(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Will Durant as he examines the importance of history in human character.—W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)
“History” said Henry Ford, “is bunk.” As one who has written history for twenty-five years, and studied it for forty-five, I should largely agree with the great engineer who put half the world on wheels. History, as studied in schools—history as a dreary succession of dates and kings, of politics and wars, of the rise and fall of states—this kind of history is verily a weariness of the flesh, stale and flat and unprofitable. No wonder so few students in school are drawn to it; no wonder so few of us learn any lessons from the past.
But history as man’s rise from savagery to civilization—history as the record of the lasting contributions made to man’s knowledge, wisdom, arts, morals, manners, skills—history as a laboratory rich in a hundred thousand experiments in economics, religion, literature, science, and government—history as our roots and our illumination, as the road by which we came and the only light that can clarify the present and guide us into the future—that kind of history is not “bunk;” it is, as Napoleon said on St. Helena, “the only true philosophy and the only true psychology.” Other studies may tell us how man might behave, or how he should behave; history tells us how he has behaved for six thousand years. One who knows that record is in large measure protected in advance against the delusions and disillusionments of his time. He has learned the limitations of human nature, and bears with equanimity the faults of his neighbors and the imperfections of states. He shares hopefully in the reforming enterprises of his age and people; but his heart does not break, nor his faith in life fade out, when he perceives how modest are the results, and how persistently man remains what he has been for sixty centuries, perhaps for a thousand generations.
It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it. It is the present, not the past, that dies; this present moment, to which we give so much attention, is forever flitting from our eyes and fingers into that pedestal and matrix of our lives which we call the past. It is only the past that lives.
Therefore I feel that we of this generation give too much time to news about the transient present, too little to the living past. We are choked with news, and starved of history. We know a thousand items about the day or yesterday, we learn the events and troubles and heartbreaks of a hundred peoples, the policies and pretensions of a dozen capitals, the victories and defeats of causes, armies, athletic teams. But how, without history, can we understand these events, discriminate their significance, sift out the large from the small, see the basic currents underlying surface movements and changes, and foresee the result sufficiently to guard against fatal error or the souring of unreasonable hopes?
May I give you a few examples of how history illuminates the present? After the wars of Caesar and Pompey in the last century before Christ, Rome emerged the only strong power in the white man’s world. Through that unchallenged supremacy, she was able to give two centuries of peace to her vast realm, a Roman Empire stretching from Scotland to the Euphrates, from Gibraltar to the Caucasus. This was the famous Pax Romana; or Roman Peace—the greatest achievement in the history of statesmanship. Anyone knowing the history of Rome could have foreseen—some of us definitely predicted—that international affairs after this war would be more unstable, less pacific, than after the First World War, for the obvious reason that from this war two rival powers were emerging—the English-speaking powers supreme on the seas, and the power of Russia supreme on the European continent; two powers so dangerously balanced, and in such irritating contact on a dozen frontiers, that peace would be more difficult to organize than ever before. Even the statesmanship of an Augustus would hesitate to promise a Shangri-La of international accord in this jungle of conflicting interests and distrustful power.
Or consider the origin of the great peoples and civilizations of history; how nearly every one of them began with the slow mixture of varied racial stocks entering from any direction into some conquered or inviting region, mixing their blood in marriage or otherwise, gradually producing a homogeneous people, and thereby creating, so to speak, the biological basis of a new civilization. So the Egyptians were formed of Ethiopians, Lybians, Arabs, Syrians, Mesopotamians; so the ancient Hebrews were the composite of their own various stocks, and of Canaanites, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, Hittites, and a dozen other peoples that swirled around the Euphrates, the Jordan, and the Orontes. It is not clear, in the perspective, that we Americans are in the stage of racial mixture, that we are not caught in the downward flow of Europe’s civilization, and that—Spengler to the contrary notwithstanding—our future lies before us? But that is an excellent place for a future to be.
Or consider the revolutions that have taken place in history, in the routes of trade, and see what a light they shed upon out time. Most civilizations and cities rise along trade routes. First along rivers, for these are the natural, easiest routes of trade; so great cultures rose along the Nile, the Tigris, the Ganges, the Yellow River, the Tiber, Rhone, Loire, Seine, Thames, Elbe, Oder, Vistula, Dnieper, Danube, Volga, Don. Then, as hearts grew bolder and ships grew large, men sailed into the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and squatted noisily along their shores, as Plato said, “like frogs croaking on the edge of a pond.” What made Greece was the perception of the early Greeks, or Achaeans, that if they could conquer Troy they would control the Dardanelles or Hellespont, and be able to send their merchant vessels without toll or hindrance through the Aegean into the Black Sea, and down the rivers of the Caucasus into Central Asia; in this way they would possess a trade route to Asia far cheaper and safer than the land route of the caravans that bound Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia over weary routes of mountain and desert infested with brigands. That dream of commercial power, and not Helen’s fair face, “launched a thousand ships” on Ilium, and brought Hector and Priam to Achille’s feet. Persia, part of the land route, challenged the victorious Greeks; and note how both Darius in 490, and Xerxes in 480 B.C., in their wars against Greece, moved first to take possession of the Dardanelles—just as a British fleet hovers there now, clinging to strategic Greece, and fearful that the Straits may suddenly be pounced upon by Russian armies lying a few leagues inland in Bulgaria. When Greece defeated Persia at Marathon and Salamis, she was left in control of the eastern Mediterranean and its trade; she blossomed like a flower, while the river cultures, locked to the land, decayed; and for two thousand years the Mediterranean was the home of the white man’s highest civilization.
Why did the Mediterranean cease, with Michelangelo, about 1560, to dominate the commerce and politics of the world? Because Columbus had stumbled upon America, and had unwittingly opened new routes of trade, and new sources of wealth. Soon the Atlantic nations rose to power—Spain, Portugal, France, England, Holland; each prospered on the exploitation of colonies in America and Asia overseas; each financed in this way its magnificent Renaissance; while Italy, mistress of civilization for fifteen centuries, almost disappeared from history.
And now, suddenly, almost without our realizing it, the airplane is carving new trade routes around the world, routes that airily ignore the devious contours of the seas, and move with impetuous directness to their goals. Surely now the land nations, that were left behind in the days of maritime trade and war, will come back to power; and great countries like Russia, China, Brazil, and the United States, whose land mass was so vast in proportion to their shore lines, will dominate the trade and politics of the coming centuries. The age of sea power ends, in trade as well as in war; and we are precariously privileged to assist at one of the profoundest revolutions in history, beside which the bloody drama of the French and Russian revolutions will seem, in the perspective of time, as fitful foam on the bloody stream of time.
But I would not leave you with the thought that history is mere tragedy, and the study of history destroys man’s hopes. No; indeed, the best lesson of history is that man is tough; he survives countless crises, as he will survive those that agitate us today. Do you recall Charlie Chaplin’s picture “The Circus?” At the end of it, you may remember, Charlie had lost his job with the troupe; and the morning after the last performance the covered wagons rolled away, leaving him amid the debris, alone, friendless, penniless, apparently desolate; what a picture of humanity after the collapse of Rome, or after the Thirty Years’ War, or Europe after the Second World War! Then suddenly Charlie twirled his cane in the air, tightened his hat on his head, and marched forward in double oblique, out of the picture and into life—that is man. However deeply he may seem to have fallen, however great the disaster that appears to have overwhelmed him, he picks himself up, “bloody but unbowed,” still eager, curious, imaginative, resolute and marches on. Somewhere, somehow, he will build again. That is the greatest lesson of history.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2012. This lecture of Dr. Durant’s was first broadcast over WGN, Chicago, on November 18, 1945.