Story of Civilization Volume I: Economic Organization

This post is a part of my series on The Story of Civilization by Will Durant.

This section traces the development of property-owning civilization: we started as communists sharing food and property among our neighbors and then turned into capitalist property-owners through the advent of agriculture and money. I particularly like these lines, which Durant must have passed off as afterthoughts, as he relegated them to a footnote:

Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence and the chaos of revolution levels man again into a community of destitution.

Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty.

After reading this, I really want to learn more about socialism & communism. Have its promoters taken history into account? What are their motivators? What’s their utopia? It’s clear things go the same way every time. What makes this time different? I genuinely want to know.

It goes without saying that a capitalist’s utopia is not ideal for all of his neighbors, but as Margaret Thatcher demonstrated here with some funny gestures, the standard of living still increases for everyone even though it may increase faster for those at the top. Isn’t that  still superior to a society which remains equally impoverished, forever?

The passage above also reminds me of a section in The Lessons of History where Durant relates free society to extreme inequality: because man is so varied in his abilities, and because obtaining the right combination of opportunity and ability is so fraught with chance, that given a free society in which each man has a clear stage to perform for an audience of opportunity, only a small number of men can actually succeed. Most men will either not have the skills, not develop the skills, be lazy, or simply not see the opportunity. Those that succeed will reap the rewards of those who don’t.

Hence the freer a society, the more economic inequality there will be. It’s inevitable. By design—the innate variation in humankind. Freedom in society enables superior men to ‘take’ what a lesser man couldn’t. Just as the better predator gets more prey: no one is equal.1 People vary wildly in their own abilities in the context of economic opportunities. So why should society be equal?

That blew my mind.

Of course, after a while, inequality becomes so intolerable that redistribution must happen somehow, and it’s usually violent. It seems to be a pattern throughout history. I’ll quote another line on the topic, only because I find income inequality so fascinating:

In this aspect all of economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

All of a sudden, Thomas Piketty’s proposal for a ‘global wealth tax’ of 80% doesn’t seem so ridiculous. It would help avert the inevitable catastrophe we have on-hand now. Among a host of enormous issues, however, and the reason I’d be against it, is the fact that such a tax wouldn’t actually effectively redistribute capital. The corrupt cabal of governments this capital would go to would simply enrich themselves and their corporate overlords through even more empire-building and exploitation of the weak.

This doesn’t mean redistribution isn’t necessary. It simply means we need to think of more creative ways to effect it peacefully to maximize its impact.

1 Let’s clarify that I’m not advocating for any kind of -ism (race, gender, orientation, religion, etc). Stereotypes are stupid. But people are unequal—they do clearly vary in effectiveness—but it’s not because of any particular -ism characteristics. Instead, factors such as upbringing, habits, education, discipline, character, etc. determine a human’s effectiveness. I absolutely do not believe any of these factors are determined by race, gender, orientation, etc.

Story of Civilization Volume I: The Foundations of Industry

This post is a part of my series on The Story of Civilization by Will Durant.

For most history is guessing; and the rest is prejudice.

Can’t the same can be said about the present and future?

Here, too, the main problems were solved before written history began.

This line is the last in a long series of examples of the ingenuity of primitive people who had no ‘right’ way of doing things: how they used the plants, animals, and minerals around them to create tools for hunting, traveling, and navigating.

Did the first log float? Did the first boat travel across oceans? Was that boat capable of facilitating international trade? Of course not, but that didn’t hinder experimentation one bit.

It’s a ringing example of the significance of Nassim Taleb’s notion of antifragility. Trial & error reign over academic process every single time. The growth of education follows the growth of industry. We’ve grown to think otherwise, for some strange reason, that knowing how teaches us action; for much of history, and indeed in much of what we do today, action teaches us how.

So let’s all matriculate from childhood to work and then retire to school.

Story of Civilization Volume I: From Hunting to Tillage

This post is a part of my series on The Story of Civilization by Will Durant.

The moment man begins to take thought of the morrow he passes out of the Garden of Eden into the vale of anxiety; the pale cast of worry settles down upon him; greed is sharpened; property begins; and the good cheer of the ‘thoughtless’ native disappears.

At the same time by cooking, by softening tough foods, reduced the need of chewing, and began that decay of the teeth which is one of the insignia of civilization.

We see new technologies worsening our lives every day. Phones have closed people off from the world around them, the free internet has shortened our attention span with 140-character bits of link-bait, modern medicine treats symptoms better than ever before but simultaneously kills us with side-effects, and debt has deluded people into living lives of servitude.

People are depressed.

All this for ‘progress’.

Of course, none of this is new. Technology and its issues have always existed. Media has always battled for peoples’ attention. Medicine has always had terrible side-effects. Debt has been around for millennia, and it’s been bankrupting families and states for millennia. People thought the light bulb was ‘a recipe for total social chaos’ because it would ‘inform miscreants that women and children were home’.1

Socrates hated the idea of writing because he thought writing would prevent people from remembering anything. Luckily, Plato rebelled.

I find the dynamic between technology and health an interesting one. The Socrates example was the oldest example I was aware of, but Durant goes back even further, connecting an intangible ‘technology’ to the miserable human condition: planning for tomorrow.

Planning is really more of a mindset than a technology now, but back then storing some berries in a cool, dark room was technology.

How often do we make that tradeoff? How much time do we spend making that tradeoff? How much of our time is spent away from living today in order to live tomorrow? An overwhelmingly large amount of time, I bet.

But we all do it, thinking we’re bettering our lives. Most people are miserable. But look at the world: it’s amazing. Progress! Progress everywhere!

We’re such a selfless people.


1 from Clay Johnson’s Information Diet; I’m not sure where this originally came from.

Story of Civilization Volume I: The Conditions of Civilization

This post is a part of my series on The Story of Civilization by Will Durant.

Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation…when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards understanding and embellishment of life.

The first form of culture is agriculture.

I suspect this won’t be the first time this happens, but here I’m reminded of Bastiat’s The Law. Once man is set free to understand and embellish life, who deserves the right to interrupt this productive freedom? Government should exist only to protect this freedom, not actively try to provide it. If this freedom needs to be actively ‘provided’, there’s a deeper problem not being addressed.

Why else wouldn’t a man actively work to better his own life? Man is innately enterprising. We instinctively worked to civilize ourselves before the letters in IPO even existed.

Man differs from beast only by education, which may be defined as the technique of transmitting civilization.

I like this definition of education, particularly because it suggests a distinction we often forget: education is different from training. Training is about specific methods to achieve specific ends: teaching what’s known. Education is about enlightenment: learning about what could be.

I firmly believe that if schools made changes to reflect this distinction, many problems would disappear overnight. Proper training and enlightenment would render a more motivated and capable workforce (i.e., workers companies could actually use), and that would lead to a more productive economy and happier lives. But I dream…I mean, digress.

I’m reading The Story of Civilization: all of it

I’ve written about why I find Will Durant’s work so fascinating before. As I’ve tip-toed more and more into his books, I haven’t been let down. For example, in Lessons of History Durant makes similar points as Thomas Piketty does in Capital, but he does it in fewer than 6 pages with no numbers. It takes Piketty over 600 pages and a boatload of numbers.1 Neither author is safe from criticisms because the issue of income inequality is such a controversial one. But it’s undeniable that Durant’s writing is powerful and his wisdom is spellbinding.

Of course, although he made a legendary contribution to us, he was but one man. He had his own attitudes, but I like to think the sheer breadth of his perspective minimizes those attitudes to inconsequence. Also, the guy wrote as a labor of love—he had plenty of money from the runaway sales of Story of Philosophy and didn’t need to worry about upsetting powerful people. He just wrote, as honestly as a man can write, telling things as he saw them from his own endless research, travels, and thinking.

This thinking is a huge reason Story is so special. All historians research and travel. But Durant was a doctorate philosopher before he started writing history, and so his version of history is essentially an unrelenting search for truth. Merely recounting events is not good enough for him. Durant justifies them.

The last piece: his writing. All the research, perspective, and thinking in the world is moot unless its purveyor can effectively purvey it. Durant was a master of words. Unlike most philosophers, who drown their readers in hopelessly complicated seas of words, and most historians, who I find relatively shallow, Durant weaves stories and meaning together like art. His most profound insights are usually simple sentences with no more than 10 simple words.

So why am I deciding to read this tower of tomes of past times? Aside from it being an intellectual joyride, I think a broad, opinionated survey of history is practically useful for anyone looking to flip current culture into lasting value. That happens to be my goal. And anything of lasting value, through the requirements of existence, must change the course of history. But mustn’t one know history in order to make it?

Let’s see where it takes me.

And for an array of other reasons, I will record my reflections here. I hope to make them more extensions of the work than summaries of the work, but in truth, my perspective is microscopic compared to the lifetime of contemplation this series reflects. I’ll do my best.


1 Not trying to put Piketty’s work down here. It’s significant in its own right.