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The Lessons of History

The celebrated collection of essays compiling over 5,000 years of history by two of the greatest thinkers of our time

By Will Durant and Ariel Durant
  • Read in 19 minutes
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  • Contains 12 key ideas
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The Lessons of History by Will Durant and Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History (1968) gives an overview of more than 5,000 years of human history. It covers changes in morality, religion and governmental systems like socialism and capitalism, and traces the historical trends of war. Along the way, it offers a variety of lessons on what history means for the present. 

Key idea 1 of 12

Geography has a big influence on a civilization, but its influence declines as technology advances.

Think about your hometown. Is it near a river, the sea or a lake? Does it have good railway connections? Answering such simple questions can teach you a lot about a place. 

That’s because a city’s geographical conditions play a big role in its development. This has been true throughout all of human history; settlers have always been attracted to rivers, lakes, oases and oceans, not only because of the water and food they provide but because of transportation and trade, too. 

Consider Mesopotamia. Generally accepted as the cradle of human civilization, it was founded on settlements established between two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. The space between these rivers allowed cultures like the Sumerians and Babylonians to flourish and build their empires. 

Many other empires have been built beside rivers: ancient Egypt has been called the gift of the Nile and ancient Rome grew because of the Tiber, Arno and Po. 

Geographical conditions can change, however. Extreme climates have forced countless civilizations to move and caused others to decline. Civilizations can fall if rain becomes scarce, as happened in parts of Central Asia. When rain becomes too heavy, as it did in parts of Central America, jungles can overgrow and smother cities. 

But technology has changed our relationship to geography. As a civilization’s technology for transporting goods improves, it becomes less influenced by geographical factors. 

Cars, trains and especially planes have made it much easier to transport goods. Trade routes aren’t bound to rivers or seas when planes can move goods directly overhead. 

This is why the commercial advantage of countries like England and France began declining as cars, trains and planes were developed. England and France no longer have a great advantage because of their coastlines, while countries like Russia, China and Brazil aren’t impeded by their huge land mass.

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