I found the book The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant on a list of “7 Books Everyone Should Read” by Jim Rohn, whose insights I have always admired (or at least ever since I first heard of Jim Rohn). Since Will Durant was the only author with more than one book on the list (The other is The Story of Philosophy), I checked him out first.
It’s indeed a book that everyone should read. Written in 1968 and necessarily framed against the backdrop of that tumultuous era, it’s packed full of insights and revelations about the nature of humanity as reflected in the arcs of history.
I listened to the audiobook but have resolved to find me a more permanent copy – and the close of Chapter 10 struck me as so eerily prophetic that I went back and transcribed what I heard:
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 for the group that the individual should have.
In England the United States, in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship and has not yielded to dictatorship at home.
But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife.
If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword.
If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all, and the martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.