Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lessons of History

It was my sister who, in the 1970s was (and, still is), a rabid Readers Digest subscriber, who received a sample book. The book was Lessons of History (1968) which is the prelude to an eleven volume work entitled The Story of Civilization, which was written over a stupendous span of four decades by the husband and wife team of historians, Will and Ariel Durant.

Since I first picked up the book I haven't let it go. We couldn't afford the eleven volumes, but we had the free book.

I feel sad that Readers Digest is experiencing financial problems presently, a victim of the changing fortunes caused by technology. But, I'm certain that it will rebound. It's brand value is sound. Their management should have gone further down the route of Hallmark (which started off as a mere greeting cards company) into the electronic media. It was just a case of poor product positioning. But, the brand value is there.

I have digressed.

pix from here

Back to the Durants and their seminal book.

I think it was the elegant prose that engaged me the first time. It was Love at first sight.

After that came the wisdom contained in the prose that were parenthesised by pivotal historical events.

Here's what I mean; the first chapter is modestly entitled, Hesitations, and it starts with this passage:

As his studies come to a close the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nations and ideas, and retelling "sad stories of the death of kings"? Have you learned more about human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book? Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgments and policies, any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change? Have you found such regularities in the sequence of past events that you can predict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states? Is it possible that, after all, "history has no sense," that it teaches us nothing, and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?

As you can judge for yourself, how can a teenager, reading the foregoing first passage of a book with such prose and, such penetrating questions, put it back down? And, the first chapter ends thus:

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads - astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war - what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man. It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.

I was enthralled.

Over the decades, the book has become an old and, ever wise, friend.

I just re-read one of the chapters of the book and found the following passage to be resonant:

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires widespread intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that, "you mustn't enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it." However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that "you can't fool all the people all the time," but you can fool enough of them to rule a country.
- Will and Ariel Durant-
Lessons of History (1968)


walla said...

' can a teenager, reading the foregoing first passage of a book with such prose and, such penetrating questions, put it back down?'

An unusual teenager.

Nowadays, the reading habit is all but dead. The young read to pass exams, their interests attaching to other things nicer to the senses, easier on the mind, speedier in delivery of sensory responses, slower in calling to the analytic. There is no curiosity about big issues or deep matters.

Maybe there's wisdom in that. A pragmatic 'cross the bridge when we come to it' approach. Perhaps some self-assured confidence that if crises come, they will somehow get over them even when history has shown too many before have gone under them. The ability to realize what is important is left to fallow in order to evade those brow furrows.

Any return to yonder days of academic excellence, in fact quality thinking of quality ideas of historic magnificence with geographic sweep will only be possible if the young can get to develop their curiosity about things of the mind again. That comes from deeper reading and thinking which come from things that contain inspired pieces to be savored by the mind.

If they cannot find them in one language, they should be encouraged to find them in other languages. Which means they must be multi-lingual.

Moreover, the end target is independent thought which sustains the ability to discern things and situations accurately, the absence of which opening them to influence by others more glib and sneaky. Democracies then become glossocracies, rule by word.

donplaypuks® said...

Like you, reading the monthly RD was di riguer in my family like since forever. Until last year, that is, when I found the Asian edition (especially the silly jokes and inch thick ad pages) so pathetic, I finally did the unthinkable and did not renew the subs.

But my teenage son and daughter (surprisingly) enjoyed and found the human interest and survival stories gripping!!

What's going to bite the dust next? The Nat Geog?

We are all of 1 race, the Human race

Baharudin said...

Tuan de minimis,
Thanks for sharing this classic write-ups! I always find your food for thought to be worth consuming. Btw, I wonder every time I visit your Blog... the serene picture of sawah padi and the rumah atap nipah... where is the location?

de minimis said...

Saudara Baharudin

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Another kawan who read reader's digest growing up. My favourite part is "all in a days work" and "laughter is the best medicine". Sheesh time really flies, soon we all gonna kick the bucket.. Life is so short and yet so many complain of things that not getting done yet