'Lessons of History' is a literary gem

April 27, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Sometimes, for unknown reasons, we overlook an object year after year. When we finally show interest, we wonder how such neglect was possible. This was the case when I paused to take a closer look at a book that had been on one of my bookshelves for more than 40 years. "The Lessons of History," coauthored by Will and Ariel Durant, turned out to be a most delightful treasure chest of history and wisdom. Yet it was packaged into a series of essays requiring only 102 pages.

This is amazing when it is realized that these two tireless writers have published two volumes about philosophy and more than a dozen volumes of world history. It is hard to discover such range and beauty of composition so consistently of such high quality. One wants to know immediately what some of the lessons of history are, hidden in the multifaceted record of the human race that stretches out from a horde of uncivilized tribes to those who pilot spacecraft.

The Durants begin with an admission that the study of history might not possess an overall plan or pattern that is discernable. They are convinced that, "The world situation is all fouled up. It has always been. It will always be. I see no reason for change. It is baroque (of irregular shape). It smiles at all attempts to force it to flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves, it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules."

The idea that history does not make sense is seconded by Shakespeare in "Macbeth." "Life's but a shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Another voice of approval for the view that the human experience is one of turmoil and defeat is "The Preacher" (Ecclesiastes). "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so does the other. They all have the same breath and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity." This outlook is made popular today by existentialist playwrights who dramatize the theme that life is — and always has been — a big, bad joke.

The Durants do take notice of several theories of history that argue for the existence of a pattern or plan about the direction history takes. Two of the easily recognized outlines will give a clue about the point. One is the oversimplified aphorism that "history repeats itself." Whether this phrase is understood by the user is hard to guess.

A German math teacher, Oswald Spengler, used the human life cycle as the model for the rise and fall of civilizations. He argued that societies — like people — repeat the cycle: birth, childhood, adulthood, old age and death. This pattern is invariant and pessimistic since all ends in death.

Karl Marx then came up with a pattern that was touted as the only true and inevitable, eternal plan for the ages. His theory had two basic elements that, however eternal in theory, did not make it in practice to the 80th birthday. First was the driving force of history. For Marx this was called economic determinism and made the claim that all history was the result of economic forces — thus it was a materialistic process.

The second feature of Marxist theory was the direction taken in history. For Marx, this was a three-step motion in which class warfare was the dominant fact. With the advent of private property, there was a clash between the "haves" (exploiters) and "have nots" (the exploited). It began between master and slave, then between lord and serf, and finally between capitalists and labor. This inevitable class warfare would end with the victory of the working class because the cause of war had been removed.

The Durants are emphatic about their skepticism with regard to historical eternal recurrence, the almost omnipotence of economic forces and ultimate victory of the proletariat over capitalist exploiters. The collapse of communist societies is sufficient evidence that they were not blessed with an eternal destiny. They saw room for much openness and unpredictability in the twists and turns in history. As they wrote earlier, "It (history) smiles at all attempts to force it to flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves."

The Durants have given us the benefit of their vast study of the long journey of the human race. We must be responsible and study "The Lessons of History" if we are to endure and prosper.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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