(Image: Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)
August 27, 2017
The Lessons of History—first published in 1968—is the result of a lifetime of work by the outstanding historians, Will and Ariel Durant. Top investor Ray Dalio, founder and leader of Bridgewater Associates, has recommended the book as a succinct set of observations on history.
History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. – Mark Twain
BIOLOGY AND HISTORY
There are three biological lessons of history:
- Life is competition.
- Life is selection.
- Life must breed.
The Durants write that our acquisitiveness, greediness, and pugnacity are remnants of our evolutionary history as hunters and gatherers. In those days, we had to eat as much as possible when we managed to get food from a successful hunt. We also had to hoard food (and others goods) whenever possible.
As for selection, there is virtually an infinite variety of random differences in people. And the environment itself can often be random and unpredictable. People who win the Ovarian Lottery—to use Warren Buffett’s term—don’t just have talents; rather, they have talents well-suited to a specific environment. Here’s Buffett:
As my friend Bill Gates says, if I’ve been born in some different place or some different time I’d have been some animal’s lunch. I’d have been running real fast, and the animal would have been chasing me and I’d say “I allocate capital” and the animal would say “well, those are the kind that taste the best”. I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and I’m lucky, I think a fair amount of that luck should be shared with others.
In 2013, someone from a group of students asked Warren Buffett how his understanding of markets affected his political views. Buffett replied:
I wouldn’t say knowledge of markets has. My political views were formed by this process. Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, “You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. Going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you—determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish, can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion and I guarantee you that when you emerge this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren. What’s the catch? One catch—just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get—you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world? Do you want men to push around females? It’s a 50/50 chance you get female. If you think about the political world, you want a system that gets what people want. You want more and more output because you’ll have more wealth to share around. The US is a great system, turns out $50,000 GDP per capital, 6 times the amount when I was born in just one lifetime. But not knowing what slip you get, you want a system that once it produces output, you don’t want anyone to be left behind. You want to incentivize the top performers, don’t want equality in results, but do want something that those who get the bad tickets still have a decent life. You also don’t want fear in people’s minds—fear of lack of money in old age, fear of cost of health care. I call this the “Ovarian Lottery”. My sisters didn’t get the same ticket. Expectations for them were that they would marry well, or if they work, would work as a nurse, teacher, etc. If you are designing the world knowing 50/50 male or female, you don’t want this type of world for women – you could get female. Design your world this way; this should be your philosophy. I look at Forbes 400, look at their figures and see how it’s gone up in the last 30 years. Americans at the bottom are also improving, and that is great, but we don’t want that degree of inequality. Only governments can correct that. Right way to look at it is the standpoint of how you would view the world if you didn’t know who you would be. If you’re not willing to gamble with your slip out of 100 random slips, you are lucky! The top 1% of 7 billion people. Everyone is wired differently. You can’t say you do everything yourself. We all have teachers, and people before us who led us to where we are. We can’t let people fall too far behind. You all definitely got good slips.
As for the third biological lesson of history, that life must breed, Will and Ariel Durant explain:
Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize one ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (meaning Nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. (page 21)
RACE AND HISTORY
Will and Ariel Durant sum it up:
“Racial” antipathies have some origin in ethnic origin, but they are also generated, perhaps predominantly, by differences of acquired culture—of language, dress, habits, moral, or religion. There is no cure for such antipathies except a broadened education. A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a co-operative product, that nearly all people’s have contributed to it; it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups. (page 31)
CHARACTER AND HISTORY
Will and Ariel Durant:
Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education. Custom and tradition within a group correspond to type and heredity in the species, and to instincts in the individual; they are ready adjustments to typical and frequently repeated situations. New situations, however, do arise, requiring novel, unstereotyped responses; hence development, in the higher organisms, requires a capacity for experiment and innovation—the social correlates of variation and mutation. Social evolution is an interplay of custom with origination. (page 34)
Occasionally some new challenge or situation has required the new (or sometimes very old) ideas of an innovator—whether scientist, inventor, or leader (business, political, spiritual).
MORALS AND HISTORY
Will and Ariel Durant note that what are today considered vices may once have been virtues—i.e., advantages for survival. They observe that the transition from hunting to agriculture called for new virtues:
We may reasonably assume that the new regime demanded new virtues, and changed some old virtues into vices. Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets; birth control was made immoral. On the farm, the family was the unit of production under the discipline of the father and the seasons, and paternal authority had a firm economic base. (page 38)
Gradually and then rapidly, write the Durants, the Industrial Revolution changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life. Many went to work as individuals in factories, and many of them worked with machines in the factories.
The Durants point out that much written history is, as Voltaire said, “a collection of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes” of humankind. However, this written history typically does not include many good and noble deeds that actually occurred:
We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting—because it is exceptional. If all those individuals who had no Boswell had found their numerically proportionate place in the pages of historians we should have a duller but juster view of the past and of man. Behind the red facade of war and politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate, troubled and happy with children. Even in recorded history we find so many instances of goodness, even of nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the cruelties of battlefields and jails. How many times, even in our sketchy narratives, have we seen men helping one another… (page 41)
RELIGION AND HISTORY
Religion has helped with educating the young. And religion has given meaning and dignity to even the lowliest existence, write the Durants. Religion gives many people hope. However, religion has stumbled at important times:
The majestic dream broke under the attacks of nationalism, skepticism, and human frailty. The Church was manned with men, who often proved biased, venal, or extortionate. France grew in wealth and power, and made the papacy her political tool. Kings became strong enough to compel a pope to dissolve that Jesuit order which had so devotedly supported the popes. The Church stooped to fraud, as with pious legends, bogus relics, and dubious miracles… More and more the hierarchy spent its energies in promoting orthodoxy rather than morality, and the Inquisition almost fatally disgraced the Church. Even while preaching peace the Church fomented religious wars in sixteenth-century France and the Thirty Years’ War in seventeenth-century Germany. It played only a modest part in the outstanding advance of modern morality—
the abolition of slavery. It allowed the philosophers to take the lead in the humanitarian movements that have alleviated the evils of our time. (page 45)
ECONOMICS AND HISTORY
Will and Ariel Durant open the chapter:
Unquestionably the economic interpretation illuminates much history. The money of the Delian Confederacy built the Parthenon; the treasury of Cleopatra’s Egypt revitalized the exhausted Italy of Augustus, gave Virgil an annuity and Horace a farm. The Crusades, like the wars of Rome with Persia, were attempts of the West to capture trade routes to the East; the discovery of America was a result of the failure of the Crusades. The banking house of the Medici financed the Florentine Renaissance; the trade and industry of Nuremberg made Durer possible. The French Revolution came not because Voltaire wrote brilliant satires and Rousseau sentimental romances, but because the middle classes had risen to economic leadership, needed legislative freedom for their enterprise and trade, and itched for social acceptance and political power. (pages 52-53)
Bankers have often risen to the top of the economic pyramid, since they have been able to direct the flow of capital.
The Durants note the importance of the profit motive in moving the economy forward:
The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, and too transient. (page 54)
Wealth tends naturally to concentrate in the hands of the most able. Periodically it must be redistributed.
…The government of the United States, in 1933-52 and 1960-65, followed Solon’s peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution; perhaps someone had studied history. The upper classes in America cursed, complied, and resumed the concentration of wealth.
We conclude that the concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. (page 57)
SOCIALISM AND HISTORY
Capitalism—especially in America—has unleashed amazing productivity and will continue to do so for a long time:
The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth. The capitalist, of course, has fulfilled a creative function in history: he has gathered the savings of the people into productive capital by the promise of dividends or interest; he has financed the mechanization of industry and agriculture, and the rationalization of distribution; and the result has been such a flow of goods from producer to consumer as history has never seen before. He has put the liberal gospel of liberty to his use by arguing that businessmen left relatively free from transportation tolls and legislative regulation can give the public a greater abundance of food, homes, comfort, and leisure than has ever come from industries managed by politicians, manned by governmental employees, and supposedly immune to the laws of supply and demand. In free enterprise the spur of competition and the zeal and zest of ownership arouse the productiveness and inventiveness of men; nearly every economic ability sooner or later finds its niche and reward in the shuffle of talents and the natural selection of skills; and a basic democracy rules the process insofar as most of the articles to be produced, and the services to be rendered, are determined by public demand rather than by governmental decree. Meanwhile competition compels the capitalist to exhaustive labor, and his products to ever-rising excellence. (pages 58-59)
Throughout most of history, socialist structures or centralized control by government have guided economies. The Durants offer many examples, including that of Egypt:
In Egypt under the Ptolemies (323 B.C. – 30 B.C.) the state owned the soil and managed agriculture: the peasant was told what land to till, what crops to grow; his harvest was measured and registered by government scribes, was threshed on royal threshing floors, and was conveyed by a living chain of fellaheen into the granaries of the king. The government owned the mines and appropriated the ore. It nationalized the production and sale of oil, salt, papyrus, and textiles. All commerce was controlled and regulated by the state; most retail trade was in the hands of state agents selling state-produced goods. Banking was a government monopoly, but its operation might be delegated to private firms. Taxes were laid upon every person, industry, process, product, sale, and legal document. To keep track of taxable transactions and income, the government maintained a swarm of scribes and a complex system of personal and property registration. The revenue of this system made the Ptolemaic the richest state of the time. Great engineering enterprises were completed, agriculture was improved, and a large proportion of the profits went to develop and adorn the country and to finance its cultural life. About 290 B.C. the famous Museum and Library of Alexandria were founded. Science and literature flourished; at uncertain dates in this Ptolemaic era some scholars made the “Septuagint” translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. (pages 59-60)
The Durants then tell the story of Rome under Diocletian:
…Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with imminent danger of barbarian invasion, he issued in A.D. 301 an Edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services. Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor. The government—which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits—brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control. “In every large town,” we are told, “the state became a powerful employer, … standing head and shoulders above the private industrialists, who were in any case crushed by taxation.” When businessmen predicted ruin, Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty could be made secure. The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely as external danger.
The task of controlling men in economic detail proved too much for Diocletian’s expanding, expensive, and corrupt bureaucracy. To support this officialdom—the army, the court, public works, and the dole—taxation rose to such heights that men lost incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion. Thousands of Romans, to escape the taxgatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among the barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility, and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all his debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdorm began. (pages 60-61)
The Durants then recount several attempts at socialism in China, including under the philosopher-king Wang Mang:
Wang Mang (r. A.D. 9-23) was an accomplished scholar, a patron of literature, a millionaire who scattered his riches among his friends and the poor. Having seized the throne, he surrounded himself with men trained in letters, science, and philosophy. He nationalized the land, divided it into equal tracts among the peasants, and put an end to slavery. Like Wu Ti, he tried to control prices by the accumulation or release of stockpiles. He made loans at low interest to private enterprise. The groups whose profits had been clipped by his legislation united to plot his fall; they were helped by drought and flood and foreign invasion. The rich Liu family put itself at the head of a general rebellion, slew Wang Mang, and repealed his legislation. Everything was as before. (page 62)
Later, the Durants tell of the longest-lasting socialist government: the Incas in what is now Peru. Everyone was an employee of the state. It seems all were happy, given the promise of security and food.
There was also a Portuguese colony in which 150 Jesuits organized 200,000 Indians in a socialist society (c. 1620 – 1750). Every able-bodied person was required to work eight hours a day. The Jesuits served as teachers, physicians, and judges. The penal system did not include capital punishment. The Jesuits also provided for recreation, including choral performances. All were peaceful and happy, write the Durants. And they defended themselves well when attacked. The socialist experiment ended when the Spanish in America wanted immediately to occupy the Portuguese colony because it was rumored to contain gold. The Portuguese government under Pombal—at the time, in disagreement with the Jesuits—ordered the priests and the natives to leave the settlements, say the Durants.
The Durants conclude the chapter:
… [Marx] interpreted the Hegelian dialectic as implying that the struggle between capitalism and socialism would end in the complete victory of socialism; but if the Hegelian formula of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is applied to the Industrial Revolution as thesis, and to capitalism versus socialism as antithesis, the third condition would be a synthesis of capitalism and socialism; and to this reconciliation the Western world visibly moves. (page 66)
Note that the Durants were writing in 1968.
GOVERNMENT AND HISTORY
Will and Ariel Durant:
Alexander Pope thought that only a fool would dispute over forms of government. History has a good word to say for all of them, and for government in general. Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its own limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive forces in private hands. (page 68)
It’s difficult to say when people were happiest. Since I believe strongly that the most impactful technological breakthroughs ever—including but not limited to AI and genetics—are going to occur in the next 20-80 years, I would argue that we as humans are a long way away from the happiness we can achieve in the future. (I also think Steven Pinker is right—in The Better Angels of Our Nature—that people are becoming less violent, slowly but surely.)
But if you had to pick a historical period, I would defer to the great historians to make this selection. The Durants:
…”If,” said Gibbon, “a man were called upon to fix the period during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.” In that brilliant age, when Rome’s subjects complimented themselves on being under her rule, monarchy was adoptive: the emperor transmitted his authority not to his offspring but to the ablest man he could find; he adopted this man as his son, trained him in the functions of government, and gradually surrendered to him the reins of power. The system worked well, partly because neither Trajan nor Hadrian had a son, and the sons of Antonius Pius died in childhood. Marcus Aurelius had a son, Commodus, who succeeded him because the philosopher failed to name another heir; soon chaos was king. (page 69)
The Durants then write that most monarchs overall do not have a great record.
Hence most governments have been oligarchies—ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is unnatural (as even Rousseau saw) for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for united and specific action, and a minority can. If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another. The aristocrat holds that political selection by birth is the sanest alternative to selection by money or theology or violence. Aristocracy withdraws a few men from the exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition, and trains them from birth, through example, surroundings, and minor office, for the tasks of government; these tasks require a special preparation that no ordinary family or background can provide. Aristocracy is not only a nursery of statesmanship, it is also a repository and vehicle of culture, manners, standards, and tastes, and serves thereby as a stabilizing barrier to social fads, artistic crazes, or neurotically rapid changes in the moral code… (page 70)
When aristocracies were too selfish and myopic, however, slowing progress, the new rich combined with the poor to overthrow them, say the Durants.
The Durants point out that most revolutions probably would have occurred without violence through gradual economic development. They mention the rise of America as an example. They also note that the English aristocracy was gradually replaced by the money-controlling business class in England. The Durants then generalize:
The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints. (page 72)
A bit later, the Durants discuss the battles between the poor and the rich in Athenian democracy around the time of Plato’s death (347 B.C.).
…The poor schemed to despoil the rich by legislation, taxation, and revolution; the rich organized themselves for protection against the poor. The members of some oligarchic organizations, says Aristotle, took a solemn oath: “I will be an adversary of the people” (i.e., the commonalty), “and in the Council I will do it all the evil that I can.” “The rich have become so unsocial,” wrote Isocrates about 366 B.C., “that those who own property had rather throw their possessions into the sea than lend aid to the needy, while those who are in poorer circumstances would less gladly find a treasure than seize the possessions of the rich.” (pages 74-75)
Much of this class warfare became violent. And Greece was divided when Philip of Macedon attacked in 338 B.C.
The Durants continue:
Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. During the third and second centuries before Christ a Roman oligarchy organized a foreign policy and a disciplined army, and conquered and exploited the Mediterranean world. The wealth so won was absorbed by the patricians, and the commerce so developed raised to luxurious opulence the upper middle class. Conquered Greeks, Orientals, and Africans were brought to Italy to serve as slaves on the latifundia; the native farmers, displaced from the soil, joined the restless, breeding proletariat in the cities, to enjoy the monthly dole of grain that Caius Gracchus had secured for the poor in 123 B.C. Generals and proconsuls returned from the provinces loaded with spoils for themselves and the ruling class; millionaires multiplied; mobile money replaced land as the source or instrument of political power; rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes; in 53 B.C. one group of voters received ten million sesterces for its support. When money failed, murder was available: citizens who had voted the wrong way were in some instances beaten close to death and their houses were set on fire. Antiquity had never known so rich, so powerful, and so corrupt a government. The aristocrats engaged Pompey to maintain their ascendancy; the commoners cast their lot with Caesar; ordeal of battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn. (pages 75-76)
The Durants describe American democracy as the most universal ever seen so far. But the advance of technology—to the extent that it makes the economy more complex—tends to concentrate power even more:
Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power. (page 77)
Will and Ariel Durant conclude that democracy has done less harm and more good than any other form of government:
…It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation its raised up ability from every rank and place. Under its stimulus Athens and Rome became the most creative cities in history, and America in two centuries has provided abundance for an unprecedently large proportion of its population. Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal. The rights of man are not rights to office and power, but the rights of entry into every avenue that may nourish and test a man’s fitness for office and power. A right is not a gift of God or nature but a privilege which it is good that the individual should have. (pages 78-79)
HISTORY AND WAR
As mentioned earlier, I happen to agree with Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: we humans are slowly but surely becoming less violent as economic and technological progress continues. But it could still take a very long time before wars stop entirely (if ever).
Will and Ariel Durant were writing in 1968, so they didn’t know that the subsequent 50 years would be (arguably) less violent overall. In any case, they offer interesting insights into war:
The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery. The state has our instincts without our restraints. The individual submits to restraints laid upon him by morals and laws, and agrees to replace combat with conference, because the state guarantees him basic protection in his life, property, and legal rights. 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. (page 81)
The Durants write that, after freeing themselves from papal control, many modern European states—if they foresaw a war—would cause their people to hate the people in the opposing country. Today, we know from psychology that when people develop extreme hatreds, they nearly always dehumanize and devalue the human beings they hate and minimize their virtues. Such extreme hatreds, if unchecked, often lead to tragic consequences. (The Durants note that wars between European states in the sixteenth century still permitted each side to respect the other’s civilization and achievements.)
Again bearing in mind when the Durants were writing (1968), the historical precedent seemed to indicate that the United States should attack emerging communist powers before they became powerful enough to overcome the United States. The Durants:
…There is something greater than history. Somewhere, sometime, in the name of humanity, we must challenge a thousand evil precedents, and dare to apply the Golden Rule to nations, as the Buddhist King Ashoka did (262 B.C.), or at least do what Augustus did when he bade Tiberius desist from further invasion of Germany (A.D. 9)… “Magnanimity in politics,” said Edmund Burke, “is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great empire and little minds go ill together.” (pages 84-85)
Perhaps the humanist will agree with Pinker (as I do) that eventually, however slowly, we will move towards the cessation of war (at least between humans). If this happens, it may be due largely to unprecedented progress in technology (including but not limited to AI and genetics): we will gain control of our own evolution and wealth per capita will advance to unimaginable levels.
At the same time, we shouldn’t assume that aliens are necessarily peace-loving. Perhaps humanity will have to unite in self-defense, say the Durants.
GROWTH AND DECAY
Will and Ariel Durant give again their definition of civilization:
We have defined civilization as “social order promoting cultural creation.” It is political order secured through custom, morals, and law, and economic order secured through a continuity of production and exchange; it is cultural creation through freedom and facilities for the origination, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners, and arts. It is an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed. (page 87)
The Durants later add:
History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness, and man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex. But in a developed and complex civilization individuals are more differentiated and unique than in primitive society, and many situations contain novel circumstances requiring modifications of instinctive response; custom recedes, reasoning spreads; the results are less predictable. There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past. Every year is an adventure. (page 88)
Growth happens when people meet challenges.
If we ask what makes a creative individual, we are thrown back from history to psychology and biology—to the influence of the environment and the gamble and secret of the chromosomes. (page 91)
Decay of the civilization or group happens when the political or intellectual leaders fail to meet the challenges of change.
The challenges may come from a dozen sources… A change in the instruments or routes of trade—as by the conquest of the ocean or the air—may leave old centers of civilization becalmed and decadent, like Pisa or Venice after 1492. Taxes may mount to the point of discouraging capital investment and productive stimulus. Foreign markets and materials may be lost to more enterprising competition; excess of imports over exports may drain [wealth and reserves]. The concentration of wealth may disrupt the nation in class or race war. The concentration of population and poverty in great cities may compel a government to choose between enfeebling the economy with a dole and running the risk of riot and revolution. (page 92)
All great individuals so far have died. (Future technology may allow us to fix that, perhaps this century.) But great civilizations don’t really die, say the Durants:
…Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives in the memory of the race, and in such abundance that no one life, however full and long, could absorb it all. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land. The Greek poets and philosophers are in every library and college; at this moment Plato is being studied by a hundred thousand discoverers of the “dear delight” of philosophy overspreading life with understanding thought. This selective survival of creative minds is the most real and beneficent of immortalities.
Nations die. Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change. Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him. If education has deepened and broadened those memories, civilization migrates with him, and builds somewhere another home. In the new land he need not begin entirely anew, nor make his way without friendly aid; communication and transport bind him, as in a nourishing placenta, with his mother country. Rome imported Greek civilization and transmitted it to Western Europe; America profited from European civilization and prepares to pass it on, with a technique of transmission never equaled before.
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. Even as these lines are being written, commerce and print, wires and waves and invisible Mercuries of the air are binding nations and civilizations together, preserving for all what each has given to the heritage of mankind. (pages 93-94)
IS PROGRESS REAL?
If progress is increasing our control of the environment, then obviously progress continues to be made, primarily because scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other leaders continue to push science, technology, and education forward. The Durants also point out that people are living much longer than ever before. (Looking forward today from 2017, the human lifespan may double or triple at a minimum; and we may eventually develop the capacity to live virtually forever.)
Will and Ariel Durant then sum up all they have learned:
History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. 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. (page 102)
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An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time. See the historical chart here: http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/
This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps. Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals. We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.
There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio. The size of each position is determined by its rank. Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost). Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.
The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods. We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net). The Boole Fund has low fees.
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Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.