Lessons From Books: Heroes of History

Heroes of History by Will Durant attempts to compile the lessons and ideas from some of the greatest figures in human history. The book uses the wisdom of philosophers, religious figures, artists, and scientists in order to tackle everyday issues people face such as finding happiness, dealing with the idea of death, finding peace, how to overcome obstacles, how to manage the ups and downs of life, seeking beauty, and so on.

There are many lessons in the book and depending on what phase in life you are in and/or what you are going through in your personal/professional life, you may find something specific and practical to help you through your difficulties.

The following are the lessons that I found important at the moment. 

Life Lessons:

On Action: Do Your Duty and Love Your Fate

All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfill their function and make no claim. All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their blood each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfillment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom. (Lao-tze)

In nature, there are no prizes or pats on the back. The ecosystem is ongoing and each thing has its role to complete and when completed, you transition to the next phase which may simply be to die and become nutrition for another part of nature.

The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius also had a similar notion about life and the point of living.

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present – I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?

Wake up, do your duty, and then rest. There is nothing more.

On Mindset: Be Good, Regardless 

If you do not quarrel, no one on earth will be able to quarrel with you…Recompense injury with kindness…To those who are good I am good, and to those who are not good I am good; thus all get to be good. To those who are sincere I am sincere, and to those who are not sincere I am also sincere, and thus all get to be sincere…The softest thing in the world…overcomes the hardest. (Lao-tze)

Many things in life aren’t in your control. However, how you react to other people and how you view other people is up to you. You can either add more negativity to the world or you can choose to add positivity regardless of the negativity you face. It’s in this choice that your character shines through.

On Character: Cultivate Your Character First

The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their own states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigations of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy. (Confucius)

The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has a saying where he urges people to start by cleaning up their room before attempting to make large societal changes. The idea behind it is that first, you have to manage yourself before you can manage others. Similarly, Confucius’ advises to first attain knowledge that will make your thoughts sincere before attempting to order society. Cultivate your own character first, overcome your own deficiencies first, master yourself first before pointing the finger at other people or institutions.

On Peace: One Way To Attain It

If one could still all desires for one, and seek only to do good for all, then individuality, that fundamental delusion of mankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire!—and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could ever know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, not hereafter, as many believe: only peace is possible, only the cool quietude of craving ended, which is Nirvana. And so, after seven years of meditation, Guatama went forth to preach Nirvana to mankind.

When we see ourselves as parts of a whole, when we reform ourselves and our desires, in terms of the whole, then our personal disappointments and defeats, our griefs and pains and inevitable death, no longer sadden us as bitterly as before; they are lost in the amplitude of infinity. When we have learned to love not our separate selves but all human things, then at last we shall find Nirvana—unselfish peace.

One way to find peace is by focusing on the collective instead of the individual. It is a shift in the mindset where instead of asking what you need most or what you desire most, you turn your attention towards your neighbor and/or your community and ask what will benefit them. What actions can I take right now that will improve their quality of life? This way you become part of the ecosystem and so as the system does better, you do better.

On Life: The Good Shall Pass. The Bad Shall Pass

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose… All rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

It too shall pass is a mantra that can bring peace of mind. Often times when we are in the thick of it when things aren’t going as we planned, we may think that this moment will be forever. But the sun will rise again. The bad moment will pass and with it, the good will come but we can’t fall into the illusion that the good will stay. It too shall pass. The good making way for the bad and then the bad overcome by the good, this cycle is everlasting. That’s how life works.

On Life: It’s Constantly Changing

Nothing is, everything becomes; everything is always ceasing to be what it is, and is becoming what it will be; “all things flow” (panta rei), and “you can never dip your foot in the same water in a flowing stream”; the universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless “Becoming.” (Heraclitus)

Life is constantly changing. There is no stagnation. Even if you’re passive, the world around you will change and that change will cause a shift inside of you. The same thing happens if you’re active. The only difference is that when you are active, you can have some kind of influence on your own “becoming” rather than living passively and becoming what other people or life itself makes you.

On Life: Finding Beauty

This feeling for order and proportion, for form and rhythm, for precision and clarity, is the central face in Greek culture.

“We love beauty with extravagance,” says Thucydides’ Pericles. The purpose is not to represent indiscriminately the myriad details of the real, but to catch and hold the essence of things, and portray ideal possibilities of form and life.

In order to make life more vivid and clear, an attempt to find beauty is valiant. Too many people associate beauty with great art pieces or sunsets at some tropical island. The Greeks, on the other hand, perceive beauty with form, rhythm, precision, and clarity. Elements that can be found in everyday life.

This is similar to the idea of the writer Marcel Proust. Proust attempted to see the beauty in the everyday. To observe an apple and find beauty in its harmonized shape, touch, feel, smell. This way, life becomes beautiful.

On Life: Make Your Weakness Your Strength 

[The Story Of Demosthenes] His father left him a moderate fortune, but the executors consumed it. He made his own fortune as a rhetor, writing speeches for litigants; something, according to Plutarch, he prepared pleas for bother parties to a dispute. He could compose better than he could speak, for he was weak in body and defective in articulation. To overcome those handicaps he addressed the noisy sea with his mouth half-filled with pebbles or he declaimed while running uphill. After years of effort he became one of the richest lawyers in Athens, flexible in his morals, but fearless in his views.

The lesson is simple and straightforward. Your limitations, your weakness, aspects of yourself that cause you to struggle don’t have to remain that way. Granted, not everything can be fully overcome. However, there is always room for improvement. What is required is discipline and work ethic and Demosthenes is an example of this.

On Art: The Art Of Poetry

The rules of good writing: clarity, directness, mingling the useful with the pleasant. Art assumes feeling as well in the artists as in the recipient: “If you wish me to weep, you must first grieve yourself.” But art is not feeling alone; it is feeling conveyed in disciplined form—“emotion remembered in tranquility.” (Horace)

A reminder for good writing: Keep it simple and convey true emotions.

On Life: Dealing With Bad People

He reluctantly concedes that there are bad men in the world. The way to deal with them is to remember that they, too, are men, the helpless victims of their own faults by the determinism of circumstance. “If any man has done thee wrong, the harm is his own…forgive him.” Does this seem an impracticable philosophy? On the contrary, nothing is so invincible as a good disposition, if it be sincere. A really good man is immune to misfortune, for whatever evil befalls him leaves him still his own soul. Philosophy is not logic or learning, but understanding and acceptance. (Marcus Aurelius)

It is difficult to be compassionate when emotions are riled up. But compassion is what is needed in order to bridge the gap between one individual and another. Reminding yourself to forgive and at the same time, guarding your reaction and attitude against the negativity of others is a good place to start.

On Art: Leonardo da Vinci’s Thoughts

His basic precept is that the student of art should study nature rather than copying the works of other artists. “see to it, O painter, that when you go  into the fields you give your attention to the various objects, looking carefully in turn first at one object then at another, making a bundle of different things selected among those of less value.” Of course the painter must study anatomy, perspective, modeling by light and shade; boundaries sharply defined make a picture seem wooden. “Always make the figure so that the bosom is not turned in the same direction as the head”; here is one secret of the grace in Leonardo’s own composition. Finally he urges: “Make figures with such action as may suffice to show what the figure has in mind.”

On Life: The Harsh Reality Of Being Alive

In Othello (1604), Iago stands for evil, falsehood, and treachery, and triumphantly survives; Desdemona is goodness, honesty, and fidelity, and is murdered.

The murderer in Macbeth judges life mercilessly:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Life is not fair. Your multitude of goodness will not likely be reciprocated. Sometimes bad things happen and keep happening and they happen to good people. And life is largely pointless and meaningless, signifying nothing. Yet, we need to keep acting and moving forward with the attempt to make life more bearable for people we care for and also for our fellow neighbors. There is no need for the individual to add hardship to what is already difficult.

We need not close our eyes to the evils that challenge us—we should work undiscourageable to lessen them—but we may take strength from the achievements of the past; the splendor of our inheritance.

On Life: Full Acceptance 

Men must endure their going hence,

Even as their coming hither;

Ripeness is all. (King Lear 5.2)

Maturity, not eternity, should be our goal. (Durant)

To be alive means to die one day. That can either be accomplished with your head held high or by kicking and screaming and throwing a tantrum like a child. Maturity means to accept the inevitable. To accept all that you have no control over and to keep your head high when the inevitable comes your way.

The individual soul is a passing tongue of the endlessly changing flame of light. Man is a fitful moment in that flames, “kindled and put out like a light in the night.” (Heracleitus)

Great Lines Or Quotes:

Those about whom you inquire have molded with their bones into dust…Get rid of your pride and many ambitions, your affection and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing at all from all these. (Lao-tze)

 

Sin is selfishness, the seeking of individual advantage or delight; and until the soul is freed from all selfishness, it will be repeatedly born.

 

“Man is the measure of all things.” (Protagoras)

 

Normally the philosophy of one age is the literature of the next: the ideas and issues that in one generation are fought out on the field of speculation or research provide in the succeeding generation the background of drama, fiction, and poetry.

 

Virtue lies not in the fear of the gods, nor in the timid shunning of pleasure; it lies in the harmonious operation of sense and faculties guided by reason: “the real wealth of a man is to live simply with a mind at peace.” (Lucretius)

 

“No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” (Sulla)

 

“I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze, loftier than the royal peak of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die.” (Horace)

 

Freedom is luxury of security.

 

We cannot know what God is, not understand a universe so mingled of apparent evil and good, of suffering and loveliness, destruction and sublimity; but in the presence of a mother tending her child, or of an informed will giving order to chaos, meaning to matter, nobility to form or thought, we feel as close as we shall even be to the life and law that constitute the incomprehensible intelligence of the world.

 

“Of all virtues and dignities of the mind, goodness is the greatest.” (Francis Bacon)

 

Philosophy is not logic or learning, but understanding and acceptance.

Lessons From Poems: Man Has Created Life

Nor dread nor hope attend

A dying animal;

A man awaits his end

Dreading and hoping all;

Many times he died,

Many times rose again.

A great man in his pride

Confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon

Suppression of breath;

He knows death to the bone—

Man has created death.

Death by William Butler Yeats

This simple, twelve-line poem by W. B. Yeats strikes at an important truth about mankind which is stated in the very last line of the poem, “Man has created death”. Meaning because we are conscious creatures who need to understand life, we have separated the natural occurrences of life into labels and ideas, one such label being that of death. By labeling death and being aware of death we have also given birth to dread and its opposite, hope.

Other animals aren’t conscious as human beings, which is why Yeats says:

Nor dread nor hope attend

A dying animal

They don’t understand death which is why they don’t dread it like humans do and neither do they understand possibilities which is why they don’t hope as humans do.

This idea of manmade problems has been prevalent for centuries. The Stoics believed that people suffered more in imagination than they did in reality. This results from being conscious. We can actively control how our life is shaped and what we can achieve, but we are also aware of what isn’t in our control and what is the natural course of existence. Many anxieties and fears stem from consciousness because we aren’t dumb animals without awareness. Our mind lingers in the past or in the future, areas which we have no influence on. At the same time, consciousness allows us to overcome those anxieties and fears by focusing on the present moment and improving the current situation. This is what I take from the following lines:

Many times he died,

Many times rose again.

Each time we bow to our fears, a part of us dies, but each time we overcome a fear, we are reborn. Rise again as a better version of ourselves.

However, such growth only comes from acceptance. Accepting that death is inevitable and acting regardless of that eventuality. Regardless of your fears and anxieties, regardless of pressure and stress. This is how a man becomes great.

A great man in his pride

Confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon

Suppression of breath;

A great man is someone who knows death but doesn’t fear it. He is willing to confront it and do the right thing even though it may result in him losing his life. “Confronting murderous men” could be taken literal and we can applaud the honorable individuals who do so or, it can be taken as symbolic and applied to life, confronting life, rather than cowering/suppressing from the unknown and unpredictable aspects of life.

The opposite of death is life. If man has created death, then he has also created life, his own life. Meaning that because we are conscious animals, we may be burdened by our knowledge of death but we are also relieved by our knowledge of life. Specifically, our ability to give meaning and purpose to our own lives which can overshadow death. And in doing so, find a sense of comfort with the eventuality of death because each individual has the opportunity or perhaps even a responsibility to take on the dread and hope associated with being alive.