Tag: Will Durant

Are Great Men and Women a Product of Circumstance?

Few books have ever struck us as much as Will Durant's 100-page masterpiece The Lessons of History, a collection of essays which sum up the lifelong thoughts of a brilliant historian.

We recently dug up an interview with Durant and his wife Ariel — co-authors of the 11-volume masterpiece The Story of Civilization — and sent it to the members of the Farnam Street Learning Community. While the interview is full of wisdom in its entirety, we picked one interesting excerpt to share with you: Durant's thoughts on the “Great Man” (and certainly, Great Woman) theory of history.

Has history been Theirs to dictate? Durant has a very interesting answer, one that's hard to ignore once you think about it:

Interviewer: Haven’t certain individuals, the genius, great man, or hero, as Carlisle believed, been the prime determinants of human history?

Will Durant: There are many cases, I think, in which individual characters have had very significant results upon history. But basically, I think Carlisle was wrong. That 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. What would Lenin have been if he had remained in, what was it, Geneva? He would have a little…. But he faced tremendous demands upon him, and something in him responded. I think those given us would have brought out capacity in many different types of people. They wouldn’t have to be geniuses to begin with.

Interviewer: Then what is the function or role of heroes?

Will Durant: They form the function of meeting a situation whose demands are always all his potential abilities.

Interviewer: What do you think is the important thing for us, in studying the course of history, to know about character? What is the role of character in history?

Will Durant: I suppose the role of character is for the individual to rise to a situation. If it were not for the situation, we would never have heard of him. So that you might say that character is the product of an exceptional demand by the situation upon human ability. I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded. So, I think Lenin was made by the situation. Of course he brought ideas, and he had to abandon almost all those ideas. For example, he went back to private enterprise for a while.

One way we might corroborate Durant's thoughts on Lenin is to ask another simple question: Which U.S. Presidents are considered the most admired?

Students of history have three easy answers pop in (and polls corroborate): George Washington – the first U.S. President and a Founding Father; Abraham Lincoln – the man who held the Union together; and finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt – unless the U.S. amends its Constitution, the longest serving U.S. President now and forever.

All great men, certainly. All three of which rose to the occasion. But what do they share?

They were the ones holding office at the time of (or in the case of Washington, immediately upon winning) the three major wars impacting American history: The American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II. 

It raises an interesting question: Would these men be remembered and held in the same esteem if they hadn't been handed such situations? The answer pops in pretty quickly: Probably not. Their heroism was partly a product of their character and partly a product of their situation.

And thus Durant gives us a very interesting model to bring to reality: Greatness is in many of us, but only if we rise, with practical expediency, to the demands of life. Greatness arises only when tested.

For the rest of Durant's interview, and a lot of other cool stuff, check out the Learning Community.

Is Human Progress Real or An Illusion?

Against the historical backdrop of nations, morals and religions that rise and fall, “the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape”, according to Will and Ariel Durant in their amazing book The Lessons of History. Allow me to explain.

The core idea of their work is that man's nature hasn't changed all that much throughout history. Technical advances remain but must 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.”

Science has no morals, it can heal as well as kill. Science can build and, more easily, destroy. The Francis Bacon motto that “Knowledge is power,” doesn't fully explain the situation. Power rests in the hands of humans – it is our nature that drives the ends to which we wield it.

Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.

The Durants make an interesting argument that our comforts and conveniences, largely the result of technological progress, have “weakened our physical stamina and our moral fibre.”

We have immensely developed our means of locomotion, but some of us use them to facilitate crime and to kill our fellow men or ourselves. We double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs. We applaud the cures and incisions of modern medicine if they bring no side effects worse than the malady; we appreciate the assiduity of our physicians in their mad race with the resilience of microbes and the inventiveness of disease; we are grateful for the added years that medical science gives us if they are not a burdensome prolongation of illness, disability, and gloom. We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village. We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for skilled workingmen and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.

History affords us the opportunity to draw any conclusion we wish.

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances. Choosing our evidence with a brighter bias, we might evolve some more comforting reflections.

So we must first define progress.

If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight. Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval. It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage— for certainly the child is the happiest of the three. Is a more objective definition possible? 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.

At any point in time some nations are progressing and some are regressing. Adding even more nuance, nations and people may advance in one area and recede in another.

America is now progressing in technology and receding in the graphic arts. If we find that the type of genius prevalent in young countries like America and Australia tends to the practical, inventive, scientific, executive kinds rather than to the painter of pictures or poems, the carver of statues or words, we must understand that each age and place needs and elicits some types of ability rather than others in its pursuit of environmental control. We should not compare the work of one land and time with the winnowed best of all the collected past. Our problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.

The unhappiness of undertakers as a measure of progress.

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. Under the complex strains of city life we sometimes take imaginative refuge in the supposed simplicity of pre-civilized ways; but in our less romantic moments we know that this is a flight reaction from our actual tasks, and that the idolizing of savages, like many other young moods, is an impatient expression of adolescent maladaptation, of conscious ability not yet matured and comfortably placed. The “friendly and flowing savage” would be delightful but for his scalpel, his insects, and his dirt. A study of surviving primitive tribes reveals their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their lesser stamina and speed, their greater susceptibility to disease. 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. Some time ago a convention of morticians discussed the danger threatening their industry from the increasing tardiness of men in keeping their rendezvous with death. But if undertakers are miserable progress is real.

It is no trivial achievement that famine has almost been eliminated and many of the viruses that killed millions worry us not. And yet the probability is that our civilization will die. As Frederick asked his retreating troops at Kolin, “Would you live forever?”

Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn. Meanwhile the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.

But great civilizations do not entirely die, they leave fragments. These fragments are the connective tissues that bind us together.

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.

This calls into question the role of education.

None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten thousand years. The great experiment has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance. But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries, and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race? 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 fragments we transmit to the current generation are richer than ever before. We stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us and in assuming the new height, we attempt to allow others to stand on our shoulders. If we see farther, it is because of this.

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. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. 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.

If you liked this post, you'll love these two:

The Three Lessons of Biological History — Human history is a fragment of biological history. If we are to learn enduring lessons it is best to go back in time.

What History Teaches us about The Concentration of Wealth — Assuming practical ability differs amongst people, the majority of whatever society values will always rest with the minority of men.

What History Teaches us about The Concentration of Wealth

History is economics in action, at least according to Karl Marx. Whether in a group or as an individual, we vie for food, fuel, raw materials and our place in the hierarchy. Even art is often rooted in conflict. The remarkable book, The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant, picks us up at this point:

So the Industrial Revolution brought with it democracy, feminism, birth control, socialism, the decline of religion, the loosening of morals, the liberation of literature from dependence upon aristocratic patronage, the replacement of romanticism by realism in fiction— and the economic interpretation of history. The outstanding personalities in these movements were effects, not causes; Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector would never have been heard of had not the Greeks sought commercial control of the Dardanelles; economic ambition, not the face of Helen “fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,” launched a thousand ships on Ilium; those subtle Greeks knew how to cover naked economic truth with the fig leaf of a phrase.

Unearthing instruction from the economic analysis of the past reveals mistakes that are still made today. The invading barbarians, for example, found Rome weak, in part because the formerly strong and patriotic agricultural population had been replaced with slaves owned by the few. This was a historic version of factory farming — perhaps something necessary — but as Garrett Hardin reminds us you can never do merely one thing. Today we are in a similar reality. The base rate for smaller farms succeeding is not high.

Assuming practical ability differs amongst people, the majority of whatever society values, will always rest with the minority of men. “The concentration of wealth,” write the Durants, “is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history.” Compounding and the ability to pass wealth from one generation to another mean that you need not possess skills that are highly valued by society today to live in the wealthy minority. The rate of concentration varies with, among other things, economic freedom, constrained only by morals and laws.

Despotism may for a time retard the concentration; democracy, allowing the most liberty, accelerates it. … In progressive societies the concentration may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.

According to Plutarch, in the Athens of 594 B.C., “the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor had reached its height, so that the city seemed to be in a dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances… seemed possible but despotic power.”

Of the Athens of 594 B.C., the Durants write:

The poor, finding their status worsened with each year— the government in the hands of their masters, and the corrupt courts deciding every issue against them— began to talk of violent revolt. The rich, angry at the challenge to their property, prepared to defend themselves by force. Good sense prevailed; moderate elements secured the election of Solon, a businessman of aristocratic lineage, to the supreme archonship. He devaluated the currency, thereby easing the burden of all debtors (though he himself was a creditor); he reduced all personal debts, and ended imprisonment for debt; he canceled arrears for taxes and mortgage interest; he established a graduated income tax that made the rich pay at a rate twelve times that required of the poor; he reorganized the courts on a more popular basis; and he arranged that the sons of those who had died in war for Athens should be brought up and educated at the government's expense. The rich protested that his measures were outright confiscation; the radicals complained that he had not redivided the land; but within a generation almost all agreed that his reforms had saved Athens from revolution.

The Romans handled it differently.

The Roman Senate, so famous for its wisdom, adopted an uncompromising course when the concentration of wealth approached an explosive point in Italy; the result was a hundred years of class and civil war. Tiberius Gracchus, an aristocrat elected as tribune of the people, proposed to redistribute land by limiting ownership to 333 acres per person, and alloting surplus land to the restive proletariat of the capital. The Senate rejected his proposals as confiscatory. He appealed to the people, telling them, “You fight and die to give wealth and luxury to others; you are called the masters of the world, but there is not a foot of ground that you can call your own.” …  Julius Caesar attempted a compromise, but was cut down by the patricians (44 B.C.) after five years of civil war. Mark Antony confused his support of Caesar’s policies with personal ambitions and romance; Octavius defeated him at Actium, and established the “Principate” that for 210 years (30 B.C. – A.D. 180) maintained the Pax Romana between the classes as well as among the states within the Imperial frontiers.

What can we conclude from this?

We conclude that 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.

Still Curious? Check out The Three Buckets of Knowledge, The Role of Religion and Morality in History, and The Three Lessons of Biological History.

What Can the Three Buckets of Knowledge Teach Us About History?

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It's all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant. — Peter Kaufman



When we seek to understand the world, we're faced with a basic question: Where do I start? Which sources of knowledge are the most useful and the most fundamental?

Farnam Street takes its lead here from Charlie Munger, who argued that the “base” of your intellectual pyramid should be the great ideas from the big academic disciplines. Mental models. Similarly, Mr. Kaufman's idea, presented above, is that we can learn the most fundamental knowledge from the three oldest and most invariant forms of knowledge: Physics and math, from which we derive the rules the universe plays by; biology, from which we derive the rules life on Earth plays by; and human history, from which we derive the rules humans have played by.

With that starting point, we've explored a lot of ideas and read a lot of books, looking for connections amongst the big, broad areas of useful knowledge. Our search led us to a wonderful book called The Lessons of History, which we've posted about before. The book is a hundred-page distillation of the lessons learned in 50 years of work by two brilliant historians, Will and Ariel Durant. The Durants spent those years writing a sweeping 11-book, 10,000-page synthesis of the major figures and periods in human history, with an admitted focus on Western civilization.(Although they admirably tackle Eastern civilization up to 1930 or so in the epic Our Oriental Heritage.) With The Lessons of History, the pair sought to derive a few major lessons learned from the long pull.

Let's explore a few ways in which Durants' brilliant work interplays with the three buckets of human knowledge that help us understand the world at a deep level.


Lessons of Geologic Time

Durant has a classic introduction for this kind of “big synthesis” historical work:

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask the corresponding heads — astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war — what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man. It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.

The first topic Durant approaches is our relationship to the physical Earth, a group of knowledge we can place in the second bucket, in Kaufman's terms. We must recognize that the varieties of geology and physical climate we live in have to a large extent determined the course of human history. (Jared Diamond would agree, that being a major component of his theory of human history.)

History is subject to geology. Every day the sea encroaches somewhere upon the land, or the land upon the sea; cities disappear under the water, and sunken cathedrals ring their melancholy bells. Mountains rise and fall in the rhythm of emergence and erosion; rivers swell and flood, or dry up, or change their course; valleys become deserts, and isthmuses become straits. To the geologic eye all of the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.

There are some big, useful lessons we can draw from studying geologic time. The most obvious might be the concept of gradualism, or slow incremental change over time. This was most well-understood by Darwin, who applied that form of reasoning to understand the evolution of species. His hero was Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology created our understanding of a slow, move-ahead process on the long scale of geology.

And of course, that model is quite practically useful to us today — it is through slow, incremental, grinding change, punctuated at times by large-scale change when necessary and appropriate, that things move ahead most reliably. We might be reminded in the modern corporate world of General Electric, which ground ahead from an electric lamp company to an industrial giant, step-by-step over a long period which destroyed many thousands of lesser companies with less adaptive cultures.

We can also use this model to derive the idea of human nature as nearly fixed; it changes in geologic time, not human time. This explains why the fundamental problems of history tend to recur. We're basically the same as we've always been:

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.

Lastly, Mother Nature's long history also teaches us something of resilience, which is connected to the idea of grind-ahead change. Studying evolution helps us understand that what is fragile will eventually break under the stresses of competition: Most importantly, fragile relationships break, but strong win-win relationships have super glue that keeps parties together. We also learn that weak competitive positions are eventually rooted out due to competition and new environments, and that a lack of adaptiveness to changing reality is a losing strategy when the surrounding environment shifts enough. These and others are fundamental knowledge and work the same in human organizations as in Nature.

The Biology of History

Durant moves from geology into the realm of human biology: Our nature determines the “arena” in which the human condition can play out. Human biology gives us the rules of the chessboard, and the Earth and its inhabitants provide the environment in which we play the game. The variety of outcomes approaches infinity from this starting point. That's why this “bucket” of human knowledge is such a crucial one to study. We need to know the rules.

Thinking with the first “bucket” of knowledge — the mathematics and physics that drive all things in the universe — it's easy to derive that compounding multiplication can take a small population and make it a very large one over a comparatively short time. 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 becomes 16, and so on. But because we also know that the spoils of the physical world are finite, the “Big Model” of Darwinian natural selection flows naturally from the compounding math: As populations grow but their surroundings offer limitations, there must be a way to derive who gets the spoils.

Not only does this provide the basis for biological competition over resources, a major lesson in the second bucket, it also provides the basis for the political and economic systems in bucket three of human history: Our various systems of political and economic organization are fundamentally driven by decisions on how to give order and fairness to the brutal reality created by human competition.

In this vein, we have previously discussed Durant's three lessons of biological history: Life is Competition. Life is Selection. Life must Breed. (Head over to that post for the full scope of that idea from Durant's book.) These simple precepts lead to the interesting results in biology, and most relevant to us, to similar interesting results in human culture itself:

Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive.


We do, however, need to be careful to think with the right “bucket” at the right time. Durant offers us a cautionary tale here: The example of the growth and decay of societies shows an area where the third bucket, human culture, offers a different reality than what a simple analogy from physics or biology might show. Cultural decay is not inevitable, as it might be with an element or a physical organism:

If these are the sources of growth, what are the causes of decay? Shall we suppose, with Spengler and many others, that each civilization is an organism, naturally and yet mysteriously endowed with the power of development and the fatality of death? It is temping to explain the behavior of groups through analogy with physiology or physics, and to ascribe the deterioration of a society to some inherent limit in its loan and tenure of life, or some irreparable running down of internal force. Such analogies may offer provisional illumination, as when we compare the association of individuals with an aggregation of cells, or the circulation of money from banker back to banker with the systole and diastole of the heart.

But a group is no organism physically added to its constituent individuals; it has no brain or stomach of its own; it must think or feel with the brains and nerves of its members. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.


But do civilizations die? Again, not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; on its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives in the memory of the race, and in such abundance that no one life, however full and long, could absorb it all. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land. The Greek pets and philosophers are in every library and college; at this moment Plato is being studied by a hundred thousand discovers of the dear delight of philosophy overspread life with understanding thought. This selective survival of creative minds is the most real and beneficent of immortalities.

In this sense, the ideas that thrive in human history are not bound by the precepts of physics. Knowledge — the kind which can be passed from generation to generation in an accumulative way — is a unique outcome in the human culture bucket. Other biological creatures only pass down DNA, not accumulated learning. (Yuval Harari similarly declared that “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.”)


With that caveat in mind, the concept of passed-down ideas does have some predictable overlap with major mental models of the first two buckets of physics/math and biology.

The first is compounding: Ideas and knowledge compound in the same mathematical way that money or population does. If I have an idea and tell my idea to you, we both have the idea. If we each take that idea and recombine it with another idea we already had, we now have three ideas from a starting point of only one. If we can each connect that one idea to two ideas we had, we now have five ideas between us. And so on — you can see how compounding would take place as we told our friends about the five ideas and they told theirs. So the Big Model of compound interest works on ideas too.

The second interplay is to see that human ideas go through natural selection in the same way biological life does.

Intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. 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 society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.

This doesn't tell us that the best ideas survive any more than natural selection tells us that the best creatures survive. It just means, at the risk of being circular, that the ideas most fit for propagation are the ones that survive for a long time. Most truly bad ideas tend to get tossed out in the vicissitudes of time either through the early death of their proponents or basic social pressure. But any idea that strikes a fundamental chord in humanity can last a very long time, even if it's wrong or harmful. It simply has to be memorable and have at least a kernel of intuitive truth.

For more, start thinking about the three buckets of knowledge, read Durant, and start getting to work on synthesizing as much as possible.

Religion and History: Will Durant on the Role of Religion and Morality

“Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.”


Will and Ariel Durant have written a masterpiece in The Lessons of History. Inside the book, which is a condensed version of his life work, you can find an interesting chapter entitled Religion and History that explores the role of religion throughout history. 

Scientists often question the value of religion. Durant demurs:

To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young. It has conferred meaning and dignity upon the lowliest existence, and through its sacraments has made for stability by transforming human covenants into solemn relationships with God. It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich. For 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.

The role of religion and morality is not clear at first. According to Petronius, who echoed Lucretius, “it was fear that first made the gods.” The fear he was talking about was a fear of the unexplainable — fear of hidden forces in the earth, oceans, skies, and rivers.

Religion became the propitiatory worship of these forces through offerings, sacrifice, incantation, and prayer. Only when priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital and rival to the state. It told the people that the local code of morals and laws had been dictated by the gods.

In the eyes of the Durants, the effect of this new moral law was to dampen the worst of moral disorder—sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery, and violence.

"Gregory VII saying Mass" (Via Wikipedia)
“Gregory VII saying Mass” (Via Wikipedia)


“Though the Church served the state,” they write, “it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power.” The idea of a moral superstate briefly come to fulfillment in the century after The Emperor Henry IV submitted to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077. The dream crumbled, however, under attacks of nationalism, skepticism and human frailty.

The Church, after all, was manned with men who proved all too human in their failings of greed and power. As states became stronger and wealthier they made the papacy a political tool. “Kings,” the Durants write, “became strong enough to compel a pope to dissolve the Jesuit order which had so devotedly supported the popes.” In response, the Church stooped to fraud. Increasingly the religious hierarchy spent time promoting orthodoxy rather than morality. The Inquisition almost killed the Church.

Even while preaching peace the Church fomented religious wars in sixteenth-century France and the Thirty Years’ War in seventeenth-century Germany. It played only a modest part in the outstanding advance of modern morality— the abolition of slavery.

This allowed the philosophers to take the lead in the humanitarian movements that “alleviated the evils of our time.”

History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations. No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosophers’ recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church, and the ecclesiastical recognition of religious and intellectual freedom.

Does history support a belief in God?

If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive. Add to the crimes, wars, and cruelties of man the earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, pestilences, tidal waves, and other “acts of God” that periodically desolate human and animal life, and the total evidence suggests either a blind or an impartial fatality, with incidental and apparently haphazard scenes to which we subjectively ascribe order, splendor, beauty, or sublimity. If history supports any theology this would be a dualism like the Zoroastrian or Manichaean: a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men’s souls. These faiths and Christianity (which is essentially Manichaean) assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee. Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.

Our Place in the Cosmos

Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de' Fiori, Rome.
Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de' Fiori, Rome.


As science further develops, it shows our minuscule place in the cosmos. This knowledge further impairs Religion. We can date the beginning of the decline with Giordano Bruno and then with Copernicus (1543). In 1611 John Donne was “mourning that the earth had become a mere suburb in the world.” All was thrown into doubt. Francis Bacon proclaimed that science was the religion of the modern man. This was the generation that began the  “death of God” as an external deity.

So great an effect required many causes besides the spread of science and historical knowledge. First, the Protestant Reformation, which originally defended private judgment. Then the multitude of Protestant sects and conflicting theologies, each appealing to both Scriptures and reason. Then the higher criticism of the Bible, displaying that marvelous library as the imperfect work of fallible men. Then the deistic movement in England, reducing religion to a vague belief in a God hardly distinguishable from nature. Then the growing acquaintance with other religions, whose myths, many of them pre-Christian, were distressingly similar to the supposedly factual bases of one’s inherited creed. Then the Protestant exposure of Catholic miracles, the deistic exposure of Biblical miracles, the general exposure of frauds, inquisitions, and massacres in the history of religion. Then the replacement of agriculture— which had stirred men to faith by the annual rebirth of life and the mystery of growth— with industry, humming daily a litany of machines, and suggesting a world machine. Add meanwhile the bold advance of skeptical scholarship, as in Bayle, and of pantheistic philosophy, as in Spinoza; the massive attack of the French Enlightenment upon Christianity; the revolt of Paris against the Church during the French Revolution. Add, in our own time, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations in modern war. Finally, the awesome triumphs of scientific technology, promising man omnipotence and destruction, and challenging the divine command of the skies.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Via wikipedia)
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Via wikipedia)

In a way Christianity lent a hand to its reduced place, by fostering a moral sense in believers that could no longer tolerate the vengeful God of traditional Theology.

The idea of hell disappeared from educated thought, even from pulpit homilies. Presbyterians became ashamed of the Westminster Confession, which had pledged them to belief in a God who had created billions of men and women despite his foreknowledge that, regardless of their virtues and crimes, they were predestined to everlasting hell. Educated Christians visiting the Sistine Chapel were shocked by Michelangelo’s picture of Christ hurling offenders pell-mell into an inferno whose fires were never to be extinguished; was this the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who had inspired our youth?

The industrial revolution replaced Christian with secular institutions.

That states should attempt to dispense with theological supports is one of the many crucial experiments that bewilder our brains and unsettle our ways today. Laws which were once presented as the decrees of a god-given king are now frankly the confused commands of fallible men. Education, which was the sacred province of god-inspired priests, becomes the task of men and women shorn of theological robes and awe, and relying on reason and persuasion to civilize young rebels who fear only the policeman and may never learn to reason at all. Colleges once allied to churches have been captured by businessmen and scientists. The propaganda of patriotism, capitalism, or Communism succeeds to the inculcation of a supernatural creed and moral code.

But one lesson of history is that religion adapts and has a habit of resurrection. Often in the past it has nearly died only to be reborn.

Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief.

Religion and Morality

If we are wondering whether history warrants the conclusion that religion is necessary for morality — “that natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes, and wars” — we need look no further than the answer given by Joseph de Maistre who said: “I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart an an honest man; it is horrible.” Whether religion must be the force to temper the hearts of future men and women, the Durants think that's certainly been the case in the past:

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. Only a few Communist states have not merely dissociated themselves from religion but have repudiated its aid; and perhaps the apparent and provisional success of this experiment in Russia owes much to the temporary acceptance of Communism as the religion (or, as skeptics would say, the opium) of the people, replacing the church as the vendor of comfort and hope. 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.”

The Lessons of History is full of condensed wisdom on the meaning of history, the age of play, the lessons of biological history, and more.


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.