less the rivers and seas; men and goods will be flown more and more directly to their goal.

When sea power finally gives place to air power in transport and war, we shall have seen one of the basic revolutions in history. The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.


In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.

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.

In the individual, pride gives added vigor in the competitions of life; in the state, nationalism gives added force in diplomacy and war.

In the twentieth century the improvement of communication, transport, weapons, and means of indoctrination made war a struggle of peoples, involving civilians as well as combatants, and winning victory through the wholesale destruction of property and life. One war can now destroy the labor of centuries in building cities, creating art, and developing habits of civilization.


All of the history of humankind is a short chapter in the history of biology. And all of biology is a short chapter in the history of the planet. And the planet is a short chapter in the history of the universe.


History reports that the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.

Aristocracies have inspired, supported, and controlled art, but they have rarely produced it. The aristocrat looks upon artists as manual laborers; he prefers the art of life to the life of art, and would never think of reducing himself to the consuming toil that is usually the price of genius.

Note: When in doubt, assume anything above is either paraphrased or taken directly from the book.