The Meaning of History

“The present is the past rolled up for action and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
— Will Durant


In the audio version of The Lessons of History, you can find excerpts of interviews with the authors Will and Ariel Durant where they explore the meaning of history.

Here is one excerpt from the interviews, not the book, where Will Durant talks about whether history makes sense.

Well, a lot of people have thought that. Voltaire thought that history is the record of the crimes and absurdities of mankind. I thought that was a very unworthy definition. I should say history is the record of the activities of mankind and it has two sides — one is the crimes and absurdities and the other is the contributions to civilization, the lasting developments which enabled each generation to proceed with a larger heritage than the one before. And that to me is the meaning of history.


The meaning of history is that 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. You come to some general conclusion then, the way Hebert Spencer did, approaching it from that point of view, as an engineer. The other is to examine how man has behaved for the last six or ten thousand years and consequently history becomes the best guide we have to what man is and we have to presume that one of the lessons of it is that he continues to behave basically, in each generation, as he behaved in the generation before. His instincts are the same, the basic situations that he faces are the same. Naturally he makes similar responses: he makes poetical organizations, he makes love affairs, he over-eats, and so forth so that the present is the past rolled up for action and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.


In fact, this was so good, I had the entire interview transcribed for members of our learning community.