Why We Should All be History Buffs
The lessons of history from Will and Ariel Durant.
“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice,” writes historians Will and Ariel Durant, the husband-and-wife duo best known for The Story of Civilization, an eleven-volume history of eastern and western civilizations that took them four decades to complete. The Durants, however, also condensed their learnings into a shorter book called The Lessons of History, which I recently had the chance to read.
Hello, and welcome to the 10th edition of the Abandoned Curiosities newsletter. This week, we look up to the Durants who make a compelling case for studying history.
The Durants begin by factoring in the concerns regarding history: “Do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history “a fable” not quite “agreed upon”?”
The authors admit that “Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate.” And that “we must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities.”
“History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves,” they add, “it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque.” But, “Perhaps, within these limits, we can learn enough from history to bear reality patiently, and to respect one another’s delusions.”
Will and Ariel want us to view the study of history, “as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage… for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.” They also make a really compelling case for this intellectual and artistic heritage, “If progress is real despite our whining,” writes the Durants, “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.”
“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.”
In the end, the Durants leave us with a beautiful reminder, “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.”
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At Abandoned Curiosities, as we continue to make the most of our infinite heritage, we will be taking a brief break and will be back in a few weeks.
Thank you for reading.
Until next time,
I got a complete set of his History of the World in 13 Volumes or Whatever they call it, for $5 at a library book sale. They are fun to browse through. I agree people should read more history!