Will and Ariel Durant spent fifty years of their lives working on their magisterial Story of Civilization, a sweeping 11-volume survey of human history written in beautiful prose. After completing it, they compiled their historical insights in a book titled The Lessons of History.
Among the gems in it is the following passage, which just about perfectly sums up one of my own views of life and history. From what I’ve observed of the dialogue on Intellectual Takeout over the years, I think many of you will sympathize with it as well:
“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. This is the more dramatic side of history; it captures the eye of the historian and the interest of the reader. But if we turn from that Mississippi of strife, hot with hate and dark with blood, to look upon the banks of the stream, we find quieter but more inspiring scenes: women rearing children, men building homes, peasants drawing food from the soil, artisans making the conveniences of life, statesmen sometimes organizing peace instead of war, teachers forming savages into citizens, musicians taming our hearts with harmony and rhythm, scientists patiently accumulating knowledge, philosophers groping for truth, saints suggesting the wisdom of love. History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
Those of us who follow the news are constantly subjected to stories involving conflict and warnings of disaster on the horizon. Moreover, today we are taught to primarily view history as an ongoing power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors. All of this can cause us to feel both helpless and hopeless, and see our own lives as somehow unimportant.
But life and history are much, much more than conflicts between groups and the machinations of powerful men. Ultimately, life does not merely consist of being tossed to and fro by shifts in politics, legislation, and events. It is about dedicating ourselves to knowing the truth and doing the good in the spheres in which we find ourselves — in our homes, our relationships, our work, our schools. Ultimately, history is not solely the dramatization of great men and events; it is also the great drama of everyday existence.