The Lessons of History
Amazon link: The Lessons of History
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.
II. History and the Earth
III. Biology and History
IV. Race and History
V. Character and History
VI. Morals and History
VII. Religion and History
VIII. Economics and History
IX. Socialism and History
X. Government and History
XI. History and War
XII. Growth and Decay
XIII. Is Progress Real?
About Will and Ariel Durant
This postlude needs little preface.
After finishing The Story of Civilization to 1789, we reread the ten volumes with a view to correct many errors of omission, fact, or print.
In that process we made note of events and comments that might illuminate present affairs, future probabilities, the nature of man, and the conduct of states.
(The references, in the text, to various volumes of the Story are offered not as authorities but as instances or elucidations so come upon.)
We tried to defer our conclusions until we had completed our survey of the narrative, but doubtless our preformed opinions influenced our selection of illustrative material.
The following essay is the result.
It repeats many ideas that we, or others before us, have already expressed; our aim is not originality but inclusiveness; we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation.
Here, as so often in the past, we must gratefully acknowledge the help and counsel given us by our daughter Ethel.
WILL AND ARIEL DURANT
As his studies come to a close the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been?
Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nations and ideas, and retelling “sad stories of the death of kings”?
Have you learned more about human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book?
Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgments and policies, any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change?
Have you found such regularities in the sequence of past events that you can predict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states?
Is it possible that, after all, “history has no sense,” that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?
At times we feel so, and a multitude of doubts assail our enterprise.
To begin with, do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history “a fable” not quite “agreed upon”?
Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship.
“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”2
Even the historian who thinks to rise above partiality for his country, race, creed, or class betrays his secret predilection in his choice of materials, and in the nuances of his adjectives.
“The historian always oversimplifies, and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend.”3 — Again, our conclusions from the past to the future are made more hazardous than ever by the acceleration of change.
In 1909 Charles Péguy thought that “the world changed less since Jesus Christ than in the last thirty years”;4 and perhaps some young doctor of philosophy in physics would now add that his science has changed more since 1909 than in all recorded time before.
Every year sometimes, in war, every month—some new invention, method, or situation compels a fresh adjustment of behavior and ideas. — Furthermore, an element of chance, perhaps of freedom, seems to enter into the conduct of metals and men.
We are no longer confident that atoms, much less organisms, will respond in the future as we think they have responded in the past.
The electrons, like Cowper’s God, move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform, and some quirk of character or circumstance may upset national equations, as when Alexander drank himself to death and let his new empire fall apart (323 B. C.), or as when Frederick the Great was saved from disaster by the accession of a Czar infatuated with Prussian ways (1762).
Obviously historiography cannot be a science.
It can only be an industry, an art, and a philosophy-an industry by ferreting out the facts, an art by establishing a meaningful order in the chaos of materials, a philosophy by seeking perspective and enlightenment.
“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding”5 — or so we believe and hope.
In philosophy we try to see the part in the light of the whole; in the “philosophy of history” we try to see this moment in the light of the past.
We know that in both cases this is a counsel of perfection; total perspective is an optical illusion.
We do not know the whole of man’s history; there were probably many civilizations before the Sumerian or the Egyptian; we have just begun to dig!
We must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities; in history, as in science and politics, relativity rules, and all formulas should be suspect.
“History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque.”6
Perhaps, within these limits, we can learn enough from history to bear reality patiently, and to respect one another’s delusions.
Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war—what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.
It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions.
XII. Growth and Decay
We have defined civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation.”67
It is political order secured through custom, morals, and law, and economic order secured through a continuity of production and exchange; it is cultural creation through freedom and facilities for the origination, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners, and arts.
It is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed.
Why is it that history is littered with the ruins of civilizations, and seems to tell us, like Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” that death is the destiny of all?
Are there any regularities, in this process of growth and decay, which may enable us to predict, from the course of past civilizations, the future of our own?
Certain imaginative spirits have thought so, even to predicting the future in detail.
In his Fourth Eclogue Virgil announced that some day, the ingenuity of change having been exhausted, the whole universe, by design or accident, will fall into a condition precisely the same as in some forgotten antiquity, and will then repeat, by deterministic fatality and in every particular, all those events that had followed that condition before.
Alter erit turn Tiphys, et altera quae vehat Argo delectos heroas; erunt etiam altera bella, atque iterurn ad Troiam magnus mittetur Achilles—
“there will then be another [prophet] Tiphys, and another Argo will carry [Jason and other] beloved heroes; there will also be other wars, and great Achilles will again be sent to Troy.”68
Friedrich Nietzsche went insane with this vision of “eternal recurrence.”
There is nothing so foolish but it can be found in the philosophers.
History repeats itself, but only in outline and in the large.
We may reasonably expect
that in the future, as in the past, some new states will rise, some old states will subside; that new civilizations will begin with pasture and agriculture, expand into commerce and industry, and luxuriate with finance;
that thought (as Vico and Comte argued) will pass, by and large, from supernatural to legendary to naturalistic explanations;
that new theories, inventions, discoveries, and errors will agitate the intellectual currents;
that new generations will rebel against the old and pass from rebellion to conformity and reaction;
that experiments in morals will loosen tradition and frighten its beneficiaries;
and that the excitement of innovation will be forgotten in the unconcern of time.
History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness, and man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex.
But in a developed and complex civilization individuals are more differentiated and unique than in a primitive society, and many situations contain novel circumstances requiring modifications of instinctive response; custom recedes, reasoning spreads; the results are less predictable.
There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past.
Every year is an adventure.
Some masterminds have sought to constrain the loose regularities of history into majestic paradigms.
The founder of French socialism, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), divided the past and the future into an alternation of “organic” and “critical” periods:
The law of human development … reveals two distinct and alternative states of society: one, the organic, in which all human actions are classed, foreseen, and regulated by a general theory, and the purpose of social activity is clearly defined; the other, the critical, in which all community of thought, all communal action, all coordination have ceased, and the society is only an agglomeration of separate individuals in conflict with one another.
Each of these states or conditions has occupied two periods of history.
One organic period preceded that Greek era which we call the age of philosophy, but which we shall more justly call the age of criticism.
Later a new doctrine arose, ran through different phases of elaboration and completion, and finally established its political power over Western civilization.
The constitution of the Church began a new organic epoch, which ended in the fifteenth century, when the Reformers sounded the arrival of that age of criticism which has continued to our time.
In the organic ages all basic problems [theological, political, economic, moral] have received at least provisional solutions.
But soon the progress achieved by the help of these solutions, and under the protection of the institutions realized through them, rendered them inadequate, and evoked novelties.
Critical epochs—periods of debate, protest, … and transition, replaced the old mood with doubt, individualism, and indifference to the great problems … In organic periods men are busy building; in critical periods they are busy destroying.69
Saint-Simon believed that the establishment of socialism would begin a new organic age of unified belief, organization, co-operation, and stability.
If Communism should prove to be the triumphant new order of life Saint-Simon’s analysis and prediction would be justified.
Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) varied Saint-Simon’s scheme by dividing history into separate civilizations, each with an independent life span and trajectory composed of four seasons but essentially two periods:
one of centripetal organization unifying a culture in all its phases into a unique, coherent, and artistic form;
the other a period of centrifugal disorganization in which creed and culture decompose in division and criticism, and end in a chaos of individualism, skepticism, and artistic aberrations.
Whereas Saint-Simon looked forward to socialism as the new synthesis, Spengler (like Talleyrand) looked backward to aristocracy as the age in which life and thought were consistent and orderly and constituted a work of living art.
For Western existence the distinction lies about the year 1800—on one side of that frontier, life in fullness and sureness of itself, formed by growth from within, in one great, uninterrupted evolution from Gothic childhood to Goethe and Napoleon; and on the other the autumnal, artificial, rootless life of our great cities, under forms fashioned by the intellect … He who does not understand that this outcome is obligatory and insusceptible of modification must forgo all desire to comprehend history.70
On one point all are agreed: civilizations begin, flourish, decline, and disappear or linger on as stagnant pools left by once life-giving streams.
What are the causes of development, and what are the causes of decay?
No student takes seriously the seventeenth-century notion that states arose out of a “social contract” among individuals or between the people and a ruler.
Probably most states (i.e., societies politically organized) took form through the conquest of one group by another, and the establishment of a continuing force over the conquered by the conqueror; his decrees were their first laws; and these, added to the customs of the people, created a new social order.
Some states of Latin America obviously began in this way.
When the masters organized the work of their subjects to take advantage of some physical boon (like the rivers of Egypt or Asia), economic prevision and provision constituted another basis for civilization.
A dangerous tension between rulers and ruled might raise intellectual and emotional activity above the daily drift of primitive tribes.
Further stimulation to growth could come from any challenging change in the surroundings,” such as external invasion or a continuing shortage of rain—challenges that might be met by military improvements or the construction of irrigation canals.
If we put the problem further back, and ask what determines whether a challenge will or will not be met, the answer is that this depends upon the presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will (which is almost a definition of genius), capable of effective responses to new situations (which is almost a definition of intelligence).
If we ask what makes a creative individual, we are thrown back from history to psychology and biology—to the influence of environment and the gamble and secret of the chromosomes.
In any case a challenge successfully met (as by the United States in 1917, 1933, and 1941), if it does not exhaust the victor (like England in 1945), raises the temper and level of a nation, and makes it abler to meet further challenges.
If these are the sources of growth, what are the causes of decay?
Shall we suppose, with Spengler and many others, that each civilization is an organism, naturally and yet mysteriously endowed with the power of development and the fatality of death?
It is tempting to explain the behavior of groups through analogy with physiology or physics, and to ascribe the deterioration of a society to some inherent limit in its loan and tenure of life, or some irreparable running down of internal force.
Such analogies may offer provisional illumination, as when we compare the association of individuals with an aggregation of cells, or the circulation of money from banker back to banker with the systole and diastole of the heart.
But a group is no organism physically added to its constituent individuals; it has no brain or stomach of its own; it must think or feel with the brains or nerves of its members.
When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.
The challenges may come from a dozen sources, and may by repetition or combination rise to a destructive intensity.
Rainfall or oases may fail and leave the earth parched to sterility.
The soil may be exhausted by incompetent husbandry or improvident usage.
The replacement of free with slave labor may reduce the incentives to production, leaving lands untilled and cities unfed.
A change in the instruments or routes of trade—as by the conquest of the ocean or the air—may leave old centers of civilization becalmed and decadent, like Pisa or Venice after 1492.
Taxes may mount to the point of discouraging capital investment and productive stimulus.
Foreign markets and materials may be lost to more enterprising competition; excess of imports over exports may drain precious metal from domestic reserves.
The concentration of wealth may disrupt the nation in class or race war.
The concentration of population and poverty in great cities may compel a government to choose between enfeebling the economy with a dole and running the risk of riot and revolution.
Since inequality grows in an expanding economy, a society may find itself divided between a cultured minority and a majority of men and women too unfortunate by nature or circumstance to inherit or develop standards of excellence and taste.
As this majority grows it acts as a cultural drag upon the minority; its ways of speech, dress, recreation, feeling, judgment, and thought spread upward, and internal barbarization by the majority is part of the price that the minority pays for its control of educational and economic opportunity.
As education spreads, theologies lose credence, and receive an external conformity without influence upon conduct or hope.
Life and ideas become increasingly secular, ignoring supernatural explanations and fears.
The moral code loses aura and force as its human origin is revealed, and as divine surveillance and sanctions are removed.
In ancient Greece the philosophers destroyed the old faith among the educated classes; in many nations of modern Europe the philosophers achieved similar results.
Protagoras became Voltaire, Diogenes Rousseau, Democritus Hobbes, Plato Kant, Thrasymachus Nietzsche, Aristotle Spencer, Epicurus Diderot.
In antiquity and modernity alike, analytical thought dissolved the religion that had buttressed the moral code.
New religions came, but they were divorced from the ruling classes, and gave no service to the state.
An age of weary skepticism and epicureanism followed the triumph of rationalism over mythology in the last century before Christianity, and follows a similar victory today in the first century after Christianity.
Caught in the relaxing interval between one moral code and the next, an unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and a restless disorder of family and morals, in all but a remnant clinging desperately to old restraints and ways.
Few souls feel any longer that “it is beautiful and honorable to die for one’s country.”
A failure of leadership may allow a state to weaken itself with internal strife.
At the end of the process a decisive defeat in war may bring a final blow, or barbarian invasion from without may combine with barbarism welling up from within to bring the civilization to a close.
Is this a depressing picture?
Life has no inherent claim to eternity, whether in individuals or in states.
Death is natural, and if it comes in due time it is forgivable and useful, and the mature mind will take no offense from its coming.
But do civilizations die?
Again, not quite.
Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives in the memory of the race, and in such abidance that no one life, however full and long, could absorb it all.
Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land.
The Greek poets and philosophers are in every library and college; at this moment Plato is being studied by a hundred thousand discoverers of the “dear delight” of philosophy overspreading life with understanding thought.
This selective survival of creative minds is the most real and beneficent of immortalities.
Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change.
Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him.
If education has deepened and broadened those memories, civilization migrates with him, and builds somewhere another home.
In the new land he need not begin entirely anew, nor make his way without friendly aid; communication and transport bind him, as in a nourishing placenta, with his mother country.
Rome imported Greek civilization and transmitted it to Western Europe; America profited from European civilization and prepares to pass it on, with a technique of transmission never equaled before.
Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul.
As life overrides death with reproduction, so an aging culture hands its patrimony down to its heirs across the years and the seas.
Even as these lines are being written, commerce and print, wires and waves and invisible Mercuries of the air are binding nations and civilizations together, preserving for all what each has given to the heritage of mankind.
XIII. Is Progress Real?
Against this panorama of nations, morals, and religions rising and falling, the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape.
Is it only the vain and traditional boast of each “modem” generation?
Since we have admitted no substantial change in man’s nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends—the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.
One of the discouraging discoveries of our disillusioning century is that science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build.
How inadequate now seems the proud motto of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power”!
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.
Our progress in science and technique has involved some tincture of evil with good.
Our comforts and conveniences may have weakened our physical stamina and our moral fiber.
We have immensely developed our means of locomotion, but some of us use them to facilitate crime and to kill our fellow men or ourselves.
We double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs.
We applaud the cures and incisions of modem medicine if they bring no side effects worse than the malady;
we appreciate the assiduity of our physicians in their mad race with the resilience of microbes and the inventiveness of disease;
we are grateful for the added years that medical science gives us if they are not a burdensome prolongation of illness, disability, and gloom.
We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village.
We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for skilled workingmen and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.
We frolic in our emancipation from theology, but have we developed a natural ethic—a moral code independent of religion—strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity?
Have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological, or racial hostilities?
Are our manners better than before, or worse?
“Manners,” said a nineteenth-century traveler, “get regularly worse as you go from the East to the West; it is bad in Asia, not so good in Europe, and altogether bad in the western states of America”;73 and now the East imitates the West.
Have our laws offered the criminal too much protection against society and the state?
Have we given ourselves more freedom than our intelligence can digest?
Or are we nearing such moral and social disorder that frightened parents will run back to Mother Church and beg her to discipline their children, at whatever cost to intellectual liberty?
Has all the progress of philosophy since Descartes been a mistake through its failure to recognize the role of myth in the consolation and control of man?
“He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow, and in much wisdom is much grief.”74
Has there been any progress at all in philosophy since Confucius?
Or in literature since Aeschylus?
Are we sure that our music, with its complex forms and powerful orchestras, is more profound than Palestrina, or more musical and inspiring than the monodic airs that medieval Arabs sang to the strumming of their simple instruments?
(Edward Lane said of the Cairo musicians, “I have been more charmed with their songs … than with any other music that I have ever enjoyed.”75)
How does our contemporary architecture—bold, original, and impressive as it is compare with the temples of ancient Egypt or Greece, or our sculpture with the statues of Chephren and Hermes, or our bas-reliefs with those of Persepolis or the Parthenon, or our paintings with those of the van Eycks or Holbein?
If “the replacement of chaos with order is the essence of art and civilization,” is contemporary painting in America and Western Europe the replacement of order with chaos, and a vivid symbol of our civilization’s relapse into confused and structureless decay?
History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.
Choosing our evidence with a brighter bias, we might evolve some more comforting reflections.
But perhaps we should first define what progress means to us.
If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight.
Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval.
It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage—for certainly the child is the happiest of the three.
Is a more objective definition possible?
We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life.
It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man.
We must not demand of progress that it should be continuous or universal.
Obviously there are retrogressions, just as there are periods of failure, fatigue, and rest in a developing individual; if the present stage is an advance in control of the environment, progress is real.
We may presume that at almost any time in history some nations were progressing and some were declining, as Russia progresses and England loses ground today.
The same nation may be progressing in one field of human activity and retrogressing in another, as America is now progressing in technology and receding in the graphic arts.
If we find that the type of genius prevalent in young countries like America and Australia tends to the practical, inventive, scientific, executive kinds rather than to the painter of pictures or poems, the carver of statues or words, we must understand that each age and place needs and elicits some types of ability rather than others in its pursuit of environmental control.
We should not compare the work of one land and time with the winnowed best of all the collected past.
Our problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.
If we take a long-range view and compare our modern existence, precarious, chaotic, and murderous as it is, with the ignorance, superstition, violence, and diseases of primitive peoples, we do not come off quite forlorn.
The lowliest strata in civilized states may still differ only slightly from barbarians, but above those levels thousands, millions have reached mental and moral levels rarely found among primitive men.
Under the complex strains of city life we sometimes take imaginative refuge in the supposed simplicity of pre-civilized ways; but in our less romantic moments we know that this is a flight reaction from our actual tasks, and that the idolizing of savages, like many other young moods, is an impatient expression of adolescent maladaptation, of conscious ability not yet matured and comfortably placed.
The “friendly and flowing savage” would be delightful but for his scalpel, his insects, and his dirt.
A study of surviving primitive tribes reveals their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their lesser stamina and speed, their greater susceptibility to disease.”
If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment, then the tables of mortality proclaim the advance of man, for longevity in European and American whites has tripled in the last three centuries.
Some time ago a convention of morticians discussed the danger threatening their industry from the increasing tardiness of men in keeping their rendezvous with death.”’
But if undertakers are miserable progress is real.
In the debate between ancients and moderns it is not at all clear that the ancients carry off the prize.
Shall we count it a trivial achievement that famine has been eliminated in modern states, and that one country can now grow enough food to overfeed itself and yet send hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat to nations in need?
Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?
Would we really prefer the Athenian agora or the Roman comitia to the British Parliament or the United States Congress, or be content under a narrow franchise like Attica’s, or the selection of rulers by a praetorian guard?
Would we rather have lived under the laws of the Athenian Republic or the Roman Empire than under constitutions that give us habeas corpus, trial by jury, religious and intellectual freedom, and the emancipation of women?
Are our morals, lax though they are, worse than those of the ambisexual Alcibiades, or has any American President imitated Pericles, who lived with a learned courtesan?
Are we ashamed of our great universities, our many publishing houses, our bountiful public libraries?
There were great dramatists in Athens, but was any greater than Shakespeare, and was Aristophanes as profound and humane as Molière?
Was the oratory of Demosthenes, Isocrates, and Aeschines superior to that of Chatham, Burke, and Sheridan?
Shall we place Gibbon below Herodotus or Thucydides?
Is there anything in ancient prose fiction comparable to the scope and depth of the modern novel?
We may grant the superiority of the ancients in art, though some of us might still prefer Notre Dame de Paris to the Parthenon.
If the Founding Fathers of the United States could return to America, or Fox and Bentham to England, or Voltaire and Diderot to France, would they not reproach us as ingrates for our blindness to our good fortune in living today and not yesterday—not even under Pericles or Augustus?
We should not be greatly disturbed by the probability that our civilization will die like any other.
As Frederick asked his retreating troops at Kolin, “Would you live forever?”
Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn.
Meanwhile the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.
We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die—non omnis moritur.
Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states:
the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools;
language, writing, art, and song;
agriculture, the family, and parental care;
social organization, morality, and charity;
and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race.
These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next.
They are the connective tissue of human history.
If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing.
Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.
So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all.
Once colleges were luxuries, designed for the male half of the leisure class; today universities are so numerous that he who runs may become a Ph.D.
We may not have excelled the selected geniuses of antiquity, but we have raised the level and average of knowledge beyond any age in history.
None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten thousand years.
The great experiment has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance.
But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries, and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race?
Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.
The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before.
It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo’s, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire’s, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination.
If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being.
The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.
History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use.
To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.
The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death.
If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children.
And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. — Peter Drucker
The shift from manual workers who do as they are being told — either by the task or by the boss — to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves ↓ profoundly challenges social structure …
“Managing Oneself is a REVOLUTION in human affairs.” … “It also requires an almost 180-degree change in the knowledge workers’ thoughts and actions from what most of us—even of the younger generation—still take for granted as the way to think and the way to act.” …
These pages are attention directing tools for navigating a world moving toward unimagined futures.
It may be a step forward to actively reject something (rather than just passively ignoring) and then figure out a coping plan for what you’ve rejected.
Your future is between your ears and our future is between our collective ears — it can’t be otherwise. A site exploration starting point
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