This is a preview of the Shortform book summary ofguide to
The Lessons of History by Will Durant and Ariel Durant.
Read Full SummaryRead Complete Guide

1-Page Summary1-Page Book Summary of The Lessons of HistoryFast Summary of Shortform's Guide to The Lessons of History

The laws of biology are the fundamental lessons of history - humans are subject to the trials of selection and the struggle for existence, like all other animals. The group and nation merely inherits the will of the individual - after all, societies are made up of individuals.

Human nature has largely been unchanged throughout history - the means change, but the motives stay the same.

Humans are born with different abilities, and so inequality among humans is a natural consequence. This is magnified by the complexity of civilization, as each invention is seized by the strong to make themselves stronger, and the weak weaker.

  • Freedom and equality are fundamentally opposed. If people are given freedom, their natural differences in ability will materialize in different outcomes. If people were forced to show equal outcomes and equal abilities, this reduces freedom.
  • The best that egalitarians can hope for in a free society is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.
  • Society is made up of the imitative majority and the innovating minority. History in general is the “conflict of minorities” and the majority “applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.”

Culture, customs, and morals provide a useful social stabilizing force, and a dampening force on innovation. What practices survive to present day have survived over time because they worked. New changes need to be put through the crucible of criticism before overthrowing the result of centuries of experiment.

Morals change with the times as a reflection of what is necessary to grow and survive.

  • Hunting/gathering promoted survival at all costs, including fighting...

Want to learn the rest of The Lessons of History in 21 minutes? Want to learn the ideas of The Lessons of History better than ever?

Unlock the full book summary of The Lessons of History by Unlock the full Shortform guide to The Lessons of History by signing up for Shortform.

Shortform summaries help you learn 10x faster by: Shortform guides make you smarter by:

  • Being 100% comprehensive: you learn the most important points in the book Being 100% crystal-clear: you learn important ideas written simply and clearly
  • Expanding beyond the book: we add smart analysis and teach ideas the book didn't cover.
  • Cutting out the fluff: you don't spend your time wondering what the author's point is. Respecting your time: we don't waste your time and we make every word count.
  • Interactive exercises: apply the book's ideas to your own life with our educators' guidance.

READ FULL SUMMARY OF THE LESSONS OF HISTORY READ COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE LESSONS OF HISTORY

Here's a preview of the rest of Shortform's The Lessons of History summary:guide:

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 1: History and the Earth

Geography is the physical structure that holds history.

Civilization habitually develops along waterways - rivers, lakes, oceans - to provide life and offering inexpensive routes of transport and trade.

  • Egypt and Nile, India and Ganges, Italy and the Tiber/Arno/Po,...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 2: Biology and History

The laws of biology are the lessons of history. As animals, we are subject to the same forces as all other living beings - the trials of evolution, the struggle for survival and existence.

All the history and achievements of humans are humbly just a part of the history of life.

If some people seem to supersede biology and are no longer subject to the trials of survival, it’s because they’re protected by their group; the group itself must endure and survive, like individual organisms. (Shortform example: within a society, the wealthy may have a privileged position that places them above the normal struggles of day-to-day survival. But if the society they belong to crumbles, as in a war, the position of the priviliged itself crumbles.)

Life has three forces that determine the behavior.

1: Life is Competition

Animals compete to survive. In nature, animals eat one another without a second thought. In civilization, humans consume each other by due process of law.

Cooperation is real, but serves mainly to enhance competition with other groups (whether it’s our family, church, political party, race, or nation).

Our societies are individuals multiplied to a massive scale....

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes. This is the best guide to How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned the ideas better and got new insights than when I first read the book.
Learn more about our summaries →Learn more about our content →

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 3: Race and History

Western history has been biased toward the success of the white man.

  • 1800s French elitist Gobineau believed that a civilization’s success depended on the quality of the race.
    • He stressed that environmental advantages cannot explain the rise of civilization, since similar soil-fertilizing rivers that watered Egypt produced no civilization in North America.
    • He saw degeneration of civilization when intermarriage with the conquered race.
    • He also believed in a superior Aryan race.
  • American Madison Grant confined achievements to a branch of Aryans he called “Nordics” - Scandinavians, Baltic Germans, Anglo-Saxon Americans
    • He believed these...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 4: Character and History

Man’s character sets the character of groups and nations.

Human nature includes both positive and negative, balancing action vs inaction; fight vs flight; acquisition vs avoidance; association vs privacy; mating vs refusal; parental care vs filial dependence.

Has human nature changed? The historian authors say no - history shows that humans have conducted themselves the same way, time and time again, throughout thousands of years. The means of exercising human nature have changed; the motives remain the same.

Social and Cultural Changes

If people have developed, over time, it has been social and cultural evolution rather than biological (which acts on a much longer timescale). Social behavior and culture are transmitted to the next generation by imitation,...

Why people love using Shortform

"I LOVE Shortform as these are the BEST summaries I’ve ever seen...and I’ve looked at lots of similar sites. The 1-page summary and then the longer, complete version are so useful. I read Shortform nearly every day." "I LOVE Shortform as these are the BEST book guides I’ve ever seen...and I’ve looked at lots of similar sites. The 1-page overview and then the longer guide are so useful. I read Shortform nearly every day."
Jerry McPhee
Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 5: Morals and History

Morals are the rules by which a society exhorts its members to behave.

Moral codes look superficially different between societies and acros shistory, but they are quite universal and necessary.

How Morals Change

Morals change with the times and economic engine, from hunting to agriculture to industry. The morals reflect what is needed for the individual to survive in the society, and for the society to survive in the greater world.

Morals in the Hunting Era

  • Anything that promoted survival was paramount, including fighting and killing.
  • Gluttony during the rare feast allowed storage of energy for scarcer times.
  • Continuous reproduction was important to make up for high death rates.
  • Many men may die on the hunt, and so some men took multiple women, and every man was expected to help women to frequent pregnancy.
  • Loyalty to the tribe and wariness of outsiders promoted tribe survival.
  • These base, almost primitive instincts may persist to today and appear as human vices.

Morals in the Agriculture Era

  • The means of survival shifted, and so the morals shifted. Hard work became more vital than bravery. Regularity was valued above violence,...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 6: Religion and History

Even the agnostic historian has to acknowledge that religion has functioned and been seemingly indispensable in every land and age. The authors note that our society is exceptional in history for maintaining moral conduct without the ubiquitous force of religion. Before our time, there is no significant example of a stable society without religion.

Religion has enabled stability by elevating agreements between humans to rigid promises to God.

Religion has provided hope for billions of people - even the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old enjoy “supernatural comforts” more soothing than any material benefit.

Said Napoleon, religion kept the poor from murdering the rich. For many, hope and faith may be the only thing preventing despair. Destroy that hope, and you risk triggering class war.

Mankind seems to desire a religion rich in mythology, mystery, and miracle.

The Rise and Fall of Religion

In the earliest formation of religion, gods seem to have been created to explain natural events (earth, water, winds, sky), without a clear moral purpose. Spurred by fear of the vagaries of the natural world, religion became the worship of natural forces.

Gradually,...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes. This is the best guide to How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned the ideas better and got new insights than when I first read the book.
Learn more about our summaries →Learn more about our content →

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 7: Economics and History

Much of history can be interpreted sensibly through the economics lens, as a contest among individuals, groups, and states vying for resources and economic power.

  • Consider that it was economic ambition that launched a thousand ships, not Helen’s face.
  • The Crusades were attempts to capture trade routes to the East. In turn, America was discovered as a result of the failure of the Crusades.

Not all activities are primarily economically motivated - like the teachings of Buddha or the nationalistic fervor of Hitler’s troops. The motives of leaders may be economic, but the passions of the masses may not be.

  • But in some cases, military might may cause rather than result from economic operations, like the Bolshevik revolution, or army coups in South American history, or the Mongol conquest of Asia.

Money is vital in shaping the direction of history. “The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.”

  • In history, the bankers rise to lead the economic...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 8: Socialism and History

Nothing instills the spirit of competition and inventiveness and exhaustive labor like capitalism and self-interest do.

Yet elements of socialism have recurred throughout history. These include state control of commerce, wide government employment, price controls, welfare, progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth, and large public works to reduce unemployment.

  • Examples include Sumeria in 2100BC; Egypt under the Ptolemies (300BC); Rome under Diocletian (301AD); China in 140BC and in 1068 (Wang An-shih); the Incas until the...

Want to read the rest of this
Book Summary Shortform Guide ?

With Shortform, you can:

Access 1000+ non-fiction book summaries. Access 1000+ non-fiction book guides.

Highlight what
you want to remember.

Access 1000+ premium article summaries. Access 1000+ topic and news guides.

Take notes on your
favorite ideas.

Read on the go with our iOS and Android App.

Download PDF Summaries. Download PDF Versions.

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 9: Government and History

Durant believes that the first requirement of freedom is its own limitation - absolute freedom would cause chaos,and the extinction of freedom itself. For the sake of stability, order needs to be established, and that is the role of an organized central government.

The Natural Progression of Government

In his idea of “five regimes,” Plato saw a natural progression of government from monarchy to aristocracy to democracy to tyranny:

  • Monarchy is possibly the most natural form of government, descending from the father of the family or the chieftain of a tribe from earlier human societies. However since succession is often hereditary, leaders become prone to incompetence, laziness, and excess. A saner alternative is more distributed responsibility, like:
  • Aristocracy, where the elite hold power and train their offspring to rise to governance. This provides meaningful stability in morals and culture. But like monarchy, aristocracy is prone to corruption and hedonism. Hence the masses (stirred partly by rich, non-aristocratic merchants who feel constrained) overthrow the aristocracy, leading to:
  • Democracy, with greater individual liberty than all the other...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 10: History and War

War is a constant in history, there being only 268 years of no war in 3421 years of history.

War occurs for the same reason individuals fight - to compete for more resources and power, for pride, and to survive under threat. Peace is accomplished only through acknowledged supremacy or equal power.

  • “The Ten Commandments must be silent when self-preservation is at stake.”

The state inherits the will of the individual, without the individual’s normal boundaries. The individual is constrained by morals and laws, because the state guarantees him basic protection in exchange for his submission. But the state is unfettered, either because it is strong enough to defy interference with its will, or because there is no superstate to offer it protection.

Nationalism gives added force in diplomacy and war.

  • Improving communication and means of indoctrination made nationalism far more effective and pervasive than centuries past,...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes. This is the best guide to How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned the ideas better and got new insights than when I first read the book.
Learn more about our summaries →Learn more about our content →

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 11: Growth and Decay

The authors define civilization as “social order promoting cultural development.” Social order is granted by political order of custom, laws, and morals, and economic order through production and trade.

Looking back at history, all civilizations have ended. What are the patterns of civilization’s growth and decay?

In general, the pattern is one of coherent construction, then of individualistic deconstruction.

  • Civilizations often begin as a conquest of one group by another, and the spreading of the victor’s modus operandi.
  • Growth occurs as a result of taking advantage of a physical boon (land, water); directing people to productive work; to internal tension between the rulers and the ruled; of meeting external challenges (human or natural) and...

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

The Lessons of History Summary The Lessons of History Guide 12: Is Progress Real?

If history repeats itself endlessly, then is humanity actually making progress?

It depends on how you define progress.

  • Cultural: Is Shakespeare better than Aeschylus? Nietzsche over Confucius?
  • Religion: As we become more secular, have we developed a natural ethic strong enough to keep us from our baser instincts? Or will chaos and confusion prod us back to the order of religion?

The authors have no strong conclusion. History has so many examples and conterexamples that almost any conclusion can be drawn, depending on what lens you look through.

If progress is defined as humanity’s control over the environment, there is certainly progress.

  • Quality of life for the average person is...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes. This is the best guide to How to Win Friends and Influence People I've ever read. I learned the ideas better and got new insights than when I first read the book.
Learn more about our summaries →Learn more about our content →

Shortform Exercise: Reflect on History

Place your understanding of today into context.


What’s an issue you thought was unique to our time, but now realize has happened throughout history?

Try Shortform for free

Read full summary of The Lessons of History Read full guide to The Lessons of History

Sign up for free

Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • 1: History and the Earth
  • 2: Biology and History
  • 3: Race and History
  • 4: Character and History
  • 5: Morals and History
  • 6: Religion and History
  • 7: Economics and History
  • 8: Socialism and History
  • 9: Government and History
  • 10: History and War
  • 11: Growth and Decay
  • 12: Is Progress Real?
  • Exercise: Reflect on History