The Lessons of History – Summary, Insights, and Discussion Guide

The questions below are meant to be used in a guided discussion on the book, “The Lessons of History” by Will & Ariel Durant. If you are interested in my detailed notes from this book, please email me.

The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant

Synopsis:

 

A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“A concise survey of the culture and civilization of mankind, The Lessons of History is the result of a lifetime of research from Pulitzer Prize–winning historians Will and Ariel Durant.

With their accessible compendium of philosophy and social progress, the Durants take us on a journey through history, exploring the possibilities and limitations of humanity over time. Juxtaposing the great lives, ideas, and accomplishments with cycles of war and conquest, the Durants reveal the towering themes of history and give meaning to our own.”

Discussion Questions:

 

  • The authors describe how the physical environment on Earth has impacted the growth of civilizations. Cities sprung up around natural resources. Over time, as sea power gave way to airpower, countries with long coastlines and coastal cities became less prominent.
    • How will the rise in the value of data and digital information further shape civilization?
    • Will countries with less restrictive data privacy laws be more powerful since they are able to amass more data in a shorter period of time?
    • Will the massing of algorithms and Machine Learning models also be a source of power?
    • Will corporations, who can operate globally beyond the limitations of specific countries, become more powerful or influential than individual countries?

 

  • The authors define morals as, “the rules by which a society exhorts its members and associations to behave consistent with its order, security, and growth.” They describe how the moral code changed as humans progressed through the hunting, agriculture, and industrial stages. The new regime demanded new virtues and changed some of the old virtues to vices.
    • Do you think we are transitioning out of the industrial stage and into a new information age?
    • How do you think the moral code will change as this transition occurs? What will be the new virtues? Will current virtues become vices?

 

  • When discussing biology, the authors note that evolution relies on some variation of survival ability in the members of a species. This results in inequality between individuals. The amount of people with unique abilities gets concentrated into a minority of people. This results in a concentration of wealth minority government.
    • Do you think inequality is natural or inevitable?
    • Is a minority government ideal or are there other structures that would be more effective?
    • Is there some minimum level of quality of life that can be provided that limits the effects of inequality?

 

  • “To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed.” The authors describe a dichotomy between equality and freedom. Freedom can cause chaos and inequality when unchecked. There is a constant tension between the minority, who have wealth and power, and the majority who do not. The rich redistribute wealth, typically through government intervention, to limit equality. The poor redistribute poverty, typically through a revolution to overpower the rich.
    • Are the tradeoffs between equality and freedom zero-sum or is there a hypothetical ideal balance?
    • Are there other mechanisms to address inequality besides wealth redistribution? The authors mention focusing on the legal and education systems as avenues to increase equality.

 

  • Religion is described as a tool to provide hope to the majority of people in poverty. It’s also described as a tool used by governments to maintain control over society.
    • What do you think about the relationship between church and state? Should they be more tightly integrated or separated?
    • The authors state, “One lesson from history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection.” Do you think this is a result of religion supporting both the majority and the minority simultaneously?
    • If inequality is inevitable, does that mean religion is inevitable as well?

 

  • The agricultural, scientific, and industrial revolutions have demystified daily life and given humans an increasing amount of control over their environment. These achievements have challenged the role of religion in society.
    • Do you think religious beliefs are increasing or decreasing? Would there be a specific societal impact of religion was largely discounted?
    • What will be the impact of the digital revolution on the role of religion in society?
    • Will advances like Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering further reduce the role of religion or will they create an even larger divide in inequality that increases the need for religion?