‘The Lessons of History’ is a book that was written by Will and Ariel Durant who wrote the massive ‘The Story of Civilization.’ ‘The Lessons of History’ is a small work of only about 117 pages, and yet the pages therein contain the distilled wisdom of two careful scholars who possessed the great ability to investigate the deepest motivations of humans by critical observation of their actions.
They wrote of the sublime and the absurd in human actions. After all, actions are the final arbiter of who people are unmolested by a facade of carefully written words. ‘The Lessons of History’ is a timely work for those of us who find ourselves embedded within the post-industrial milieu of the 21st century. It is true that the actions observed today may be found to have occurred in the past. History repeats itself may be a boring nostrum, but nevertheless it is true.
For instance, in chapter 10 of ‘The Lessons of History’ entitled ‘Government and History’ there is this powerful statement:
“During the ascendancy of Pericles (460-430 B.C.) the aristocracy prevailed, and Athens had her supreme age in literature, drama, and art. After his death, and the disgrace of the aristocracy through the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), the demos, or lower class of citizens, rose to power, much to the disgust of Socrates and Plato. From Solon to the Roman conquest of Greece (146 B.C.) the conflict of oligarchs and democrats was waged with books, plays, orations, votes, ostracism, assassination, and civil war. Thucydides’ description reminds us of Paris in 1792-93.” In his Republic Plato made his mouthpiece, Socrates condemned the triumphant democracy of Athens as as chaos of class violence, cultural decadence, and moral degeneration. …insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage… The old do not like to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they imitate the young… The citizens chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length…they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten… And this is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs dictatorship [tyrannis]… The excessive increase of anything naturally causes a reaction in the opposite direction; dictatorship naturally arise out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”
“By the time of Plato’s death in (347 B. C) his …analysis of Athenian democracy was approaching apparent confirmation by history…the neuveaux riches (neoplutoi) built gaudy mansions, bedecked…women with costly robes and jewelry, spoiled them with dozens of servants, rivaled one another in the feasts with which they regaled their guests. The gap between the rich and the poor widened; Athens was divided, as Plato put it, into “two cities:…one the city of the poor, the other the city of the rich, the one war at war with the other.”
“The poor schemed to despoiled the rich by legislation, taxation, and revolution; the rich organized themselves for protection against the poor. The members of some oligarchic organizations, says Aristotle took a solemn oath: “I will be an adversary of the people” (i..e., the commonality), “and in the Council I will do it all the evil that I can…The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue… The moneyed families of otherwise hostile Greek states leagued themselves secretly for mutual aid against popular revolts. The middle classes, as well as the rich, began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor distrusted it as a sham equality of votes nullified by a gaping inequality of wealth.”
The Durants go on to relate the meticulous craft persons that they are that in our own time the American Revolution was not only a revolt of colonials against a distant government; it was also an uprising of a native middle class against an imported aristocracy….A government that governed the least was admirably suited to liberate those individualistic energies that transformed America from a wilderness to a material utopia, and from the child and ward to be rival and guardian of Western Europe… These and a hundred other conditions gave to America a democracy more basic and universal than history had ever seen.
We have a very powerful heritage and we must therefore have the unshakable resolve to hold on to hope. Hope will keep us healthy and win us from fear and anxiety. We must be ever aware of the importance of history’s lessons. We must teach our fellow citizens that together we can collectively decide for our success as a nation. We must go back to history in order to ‘see’ who or what movement is/are determined to undermine who we are as an exemplary nation-state.