I finished Will & Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History today. It’s a short, solid, accessible book for anyone looking to get into The Story of Civilization series or just get a sense of the insights of two of America’s greatest historical scholars. The excerpt below is described as “the heart of Will Durant” and really shines:
Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and names, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible, to as many as possible for the enlargement of men’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.
The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo’s, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire’s, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination. If progress is real, despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal to which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.
History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage. Progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors. It becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach, and carve, and sing.
The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it. Let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate, he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother, and our lasting life.
When the heritage of our nation, community, or family’s past is severed or neglected, the clock resets to some degree. The story of civilization is the collective story of peoples and cultures attempting to achieve greater continuity.