The Lessons of History

The celebrated collection of essays compiling over 5,000 years of history by two of the greatest thinkings of our time

Harry Cheslaw
2 min readFeb 5, 2023

By Will & Ariel Durant

The book presents an overview of the themes from 5,000 years of human history, examined from the 12 perspectives of: geography, biology, race, character, morals, religion, economics, socialism, government, war, growth and decay, and progress. The book posits that all change can be viewed through the themes with cycles repeating throughout time.


Durant argues that inequality is natural and that with every invention or progress only more inequality grows. They argue that “freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies”.

Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically…To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed.

They argue that the best a society can target is the equality of legal and educational opportunity with all else leading to a doomed civilisation.

The old vs the young

Durant aruges that the fight between the revolutionary and the conversative and old vs the young are needed for the benefit of society.

“Out of this tension, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole”


Durant makes the argument that one can view history in a similar vein to Karl Max as simply “economics in action”. The industrial revolution brought with it feminism, decline of religion, loosing of morals etc. while the great historical figures seen as shaping history are known about simply due to economics. “Hector would never have been heard of had not the Greeks sought commercial control of the Dardanelles, economic ambition, no the face of Helen, launched a thousand ships on Ilium”.

Durant argues that one can view history as simply “the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation”. With this being shown in the French and American revolution.


Durant argues that throughout history Monarchy has been the most successful form of government with democracies being often short and hectic periods.

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 of chaos.

What is progress?

“Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merel new meaching of achieving old ends… 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.”