The Lessons of History

This series of 13 essays summarizes periods and trends in history. They examine morals and draw conclusions by looking into changes in economics, politics, military customs, and even geographic location.

Chapter II: History and the Earth

You can literally communicate with people on the other side of the earth. Think about it. There was a time when it would take months to cross the sea. Miles does not mean the same as before. 

The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.

Chapter III: Biology and History

Modern society erases our deep competitive instinct. Fighting to get food on the table is a bygone era. 

Life is competition

So 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.

Equality can be achieved. But equity is a myth and a dangerous thing to pursue.

Life is selection

The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival.
Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization.

It's a current problematic. Without denying inequality and fighting for more, let's remind us that nature, of which we are an integral part, doesn't care about equality. 

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.
Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.

Life must breed

One of the ultimate goals of life is breeding. You can't do it. Nature will get rid of your genes quicker. 

The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly.

Nature hates extremes. 

If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.

The birth rate is key to understanding history. 

So the birth rate, like war, may determine the fate of theologies; just as the defeat of the Moslems at Tours ( 732 ) kept France and Spain from replacing the Bible with the Koran.

Chapter IV: Race and History

Regions have been doing the same thing over and over in history. 

The South creates the civilizations, the North conquers them, ruins them, borrows from them, spreads them: this is one summary of history.

We are not different by any notion of the race but because we're from different cultures.

It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people: circumstances geographical, economic, and political create a culture, and the culture creates a human type.

Civilizations create who we are. 

A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a cooperative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it; it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.

Chapter V: Character and History

Innovative ideas do not happen at every corner. It's rare. Don't listen to everyone's revolutionary ways of doing things because time will eliminate them because time will eliminate them in favor of what came before. 

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.

Chapter VI: Morals and History

What we consider good today was not so yesterday and may not be so tomorrow.

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.

We don't really know what it feels to live in the past. We only have texts that are far from reality.

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting—because it is exceptional.

Chapter VII: Religion and History

Religion is the oldest painkiller. 

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.

We must believe in something bigger. If it's not religion, it would be ideologies, like communism.

Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.

For nature, good is something that survives, and bad is something that does not survive.

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.

Religion rise and falls. Die and reborn.

One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn!

What people do, induces religious revival or death. Overall, it works in a circle.

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.

Chapter VIII: Economics and History

Economics systems that work put people toward productivity. 

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity.

When money distribution is too predominant, a partial redistribution, violent or peaceful, takes place.

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.

Chapter IX: Socialism and History

The Incas set up the longest regime of socialism known.

The longest-lasting regime of socialism yet known to history was set up by the Incas in what we now call Peru, at some time in the thirteenth century.

Chapter X: Government and History 

Freedom requires limitations to work.

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.

The happiest and most prosperous period of history probably was from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius.

“ If,” said Gibbon,“ a man were called upon to fix the period during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius.

Excessive leads to a reaction in the opposite direction.

The excessive increase of anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction;… dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.

Democracy requires intelligence and is the most difficult of all forms of government. 

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.

Lincoln quote:

may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that “you can’t fool all the people all the time, ”but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country."

A right is only good if it benefits the group.

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.

Dictatorship comes when democracy no longer works.

If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.

Chapter XI: History and War

Fact about war:

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

The nation needs wars to stay strong in the long run.

Even a philosopher, if he knows history, will admit that a long peace may fatally weaken the martial muscles of a nation.

The competition had always pushed to do war. Do we evolve towards the best? I don't think so. We now have many other forms of warfare different than killing. Wars will never end.

You have told us that man is a competitive animal, that his states must be like himself, and that natural selection now operates on an international plane. States will unite in basic cooperation only when they are in common attacked from without. Perhaps we are now restlessly moving toward that higher plateau of competition; we may make contact with ambitious species on other planets or stars; soon thereafter there will be interplanetary war. Then , and only then, will we of this earth be one.”

Chapter XII: Growth and Decay 

We handle basic stimuli such as hunger, danger, and sex well. For the rest, stereotypes sustain us. 

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.

Men's logic of construction and destruction:

In organic periods men are busy building; in critical periods they are busy destroying.

Civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear.

On one point all are agreed: civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear—or linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams. What are the causes of development, and what are the causes of decay?

Civilization declines because of the failure of its political or intellectual leaders. 

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.

Civilizations naturally tend to save what people before them have done.  

As life overrides death with reproduction, so an aging culture hands its patrimony down to its heirs across the years and the seas. Even as these lines are being written, commerce and print, wires and waves and invisible Mercuries of the air are binding nations and civilizations together, preserving for all what each has given to the heritage of mankind.

Chapter XIII: Is Progress Real?

Even without religion, we keep a moral strong enough to keep ourselves from the "bad."

We frolic in our emancipation from theology, but have we developed a natural ethic—a moral code independent of religion—strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity?

What is progress? Progress is being born into a richer heritage. A world richer in knowledge and art.

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 ability to give civilization a legacy makes men lucky.

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.