The Lessons Of History, by Will & Ariel Durant, narrated by Grover Gardner
This particular audiobook is fascinating on several levels. For one, it presents the condensed wisdom of an older, wiser man (and woman) after having spent decades writing about the story of civilization over many thousands of pages of books. For another, the book manages to provide a distillation of the wisdom spent in researching global history intensively, aside from philosophy, while coming to conclusions that are eminently sensible, if not always upright. The lifespan of Will Durant from youthful socialist radical to elderly sadder and wiser conservative, if not reactionary, is a fairly typical example of moral development. The author’s advice to the reader to avoid trusting the political ideas of someone under the age of 30 is one that not all readers will agree with, but as this book is aimed at older people who have read and studied history and reflected and ruminated on it and are seeking lessons, and not necessarily for young people who have no time even for short books about interesting subjects, it is likely that this book will answer and respond to the prejudices of its writers, and may not necessarily ponder upon the complicated life of its author. In addition, those who may be offended by the prejudices of the author in favor of those who share his old age are unlikely to gain the wisdom that this book provides, but would be wise to overcome their own offense.
The contents of this book are straightforward and intriguing. In this particular audiobook, the short chapters reflecting upon the importance and development of various aspects of history like race, class struggle, warfare, progress, geography, and other factors in history are interspersed with interviews with Will and Ariel Durant. While in many cases these interviews recapitulate the thoughts of the authors, at times they are immensely enjoyable in their own right. The banter between Will and Ariel is loving and humorous, as Ariel jokes about being a child bride (considering she was considerably younger than her husband) and points out the logical inconsistencies in the view of freedom and order and the supposed lack of development of black African civilization, where Will concedes that they did have a civilized culture despite his own prejudices. The book is therefore a triumph of humane reason over many, if not all, of the author’s prejudices, and an encouragement on the part of the reader to reflect upon the lessons of history and to ponder upon the lessons we can learn from the past so that we do not have to repeat them in our own experience. As a standalone book this collection of reflections would likely be only a hundred to two hundred pages or so, but as an audiobook of slightly more than five hours it makes for a worthwhile listen that is far more valuable than its limited size would indicate.
This is not to say that the author’s insights are wise ones. He has, as might be expected for a philosopher, a prejudice for intelligence and a desire that prospective parents should have to pass tests before being allowed to procreate, but that suitably intelligent people should be encouraged and subsidized to bear children after them. Not all readers are likely to share the author’s opinions about science and religion, which are the conservative but not necessarily Christian thoughts of an elderly man reflecting on his past and coming to terms with his own existence and mistakes. Nevertheless, much of the book is sound, and the author’s discussion of the way that civilization consists of the moral, cultural, and technical education of a savage that has remained biologically constant despite the immense changes in the social context around him (or her) is a very wise insight. The wise learn from the experiences of others, and the foolish do not learn even from their own experiences, and those who are able to learn from the distilled insights of an elderly man are to be praised for doing so. It is little wonder this book, and this author’s later works on history, are so well praised by conservatives, for he represents a historian who appreciates that those who rebel against drastic changes are often more wise because of their acceptance and grounding in the wisdom of many over the ages rather than the solitary bent of their own minds. Even those of us who are immensely critical towards received traditions would do wise to subject our own thoughts to the verdict of time and of the criticism of those who are aware of the larger historical patterns involved.