An old joke is that a king wanted to acquire all the wisdom in the world, so he called upon the wisest man in the kingdom to boil down his wisdom into one sentence. The wise man said that would take some time, and he then went off to sit on a mountaintop to come up with an answer. After 12 years, he returned. The king asked him to express the wisdom of the world in one sentence, and the wise man said, “All things will come to pass.”
Still not satisfied, the king then asked the wise man to boil down his wisdom into one word. Again, the wise man went off to the mountaintop, and he did not return for 17 years. When he finally came down, the king asked him to sum up the wisdom of the world in one word. The wise man said: “Maybe.”
With that in mind, I recently read “The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant. The Durants, who died in 1981, set out in the 1930s to write “The History of Civilization.” It turned into an 11-volume set of books, but time ran out on them. Their historical effort ended at the time of Napoleon, 200 years ago.
“The Lessons of History,” however, published in 1968, boils down to 91 pages what they learned in their research. In that slim book, they discuss what they have learned about biology, race, character, morals, religion, economics and the rise and fall of great civilizations. Almost every sentence is worthy of a book, or at least a great reminder of how tenuous is mankind’s hold on civilization. Here are 10 quotes from the Durants to ponder as you gaze upon the current state of the world:
• “Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty. At any moment, a comet may come too close to the earth … and fall upon us in a wild embrace ending all grief and pain.”
• “The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition…. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive.”
• The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. … Nature has not read very carefully the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man; we are all born unfree and unequal. …”
• The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. … (Nature) does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she … sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group.”
• “Freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”
• “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 progressive societies, the concentration (of wealth) 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.”
• “The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.”
• “The complexity of contemporary states seems to break down any single mind that tries to master it. … Hence most governments have been oligarchies — ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is unnatural for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for united and specific action, and a minority can.”
• “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.”
Virtually everything in the news today, the world has seen before. Intellectual leaders may think they know a superior way, but we cannot escape fundamental truths about our existence.
Among those are that civilization exists only as long as the food supply does. The last time the western world faced rising starvation was in the Depression of the 1930s; that led to the savagery of World War II. We see the same conditions play out in Third World flare ups today.
Our elites may think we are morally superior. I’d suggest we are just luckier, but with one additional observation: “Maybe.”