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(The HISTORY of CAPITALISM – continued)

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The LESSONS OF HISTORY (2 of 2)

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Chapter Seven: Religion and History

The Durants write:

Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.

They continue: "It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young." They quote Napoleon saying It has kept the poor from murdering the rich, and they complain that "when religion declines Communism grows."

The Durants fault their church, the Roman Catholic Church, for having "fomented religious wars in sixteenth century France and the Thirty Years' War in seventeenth-century Germany" and for having "allowed the philosophers to take the lead in the humanitarian movements that have alleviated the evils of our time."

Venturing into philosophy, the Durants leave their concepts of God and history unreconciled. They write of history as "at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive."

"The replacement of Christian with secular institutions," they write, "is the culminating and critical result of the Industrial Revolution." Did not science play a role in both technological change and a drift toward secular institutions, up from Plato's hostility toward materialism?

They continue:

In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief.

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without aid of religion.

The Durants write that "if another great war should devastate Western civilization, the resultant destruction of cities, the dissemination of poverty, and the disgrace of science may leave the Church, as in A.D. 476, the sole hope and guide of those who survive the cataclysm."

I was unaware that in the year 476, when the last Christian emperor of Rome lost power, the Catholic Church of Rome remained humanity's sole hope and guide. There were conversions to Catholicism under the Germanic Kking Clovis, but this came with something other than a heartfelt longing for an order that corresponded to what are today the Church's values, but it may have helped him gain allies among the Catholic Gallo-Roman aristocracy and improve his aggressive and bloody warfare against the Visigoths.

Chapter Eight: Economics and History

The Durants:

...history reports that "the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all." So the bankers, watching the trends in agriculture, industry, and trade, inviting and directing the flow of capital, putting our money doubly and trebly to work, controlling loans and interest and enterprise, running great risks to make great gains, rise to the top of the economic pyramid.

We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.

Chapter Nine: Socialism and History

The Durants:

The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality. East is West and West is East, and soon the twain will meet.

Chapter Ten: Government and History

The Durants:

Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.

Chapter Eleven: History and War

The Durants to the leaders of China and the Soviet Union:

We must not allow our mutual fears to lead us into war, for the unparalleled murderousness of our weapons and yours brings into the situation an element unfamiliar to history.

I don't buy the following:

War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy.

The state itself acknowledges no substantial restraints, either because it is strong enough to defy any interference with its will or because there is no superstate to offer it basic protection, and no international law or moral code wielding effective force.

The Durants are writing about the state as an actor internationally, but there is an internal or national component involved. The state belongs to those who have political power and they might be restrained by the opinions of various foreign leaders or by members of their own society. It is rare today for a major power to launch any war it pleases without having the support of allies; most nations are not that rogue. And before any president takes the United States to war he considers the opinion of numerous others, including Congress, which also considered public approval before declaring war. On occasion public opinion might not matter. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy could have allowed shooting to start, and the public would have gone along, accepting the government's explanation for what it was doing.

Public opinion counts. The German public, including labor, made going to war easy for Germany in 1914 because the Russians were on their way to invade Germany. Going to war in the 20th century required a high degree of national unity. When Russia lost that unity, the state power, in the person of Tsar Nicholas II, collapsed.

As for wars, the Durants' claim that wars have not diminished with democracy. Here is a line from the Christian Science Monitor (October 18, 2005):

... a report based on a three-year study by a group of international researchers. Contrary to widespread public perception, they find that the world is witnessing fewer wars – and those wars that do occur are killing fewer people.

Mature democracies have not been starting wars or warring against each other. it is especially true with the end of an age of warring for empire and warring against imperialism. Empires are not self rule.

Toward the end of the 20th century, the authoritarian states Iran and Iraq were waging war against each other. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was at fault, and Saddam Hussein was an aggressor again in 2001 when he launched a war against Kuwait, unrestrained by the major democracies because he assumed they would let him get away with it.

In 2012 Bashar al-Assad is warring against his own people, but he too is no democrat.

Chapter Twelve: Growth and Decay

The Durants define civilization as "social order promoting culture creation." I have doubts about the word promoting, although a lot of promotion of culture by the politically powerful has occurred within civilizations. But mostly culture just moves along while also changing in response to events.

The Durants recognize change and emphasize inevitable decay. They ask about the causes of decay. They reject Spengler's view of culture as an organism and accept Arnold Toynbee's view of civilizations failing to meet challenges. "Nations die", they write.

Returning to social order and culture, they write:

Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul. As life overrides death with reproduction, so an aging culture hands its patrimony down to its heirs across the years and the seas.

Aging culture? Do cultures grow old like biological organisms? Racial soul? I'd rather stick with literal descriptions of cultural change and leave out metaphors about death and age and assumptions about the old being better.

Chapter Thirteen: Is Progress Real?

The Durants:

Since we have admitted no substantial change in man's nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends – the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.

How inadequate now seems the proud motto of Francis Bacon, "Knowledge is power"! Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.

The question of progress is too complicated to be addressed as a force that covers all and either exists or does not. We have progress in some areas and might have decline in other areas. Work by machine has made life easier for many, and in politically advanced societies distribution of the benefit of machines has allowed more leisure, more vacation time and less drudgery. Computers are benefitting scientific work. We have progress in medical knowledge and in public health and progress in food production. Technology has connected us better with each other and has improved our ability to know. Travel has improved international amity.

Rigid old class structures have broken down. The spread of democracy has improved the lives of people. Upward mobility is more common. The U.S. is a much better country today than it was decades ago because of civil rights legislation. Slavery has been made almost universally illegal.

It's too cynical to dismiss progress because people are still pursuing political power and the acquisition of goods. It takes political power to get new laws passed and to overcome old ways of doing things. And what is so bad about goods being acquired compared to the dearth of goods centuries ago?

The Durants write:

We frolic in our emancipation from theology, but have we developed a natural ethic – a moral code independent of religion – strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity?

Our ethics are expressed in law. We believe for example that adults should not prey sexually upon children, and we have created laws against such predations. Modern law is secular, and that in my opinion – maybe not the Durant's – is an improvement.

The Durants end their last chapter as follows:

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.

This is the comment of someone who believes in tradition more than in progress. There is a conceit in the statement by the Durants that their status quo culture is better than anything a younger generation might correct. Better that people teach their children tools for thinking and a habit of thinking for themselves rather than copy the ways of their parent's generation.

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