Summer Reading: Insights from the Lessons of History

Originally published in Utah Business.

There must be hundreds of business books worthy of reading this summer. I recommend you add to this list a 1968 masterpiece I pull off my shelf from time to time called The Lessons of History. Authored by Will and Ariel Durant, this gem of a book will refresh your thinking, challenge your intellect and feed your soul.

Be forewarned … this is no ordinary book. The authors spent 40 years writing an 11-volume set on the history of civilization. As if that wasn’t a daunting enough task, they then distilled the lessons learned into this single-volume, 100-page book that includes profound insights about our world. It’s certain to give you more of a sixth sense about your business and your life.

The Durants write that the first lesson of history is modesty—a poignant reminder to all of us. In their words, “Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.” No matter how high you climb, don’t ever take yourself too seriously. Stay clear of vanity or conceit. Be humble.

They remind us that all races, ethnicities and cultures contribute creatively and uniquely to the progress of civilization. In their words, “civilization is a co-operative product that nearly all peoples have contributed to it.” Remember in your business and personal dealings, everyone matters.

They opine that history demonstrates little variation over time in the conduct of mankind. Human nature does not vary by class either, but rather “by and large, the poor have the same impulses as the rich with only less opportunity or skill to implement them.” The balance of character traits, they say, propels history. In our base nature, we are mostly the same.

The Durants point out that sin has flourished in every age, and then they confess that even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion. They write, “There is no significant example in history … of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” They go on to praise religion for helping parents and teachers to discipline the young, conferring meaning and dignity to the lowliest existence, and creating a stronger connection between man and his/her maker. It’s a subtle reminder that even the skeptic should give religion a chance.

In regards to economics, they conclude that market economies are the right way to organize economic activity. They write, “The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity.” At the same time, they caution that the ability to accumulate wealth is concentrated in the talents of a minority of men and women. In their view, redistribution of wealth in some form is a necessary consequence.

They hold democracy in high regard and point out that it is “the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.” They quote Lincoln in quipping that you can’t fool all the people all the time, but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country. They herald education as the key to democratic societies.

They offer a sobering reminder to all of us who are so fixated on science and technology that we fail to exalt the arts at our peril. They write, “Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than sciences and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.”

Modern life is crazy fast, but is life any better in the process? The Durants ponder this question and caution: “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.”

In the poignant final chapter, they ask the question, “Is progress real?” They wonder whether the comforts and conveniences gained over time have weakened our physical stamina and moral fiber. They point out that 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.”

They conclude that if progress is real, it’s 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.” Their final lesson, and indeed challenge, is to be generative souls and gather up as much as we can of our civilized heritage and transmit it to our children. And, to our final breath, we will be “grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.”

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