This The Lessons of History summary looks at what is only a short book, but a brilliant one if you want a quick overview of trends and ideas throughout history.
The book is just over 100 pages long, but it’s packed full of useful information regarding history. I’ve never learnt so much from such a short book!
One of the best things about the book is that it takes history and looks at it in different ways. The history of religion, ethics and economics, for example, are all considered in their own sections.
This is a unique way of looking at history and one of the reasons why it’s so valuable. You often see history from the perspective of a certain period, while this book provides an overview of history from the perspective of different angles.
I learnt a lot from reading this book and discovered a lot of reasons the world is the way it is. If you want to learn more about why the world is the way it is, The Lessons of History is a book you must read!
Table of Contents
The Lessons of History summary
Takeaway 1 – The past informs the present
I studied history at university. I’m fascinated by what happened in the past and how it relates to the world we inhabit today.
When I was in school, I remember getting into an argument with a friend about history. He was adamant that it was irrelevant because the past had been and gone. What was the point in looking backwards, we should be looking forwards.
The issue with this point of view is that it neglects the fact that everything that happened in the past adds up to what we see today. The same is true in our own lives. What we do today affects us tomorrow and beyond.
We cannot box history off as a bygone age, it is with us today in a myriad of ways. The beauty of The Lessons of History is to show us how much history has affected all of us.
It’s not just politics, but religion, biology, and sociology, every field has been affected by the passing of time in one way or another.
Instead of neglecting history, we should embrace it. It’s only by understanding what has come before that we can understand what might unfold in the future.
Takeaway 2 – Peace is rare, war is common
One of the most incredible sentences in the book for me was one concerning war. It states that “in the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.”
Bear in mind that this book was first published in 1968, so it is not accurate today. However, that statistic is still mind-boggling. That’s one reason why so many of the best books on European history are to do with war.
We are lucky to be living in the most peaceful period in human history. During my lifetime there have been very wars, the biggest was probably the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, but that was not on the scale of the First and Second World Wars.
The scary point about this statistic is that it points to the uncomfortable fact that war may be the de facto state for humans.
We can think that we moved past war, but today conflicts rage around the globe. Wars in the strict sense of the term exist, but so do trade wars and cyber warfare.
War still occurs but it is more subtle than ever before. The worrying thing is that another war is possible. If it does happen, it will likely wipe out modern civilisation as we know it due to the ferocious power of nuclear bombs.
The hope is that countries become so interlinked through trading and supranational organisations such as the EU, that they see no need to war with one another.
Maybe we have turned a page in history, where wars become less common, but if we are to use history as a guide, this seems unlikely.
Takeaway 3 – Good and Evil is not clear cut
I’ve always had an issue with the definition of food and evil in the world. On the surface, it seems easy to decide who was bad and who was good. For example, the Nazis were bad and the allies were good.
However, if you delve into this, you’ll see that most of the people who fought for the Nazis were not evil people. They were ordinary folk who bought into the Nazi’s rhetoric. Hannah Arendt calls this the banality of evil.
This is the truth of the matter are ideas of good and evil are what we see in Disney movies or Hollywood blockbusters. Real life is much more nuanced.
The problem with our definition of good and evil is that nature does not see things the same way.
Nature defines what survives as good simply because it survived. It does not agree with our definitions. As the authors state that means there is little material difference between Jesus Christ and Genghis Khan.
In the eyes of nature, both are good because they survived. History offers no consolation that good triumphs over evil. Just because we beat the Nazis in the Second World War doesn’t mean that those deemed to be evil will always fail.
Part of our problem is to try and turn history into a narrative that suits our biases. Defining the world in simple terms of good and evil does not help us understand it any better.
In fact, it may lead us to see the world in an imaginary form. One that doesn’t exist in reality. From the perspective of either side, they always consider themselves good and others bad.
It’s worth remembering to be remembered you must survive and goodness does not receive any favours in this regard.
The Lessons of History review
This The Lessons of History summary looks at a short, but brilliant book. It’s a fantastic overview of history and makes you think about the wider trends.
One of the best things about the book is that it’s broken down into different sections. So you have a section on economics, religion, morals etc.
This allows you to take a more nuanced view of history and allows you to assess it much more accurately.
Another one of the beauties of the book is its ability to explain complicated parts of history easily.
The Lessons of History condenses a lot of time into just over 100 pages. That requires the author to be succinct and sparing with their message.
The fact that they have been able to do this and make the book easy to read at the same is a testament to their ability as historians.
Considering the brevity of the book and the lessons within it, it’s a fantastic read and one most people will thoroughly enjoy.
Who should read The Lessons of History?
History lovers will get a lot of value from this book. It’s an unconventional history book, as it looks at history in a bros stroke, rather than at a specific point in time.
I also think most people get a lot of value out of reading The Lessons of History. The book is jam-packed with useful tidbits and the fact it’s only a short book will help most people get through it too!