Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Lessons of History, By Will and Ariel Durant

The subject and linked book is a bit like "Cliffs notes for history" ... with naturally the slant of the authors, but everything has to have SOME slant!

I found the following quote from comte de Saint-Simeon to the most useful in the book ...
The law of human development… reveals two distinct and alternative states of society: one, the organic, in which all human actions are classed, foreseen, and regulated by a general theory, and the purpose of social activity is clearly defined; the other, the critical, in which all community of thought, all communal action, all coordination have ceased, and the society is only an agglomeration of separate individuals in conflict with one another. Each of these states or conditions has occupied two periods of history. One organic period preceded that Greek era which we call the age of philosophy, but which we shall more justly call the age of criticism. 
Later a new doctrine arose, ran through different phases of elaboration and completion, and finally established its political power over Western civilization. The constitution of the Church began a new organic epoch, which ended in the fifteenth century, when the Reformers sounded the arrival of that age of criticism which has continued to our time…. 
In the organic ages all basic problems [theological, political, economic, moral] have received at least provisional solutions. But soon the progress achieved by the help of these solutions, and under the protection of the institutions realized through them, rendered them inadequate, and evoked novelties. Critical epochs— periods of debate, protest,… and transition, replaced the old mood with doubt, individualism, and indifference to the great problems…. In organic periods men are busy building; in critical periods they are busy destroying. 69 Saint-Simon believed
The highlighted quote is the core ... man needs SOME provisional idea of "what is the good" before masses of people can be expected to FREELY build toward some goal. Absent that agreement, effort is essentially based on "destruction" -- division, protest, debate -- in short, lack of agreement on "the good".

Like all simplifications of something as vast as history, the organic / critical split is far from perfect. The US was "organic" on freedom, growth, advancement and "under God" from 1776 up until sometime in the early 20th century, but we were obviously "critical" on the question of slavery. The issue might really be if there is an  "overarching set of principles" in which MOST of the elements of life are agreed. It doesn't have to be total.

A totalitarian state can use force to attempt to progress to some edicted goal by power, but that is far weaker than a real general consensus of "the good".

The other obvious points brought home by the book are:
So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life— peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food.
The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival.
The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly.
Nothing at all newsworthy for regular readers of this blog -- nor one might argue to anyone that observes the world as it is.

The question is of course what to do about all of that -- deny it? Kill or strongly handicap the better selected? Deny that generations not bred or killed in the womb will fail to inherit the earth?

Again, for nearly 200 years the US largely lived according to "natural law". Freedom allowed the most successful competitors to succeed, have large families and to drive the nation forward generation by generation.  Technology in the form of birth control and abortion gave both the means and the illusion that we controlled nature. What we "controlled" was the ability to modify our system to ignore the natural in microcosm, but in the macrocosm, nature still rules -- and for those willing to pay attention, that fact gets more obvious with each year as our system that was once aligned with principles that worked succumbs to those that don't .

A worthy read -- I have of course just scratched the surface of the book here, but it is not a long or hard read. Well worth the trouble -- a high rating on Amazon and deservedly so.

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