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“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to this week’s book: The Lessons of History by Will Durant, who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and philosopher, and is simply one of the most educated, intelligent, incisive, and articulate people I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
If you want to gain some much-needed perspective on the current political, social, and economic zeitgeist, and get an informed idea of what will come next, then you need to read this book.
Because whether we’re talking our (extremely entertaining) political pageantry, (extremely troubling) racial and social antagonisms, or (extremely naive) grievance and entitlement worship, know this:
It has all happened before and, human nature being what it is (hardened), it will play out again in more or less the same ways.
So yes, let’s look doe-eyed to Washington to solve all our problems, conveniently forgetting that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that every system of government we’ve ever created has ultimately been destroyed by crooks and villains.
Right, let’s enthrone the ideas that we have no personal responsibility for the conditions we face in life and that the individual exists only to serve the collective whole, conveniently forgetting that these beliefs have resulted in some of the most tyrannical and deadly regimes in all of history.
Sure, let’s burn the rich and redistribute all their wealth, conveniently forgetting the catastrophic consequences of the French Revolution.
Durant’s wife Ariel said it well:
“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
If you want to better understand and navigate the world as it is, then you want to better understand and navigate it as it was. It’s that simple.
My 5 Key Takeaways from The Lessons of History
“Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedoms permitted by morals and the laws.”
I think this elegantly summarizes why there will always be “haves” and “have nots”, and why Marxist ideologies are fundamentally flawed and will never produce anything but more death and suffering.
As we’ve seen, even when you take from each according to ability and give to each according to need, inequality still grows. People are not born equal in physical and psychological capacities and character, and no matter how many declarations or constitutions we write, this will never change because more than anything else, nature loves differences and is engaged in a never-ending process of selection and evolution. Therefore, some people just come better supplied to meet the tests of survival than others and, accordingly, more often come out on top in the various competitions of life, including business and moneymaking.
The most obvious example of this is what we saw in the 19th century in England and America, with laissez-faire capitalism, where men of outsized ambition and ability built the foundations of modern society as we know it in just a few decades and, despite their many sins and abuses, raised the average person’s standard of living to a level never before seen in history.
All this is why people who whine about how “unfair” it is that others have more than them are almost always below average in ability and initiative and have very little to show for themselves, and why I don’t think you or I or anyone else owes them anything. There’s absolutely no shortage of money and opportunity to any of us in first-world countries, and I’m wholly convinced that with enough grit and hard work, anyone who’s in good physical and mental health can develop a skillset and work ethic that allows them to earn at least $75,000 per year–about the point where the emotional benefits of income drop off precipitously for most people–regardless of their upbringing, education, or anything else, and that anyone that hasn’t done this yet is, whether they realize it or not, is choosing not to.
“Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.”
Humility is a powerful virtue, and especially for people like me who tend toward aggression and enterprise, because while these qualities are useful, they can also lead to dangerous arrogance. Thus, simple, Stoical reminders like this are worth reflecting on.
“Let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death.”
I believe that life is inherently meaningless and if we don’t strive to give ours meaning and purpose, it won’t amount to much. This is why I personally am more driven to achieve significance and nobility than “happiness,” because 1) I don’t think happiness can be pursued but must ensue as the side-effect of how we conduct ourselves, and 2) dedicating my efforts to a course greater than myself is more satisfying than chasing pleasurable stimuli.
“So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it–perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”
A timely reminder that the conservative elements of a society or group play a vital role in its overall health by enshrining what works in culture and law and resisting the proposed changes of progressive thinkers who have the burden of proving their ideas will, in fact, be better than the status quo.
“Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, 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 man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.”
Simply put: I think that people who don’t consistently educate themselves on how to be and do better in life have very little chance of creating a life that’s merely satisfactory, let alone extraordinary.
Nobody comes into this world with all the knowledge and wisdom needed to do all the right things well and make all the right decisions at the right times, and the only way to escape this ignorance and increase our odds is education.
That’s why almost all of the most effective and successful people I’ve known and read about spent tremendous amounts of time educating themselves in many areas of life, and were still painfully aware of how little they knew in the grand scheme of things.