Lessons of History

Last week I finished reading Will Durant’s Lessons of History. Here are three takeaways I got from the book:

  1. Vices and Virtues

If we divide economic history into three stages — hunting, agriculture, industry — we may expect that the moral code of one stage will be changed in the next.

The idea here is that the vices of one societal revolution were virtues in the previous one. This book was written in the 1970s, before our current technological revolution. But look at society now, and we can observe many of our vices as remnants of past societies. As hunter gatherers, we had our tribe that we trusted, everyone else was a potential threat. This lead to tribalism. The industrial revolution created a need for people to work at factories. Thus our school systems work to create obedient factory workers. This lead to conformity.

These two traits, tribalism and comformity were previously desirable, but as society has evolved, the desired traits evolve as well.

  1. Respecting Tradition

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 labratory of history.

Something I’m guilty of is dismissing tradition in favor of progress. An example of this is my frustrations with the education system. When voicing my opinions on this matter with a friend he said, yes, there are a lot of problems with the education system, but you also need a healthy respect for conventional wisdom”. There’s a reason it’s called the conventional view — its the best one we have. Right now, standardized testing and one size fits all classrooms are have their flaws but they do work to some extent.

I see this disregard for tradition in silicon valley. Disruption, after all, is one of the common buzzwords in the tech industry today.

I also observed this in many peers my age. This naivity makes young people great entrepreneurs and is vital for innovation, but once again we need a healthy respect for tradition. They are there for a reason.

  1. Freedom and Equality

History is color-blind and can develop a civilization (in any favorable envrionment) under almost any skin”

Many atrocities in history occured due to one race claiming superiority over another. Just take a look at events in the past half millenia with eurocentrism, colonialism, slavery, WWII etc. Yet, the dominance of one civilization over another can be stemmed from the product of geographic opportunity rather than racial superiority.

For example, the earliest civilizations — such as Mesopotamia and The Indus Valley — are always located near a body of water, in favorable weather conditions and near fertile land. These conditions lead to the agricultural revolution which enabled food surpluses and leisure time to pursue matters other than foraging — such as art, exploration, and innovation.

If sub-saharan africa produced no great civilizations it’s likely because of climatic and geographical conditions. Look at society now and how many African Americans have risen to the pinnacles of their fields despite their many social obstacles.

January 21, 2020 · Books · History

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