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The Lessons of History [Anglais] [Broché]

Will Durant

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Chapter 1
Hesitations
As his studies come to a close the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nations and ideas, and retelling "sad stories of the death of kings"? Have you learned more about human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book? Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgments and policies, any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change? Have you found such regularities in the sequence of past events that you can predict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states? Is it possible that, after all, "history has no sense," that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?
At times we feel so, and a multitude of doubts assail our enterprise. To begin with, do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history "a fable" not quite "agreed upon"? Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. "Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice." Even the historian who thinks to rise above partiality for his country, race, creed, or class betrays his secret predilection in his choice of materials, and in the nuances of his adjectives. "The historian always oversimplifies, and hastily selects a manageable minority of facts and faces out of a crowd of souls and events whose multitudinous complexity he can never quite embrace or comprehend." -- Again, our conclusions from the past to the future are made more hazardous than ever by the acceleration of change. In 1909 Charles Peguy thought that "the world changed less since Jesus Christ than in the last thirty years". and perhaps some young doctor of philosophy in physics would now add that his science has changed more since 1909 than in all recorded time before. Every year -- sometimes, in war, every month -- some new invention, method, or situation compels a fresh adjustment of behavior and ideas. -- Furthermore, an element of chance, perhaps of freedom, seems to enter into the conduct of metals and men. We are no longer confident that atoms, much less organisms, will respond in the future as we think they have responded in the past. The electrons, like Cowper's God, move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform, and some quirk of character or circumstance may upset national equations, as when Alexander drank himself to death and let his new empire fall apart (323 B.C.), or as when Frederick the Great was saved from disaster by the accession of a Czar infatuated with Prussian ways (1762).
Obviously historiography cannot be a science. It can only be an industry, an art, and a philosophy -- an industry by ferreting out the facts, an art by establishing a meaningful order in the chaos of materials, a philosophy by seeking perspective and enlightenment. "The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding" -- or so we believe and hope. In philosophy we try to see the part in the light of the whole; in the "philosophy of history" we try to see this moment in the light of the past. We know that in both cases this is a counsel of perfection; total perspective is an optical illusion. We do not know the whole of man's history; there were probably many civilizations before the Sumerian or the Egyptian; we have just begun to dig! We must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities; in history, as in science and politics, relativity rules, and all formulas should be suspect. "History smiles at all attempts to force its flow into theoretical patterns or logical grooves; it plays havoc with our generalizations, breaks all our rules; history is baroque." Perhaps, within these limits, we can learn enough from history to bear reality patiently, and to respect one another's delusions.
Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads -- astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war -- what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man. It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.
Copyright © 1968 by Will and Ariel Durant

Revue de presse

"The Durants' masterpiece belongs in any home library and occupies a shelf in many."
--Dana D. Kelley, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Amazon.com: 4.6 étoiles sur 5  114 commentaires
200 internautes sur 207 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Thought-Provoking, Politically Incorrect Analysis 7 mai 2005
Par George R Dekle - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:CD
In one of the interviews that serve as interludes between the chapters of his book, Will Durant says he started his career as a liberal and became more & more conservative during his fifty year career as a historian. If he was a conservative, he was a rather liberal one. Some of the ideas he voices would be anathema to conservatives. E.g. Wealth concentrated into fewer and fewer hands should be redistributed to the have nots. Liberals on the other hand, would be distressed by other of his views. E.g. Once the wealth gets redistributed, government should not attempt to prevent the talented and industrious from re-accumulating it.

The paradox is not really paradoxical at all. Obscene wealth in the hands of a very few causes unrest (and eventually revolution) among the obscenely poor. On the other hand, if industry and talent are not rewarded, culture stagnates. Durant gives the fall of the Roman Republic as an example of an obscenely rich aristocracy committing political suicide by refusing to peacefully redistribute some of their wealth to the poor. The economic stagnation of Communist East Europe serves as an example of what happens when you stop the natural flow of wealth back to the talented and industrious.

Durant makes some statements that would get him lynched in the 21st Century American media. E.g. "Only those who are below average really want equality."

Durant is probably most accurately classified as an agnostic, but he says that on balance, religion has done far more good than harm for civilization. Durant contends that civilizations and cultures decline and die when they lose their moral compass. And they lose their moral compass when they lose their religion. Simply put, those contemplating crime are more likely to be detered by the wrath of God than the long arm of the law.

Durant voices many other thought-provoking opinions. You may not agree with everything he says (his wife doesn't), but you will certainly be stimulated to deep thought by what he says.

I was somewhat amused by the interviews interspersed among the chapters. The reverential awe shown by Durant's interviewer was quite neatly counterbalanced by the sardonic wit of Durant's wife, Ariel. When Durant said something she didn't agree with, she let you know about it and gave excellent reasons for her disagreement. Durant quite wisely did what any intelligent husband would do. He almost always let her have the last word.
78 internautes sur 83 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The best of the best.. 23 décembre 2001
Par reason - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Will and Ariel Durant were to history what Carl Sagan was to science: They breathed life into a subject considered lifeless by too many, and clothed the skeleton of recorded history in a garment rich in colorful detail and vast in perspective. "Lessons Of History" is, in my opinion, the finest 100 page non-fiction book ever written, and represents the capstone and encapsulating work of two authors who gave the world their ten thousand page "Story Of Civilization" over a period of 50 years.
Within this delightful book, one can view the enormous panorama of human civilization as it developed from, and was formed by, the matrices of geography, religion, science, war, and a host of other factors. The Durant's, in a writing style that should have been copyrighted, provide the reader with an engaging view of humanity that few readers will come away from without being touched and awed. To be sure, the Durant's works have had a few (very few) detractors, but they were almost entirely high-browed academics in narrow research areas who most likely envied them their commercial success. If I could give this synopsis of 100 centuries of history more than 5 stars I'd do it in a nanosecond.
82 internautes sur 89 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Insightful 14 janvier 2001
Par Leonardo Alves - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
After finishing the ten volumes of "The History of Civilization", Will and Ariel Durant went back revising and taking notes from their monumental work and produced this insightful essay.
The goal was not to summarize 3,421 years of recorded history in a hundred pages. That would have been silly. The goal was to give some thought to what means to study history; how important is to know our heritage; can we understand our nature and the relations between individuals or between groups or nations just by analysing the past; can the acumulated human experience tell us where are we heading to?
The book was first published in 1968, the worse phase of the cold war, when any perspective of future seemed rather dark and the uncertainties of the period certainly permeate the book.
The book might be considered biased and conservative but that is fair game since the authors warn us about that on the first chapter, "Hesitations". "Historian are not free from bias and prejudice", they say and "most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice".
The book was written with great care. The sentences are powerful, elegant, concise and insightful. It brings noteworthy quotes and is itself very quotable. A book to be read and appreciated several times.
Leonardo Alves - January 2001
60 internautes sur 67 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Some lessons learned 1 décembre 2002
Par Steve Jackson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:CD
Will and Ariel Durant wrote a massive eleven-volume history, The Story of Civilization. After they finished volume ten -- which was to be the last - they came out with this brief work. (In 1975 they produced the final volume in the series, The Age of Napoleon). Although this series is not considered by professional historians to be a great work of history, the Durants' love of history is evident on every page. I read most of them in high school and college, and they help inspire a life-long interest history.
The Lessons of History consists of a number of short chapters, in which the Durants summarize what their study of history revealed on various themes, such as war, morals, government, religion, etc. Although certainly not a profound work, it contains a number of insights. For example, the discussion of the lineage of communism is quite interesting. On the other hand, the Durants strike me as having been moderately left of center, and some of their arguments in favor of government regulation of the economy don't convince me. They appear somewhat more conservative on morals, and there is a good discussion on how war negatively impacts traditional morality. The discussion of religion is somewhat ambiguous, perhaps reflecting Will Durant, who studied for the priesthood, became an atheist, and died an agnostic.
This work came out in 1968, and the Durants make a couple of predictions which didn't exactly come true. They argue that by 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be politically dominant in the US. In addition, they expressed the commonplace idea in the 60s that the Soviet Union and the United States were coming closer together and would eventually meet in the middle.
18 internautes sur 19 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Lessons like this are never dated or obsolete 21 février 2005
Par Charles Ashbacher - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
There are many conclusions that the Durants reach from history, and they are organized into categories. The main chapters are:

*) Biology and history.

*) Race and history.

*) Character and history.

*) Morals and history.

*) Religion and history.

*) Economics and history.

*) Socialism and history.

*) Government and history.

*) History and war.

The Durants are quite frank in their statements about history; they mention their main lesson several times. It is summed up on page 41; "We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived." Although the book was written in 1968, their statements can be applied to many modern social, economic and political issues. On page 40, there is the statement; "Even our generation has not rivaled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or Renaissance Italy." Statements like this show the historical ignorance of many that consider the recent issues regarding homosexuality to be unique to this generation.

In the chapter on economics and history, several examples of mighty societies that suffered through devastating revolutions as a consequence of the wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few are given. Ancient Athens, Rome and France all underwent convulsions due to economic disparities. Recent statistics describing the continuing concentration of wealth in a smaller number of people in the United States raises concerns. On page 57, there is the statement, "The government of the United States, in 1933-52 and 1960-65, followed Solon's peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution; perhaps someone studied history." There is no doubt that the Durants would not approve of the current policies of the Bush administration.

Every generation seems destined to consider their problems to be unique to the human experience. While in some ways, such as in science and technology it is true, in general it is very self-centered. Most problems are continuing with occasional peaks, so we can learn much from history. This book can serve as a primer in that respect.
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