Reflections on history

The Lessons of HistoryThe Lessons of History by Will Durant

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Will and Ariel Durant’s reflections after writing a huge 11-volume history of civilization was probably most interesting to me as a work reflecting the time it was published (1968). Their evolutionary, progressive view of history and civilization is not as common in our more relativistic and fragmented times, and their confidence that religion would decline and the welfare state would continue to advance (perhaps toward a Hegelian synthesis of capitalism and communism) reflected a time before the late-20th-century resurgence and expansion of Christianity and Islam and the rise of neoliberalism. They can’t be blamed for not anticipating those things, but it does seem that their confidence was misplaced.

To be fair, they also note that civilizations grow and decay and that religion might return if modern civilization declined, so they were not forecasting a permanent secular paradise. And in some ways they were more right than they knew about secularization in Europe. At this point, it may not have been as clear that European Catholicism would also decline, meaning that the speculation about Catholicism recapturing France, Switzerland, and Germany through higher birthrates was based on a trend that would not last. Philip Jenkins writes in God’s Continent that the decline of European Protestantism preceded Catholicism.

The Lessons of History is interesting and well-written, but the narrowness of the perspective makes it of limited value today. I hate to say that about something written by people vastly more learned and accomplished than I am, but there it is.

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