It's important to learn from your mistakes, but it is BETTER to learn from other people's mistakes, and it is BEST to learn from other people's successes. - Jim Rohn
In 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning historians Will and Ariel Durant published the book The Lessons of History collecting knowledge and experiences from five decades from their larger text The Story of Civilization. It's a concise 100 page book offering philosophical insights from 5,000 years of modern human experience and an in-depth outline of why certain civilizations were successful and developed more effectively, which we can apply to improve our lives today.
The book juxtapositions victories and accomplishments with cycles of war and defeat. The authors argue that technology has left traditional forms of expansion such as geography and resources as behind.
We're going to cover the 8 key learning points from the book namely that:
Technology Removes Geographical Boundaries, Genetics Mean Inequality, Race Has No Impact, Culture Dictates Character and Morals, Wealth Distribution Is Unequal, Socialism Paired With Capitalism Can Work, Education Is Vital To Democracy and Achievements From History Guide Future Civilizations.
Technology Removes Geographical Boundaries
“The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact…Man, not the earth, makes civilization.” – The Durants
Historically, geographical conditions have been one of the most crucial factors influencing the development of cities. This is why almost all the world’s largest cities are based near rivers, lakes, or oceans. Bodies of water were crucial for water and food, but also for transportation and trade of resources. The ancient city of Mesopotamia is generally considered the birthplace of human civilization. Importantly, Mesopotamia was built between two huge rivers: Euphrates and Tigris. Ancient Egypt was called the Gift of Nile, and Ancient Rome grew based on three bodies of water nearby.
Advances in technology mean that countries and cities no longer need to be close to water to develop economically. Cars, trains, and planes have reduced the importance of these countries’ coastal nature with port cities becoming redundant. On the other hand, countries like Russia, China, and Brazil are no longer limited by their vast landmass. Digital products and technology have allowed for people to develop wealth regardless of geographies and for cities and economies in traditionally remote areas to grow in population. More recently technology like video conferencing has allowed employees to work remotely from anywhere on the plan rather than in proximity to a type of industry.
Genetics Mean Inequality
Our ancestors’ survival depended on fighting and killing and humans have evolved and adopted this same competitiveness. Today even social cooperation such as communities, families and nations is just a way of improving your ability to compete.
In The Lessons of History the Durants provide an outline of a few ways in which humans are not naturally equal, and competitiveness is intuitive:
- Inequality is a natural part of human nature. Attempting to reduce it will only come at the cost of individual freedom.
- Genetics is the most important factor underpinning being physically or mentally stronger than somebody else. We can improve ourselves, but we cannot change our genetics. Hence, inequality is there from birth.
- Social complexity, which is increasing with the development of technology, only exaggerates our genetic inequalities.
While it's important to take these factors into account research has shown that the advantages of genetics pale in comparison to the advantages of practise and learning hence why an elite athlete will likely possess some genetic advantages but must train hard to attain success.
Race Has No Impact
Historically, certain groups have viewed race as the reason certain societies have flourished. Advanced cultures have developed throughout the world and are independent of each other. China had a highly developed civilization long before Ancient Egypt or Rome. Incas, Mayans, Indians, and Africans have all, at one point, been home to the most advanced civilization on the Earth. Hence, race has nothing to do with development and it should not be used as a limiting belief for self-development nor bias people's decisions.
Culture Dictates Character and Morals
Human genetics have remained relatively stable throughout history. Despite this, people today would struggle to relate to somebody born in Ancient Egypt or other historical civilisations. The primary difference between them and us is our culture. While genetics have remained stable the main thing that has significantly changed during this time is technology. Technology and cultural innovation are factors that impact our morals and beliefs. For example, innovative individuals introduce new ideas into society, and those widely accepted are integrated into the culture of that time. Technology and entrepreneurs can thus mould cultures.
It can be challenging looking back at historical figures and accepting how they could hold certain moral values. For example, people from the Middle Ages would have seen burning an accused witch at the stake as a moral act. Morals are associated with the economic phases of our history. A modern example of this is the push for more robust digital privacy following the introduction of social networks and sharing of personal information online.
Wealth Distribution Is Unequal
One of the most salient learning points from The Lessons of History is captured by the quote:
The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all. – The Durants
Throughout history, wealth has shifted towards those who have the required skills for the period they are living in and there has always been a minority of people commanding the majority of wealth. Moral values and economic freedom often determine a society’s wealth distribution. Democracy exists to increase the freedom of its citizens and generally place more wealth in the hands of the minority population.
At some point redistribution has to occur when inequality reaches a certain level. Historically, this redistribution has occurred when the sheer number of poor people outweighs the wealth and power of the minority. In the past, this redistribution has either occurred through legal reformation or force. One example of the former is Athens in 594 BC. The lower classes were considering revolting, and the wealthy were prepared to protect their wealth by force. However an Athenian noble statesman decided to reform the system by reducing the currency’s value, which then reduced debt and allowed the poor to survive easier. By contrast Rome had previously refused to redistribute wealth resulting in a civil war between the classes that persisted from 133 BC until 30 BC.
Socialism Paired With Capitalism Can Work
Many societies have attempted socialism as a way of redistributing wealth, but it has always failed. Despite this, the Durants explain that these failures are mostly due to socialism being attempted alone. Socialism can work if it is paired with other concepts. For example, the Incas in South America were all employees of the state in exchange for security and food. However, this was combined with a sovereign delegate who was viewed as the Sun God. This approach was a success until Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1533. This is an example of socialism and monarchism working together.
This point is highly relevant to anyone running a business. Most founders and business owners will act as CEO and often wear multiple hats, initially making most decisions. As you hire people you should aim to empower employees to act like mini-CEOs who make their own decisions so that you can scale yourself as the business owner and work on the business rather than in the business. This concept is true for team leads and anyone managing people. Pairing empowered decision-making by employees with an overall mission, often related to revenue in business, will help make this work rather than the contrast of employees making decisions alone or being told explicitly what to do.
Education Is Vital To Democracy
“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.” – The Durants
Democracies are now considered the best approach for society. Despite the widespread nature of democracy, the authors explain that democracies are a relatively new concept in human history. Democracies are effective in allowing the development of science and enterprise. However, they do not guarantee equal rights for all. For example, democracies can still deny women the right to vote.
Despite the benefits of democracies, they are also extremely fragile. Even the most stable democracies are constantly under the threat of being overthrown by a dictator. Suppose a country is threatened by war or an economic crisis. In that case, it’s easier for an individual to take advantage of it and rise to power in a democracy. A democratic society’s only defense against this is education. People can only resist corrupt leaders if they have the education to understand what’s going on.
This concept also relates to companies or anyone managing people. Being transparent with employees and ensuring they are updated and educated on why decisions are made and aligned to an overall mission is vital to building culture and empowering your people.
Achievements From History Guide Future Civilizations
“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.” – The Durants
Societies do not have to restart every time a civilization falls. Instead, the best achievements and ideas of the previous civilizations can be incorporated into future societies. We no longer have any of the great ancient civilizations. However, a considerable number of their inventions still live on in modern society. We still use basic technology from our past, such as fire, the wheel, and writing systems. Plus, agricultural practices and certain moral codes remain unchanged. We may be the same biological beings as thousands of years ago. Still, we have more advanced human rights, judicial systems, intellectual freedoms, and technological innovations. We have taken the good from previous civilizations and mixed them with our own society’s significant achievements. The authors describe this as our heritage. Our biology is the same, but our heritage is more prosperous. We have learned from the lessons of history and improved human civilization. The Durants suggest that we continue looking at historical successes as potential guidance.