Al McCombs

Al McCombs

Five years ago today, the Rolltop contained the following before the last presidential election. Things have changed as they always do, but from a history standpoint the thinking of the late Will and Ariel Durant may help some readers cope with today’s happenings, so here it is again. CAUTION: HEADY STUFF AHEAD.



hile congress stays focused on immigration, welfare and spending issues, and whether or not the president should be unseated figuratively by making him look bad, thus also making the democratic process look bad,  extended thinkers ponder the future of civilization in a stepped up society where instant communications produces instant reactions.

Can mankind handle this?

 “The Lessons of History” compiled by Will and Ariel Durant in 1968, following the 10th volume (of 11) in their extensive study of  “The Story of Civilization,” is a book that our national leaders, politicians and commentators should go back and read at least once a decade. Citizens interested in the future of democracy should too, to help them sift through all the hot air produced about the fate of our country, rhetoric that indicates many have no broad vision of the world they live in.

The Durants, who died within two weeks of each other in 1981 in Los Angeles, had won the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Here is a summary of their findings, which seems to explain much about today’s world almost 50 years after they were written:

--The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.

--In free enterprise, the spur of competition and zeal and zest of ownership arouse productiveness and inventiveness in men.

--We are all born unfree and unequal, subject to our physical and psychological heredity and to the customs and traditions of our group.

--Inequality, if not only natural and inborn, grows with the complexity of civilization.

-- Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an additional premium upon superior ability and intensifies the concentration of wealth and political power.

--Sin has flourished in every age.

--Morals are the rules by which society exhorts its members and associations to behave consistent with its order, security and growth.

--Moral codes differ because they adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions.

--Caught in the relaxing interval between one moral code and the next, an unmoral generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption and restless disorder of family and morals.

--The struggle of socialism and capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth.

--The freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct. The prime task of government is to establish order.

--Freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies.

--Democracy has done less harm and more good than any other form of government.

--When a group or civilization declines it is through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenge of change.

The longest lasting regime of socialism in history, they said, was set up by the Incas, a system which ended with the Spanish conquest.

The Durants said of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that it took a communistic form because  the new state was challenged by internal disorder and external attack; the people reacted as any nation will react under siege—they put aside all individual freedom until order and security could be restored.  Communism was a war economy. Perhaps it survives through continued fear of war, they wrote in 1968 before the collapse of the Soviet Union and changes in China. They predicted that given a generation of peace it would probably be eroded by the nature of man.

On the subject of Capitalism they said that the capitalist argues that  businessmen left relatively free from transportation tolls and legislative regulation can give the public a greater abundance of food, home, comfort and leisure than has ever come from the industries  managed by politicians and manned by public employees supposedly immune from laws of supply and demand.

One of the greatest debates today among political scientists, historians, philosophers and physical scientists is the role of religion and its importance to civilization, democracy and survival.

The Durants point out that France, the U.S. and some other nations have divorced their government from all churches but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order.

Opening their chapter on Religion and History, the Durants wrote that “even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensible, in every land and age. To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved and the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by million of souls as more precious than any natural aid. It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young. It has conferred meaning and dignity to the lowliest existence, and through its sacraments has made for stability by transforming human covenants upon solemn relationships with God.

The Durants held that war is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. War, they said, has proven to be the ultimate form of competition and natural selection in the human species.

Will Durant saw the decline of a civilization as a culmination of strife between religion and secular intellectualism, by toppling the precarious institutions of convention and morality. 

In summation the Durants put emphasis on education for both the extension of civilization and the continuance of democracy. First they ask, have we given ourselves more freedoms than our intelligence can digest? Though individuals cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal, they said.

“Education,” they conclude, “is the transmission of  our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

Their note to future priority setters: “our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all.”

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