History’s Biggest Lessons: 10 Books to Read During Quarantine

Now that global lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced billions of people into self-isolation, the internet is abuzz with recommendations of what shows to watch while we are all stuck at home. This idea of using lighthearted entertainment to make quarantine more pleasant actually has a long pedigree. One of the masterpieces of Italian literature, Boccaccio’s Decameron, is about a group of friends seeking refuge from the Black Death in a secluded villa and passing the time there by telling raunchy stories. But what if you get tired of binging on your favorite shows and have the urge to read something thought-provoking? Well, if you are a history buff with a penchant for bold theories, we’ve got you covered with this listicle of classic works on the root causes of historical change.

History is full of wars, plagues, and revolutions that changed the world. In fact, it’s these unexpected tragedies and triumphs that make history exciting to read. But are there patterns that underlie the seemingly chaotic tapestry of history? Still more, is it possible to abstract “laws of history” from these patterns? The jury is still out on both questions, but many great minds have tried to answer them. Here are ten of the most influential books of all time that attempted to describe historical patterns, listed in reverse chronological order. If you have recommendations to add to this list (especially if you know of non-western books in this vein), please comment below.

10. The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel (2017)

In 2013, the French economist Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the Twenty First Century caused a global sensation with its central claim that inequality around the world has been rising for many decades and will continue to rise in the foreseeable future. Many economists, especially in America, refused to accept this grim assessment and prediction. As debate around this issue flared up, Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford, decided to study the issue of inequality from a “big history” and “big data” perspective. His goal was to write nothing less than a global history of inequality from the stone age to the present. In sifting through huge amounts of historical data, Scheidel makes the case that inequality is always on the rise during times of peace and stability. It is only severe shocks to the system that reverse this trend. You can hear Scheidel himself discussing his book in podcast form by clicking here.  

9. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, by Jack Goldstone (1991)

Jack Goldstone can perhaps be called the grandfather of modern “cliodynamics” (the attempt to describe history using mathematical models). This book introduced a ground-breaking theory about the causes of revolutions. In studying revolutions that happened all over the world since the 1600’s, Goldstone was able to isolate a set of factors that seemed to always coalesce right before big uprisings happened. One important takeaway from the book is that, contrary to what many historians have claimed, there was nothing particularly unique about the “Western” revolutions of the early Modern period. In other words, the (less talked about) revolutions that were happening in Asia and North Africa at the time were precipitated by the same set of economic, demographic, and political factors observed in European uprisings. 

8. The Lessons of History, by Will & Ariel Durant (1968)

The Durants wrote this short collection of essays after completing their eleven-volume classic The Story of Civilization. In it they attempt to distill the most timely and timeless lessons from their survey of 5,000 years of human civilization. One noteworthy aspect of this book, which sets it apart from many contemporary works, is its general agreement with much of what Plato had to say about the development of democracy (Plato appears further down this list). To read an excerpt from The Lessons of History on the dangers that beset democracy, click here.

7. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (1865)

In addition to being one of the greatest novels of all time, Tolstoy’s epic is a meditation on the hidden forces behind the great events of history. One of the novel’s many goals is to show that Napoleon was a pawn, not a mover, of history. In making this point, Tolstoy isn’t trying to denigrate the achievements of the French. Rather, he is mounting a critique against “great man historiography” in general. In other words, he exposes the folly of explaining history through the actions and decisions of “great” individuals. The narrative is often interrupted by essays on the forces of history, in which Tolstoy takes on various western historians and their views. The novel is followed by two epilogues in which Tolstoy attempts to lay the groundwork for a new science of history. 

6. Discourses on Livy, by Niccolò Machiavelli (c. 1517)

While Machiavelli is most known for the Prince—a perennial favorite among the highly ambitious of the world—it is in his Discourses on Livy that he waxes philosophical about the laws of history. Besides offering insights into Roman history and drawing parallels with the Italy of his day, he also offers an analysis and critique of Polybius’ theory of anacyclosis (see below for more on that). If you would like to read a short excerpt of this work where Machiavelli distills his theory of the various types of republic and how they come to be, click here.

5. The Muqaddimah, by Ibn Khaldun (1377)

The fourteenth century Arab historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote a history of the world in which he attempted to explain what causes empires to rise and fall. Khaldun’s writings remain influential to this day. For example the term ‘asibiya’ which he coined (variously translated as “social cohesion” or “group solidarity”) is still used by some scholars. The Muqaddimah is the first book in Khaldun’s seven-book universal history in which he lays down much of his philosophy of history. To get a taste of Khaldun’s outlook, check out this excerpt on the inevitable decline of dynasties.

4. Polybius’ Histories, Book 6 (c. 135 BC)

Polybius wrote an eye-witness account of the Roman Republic’s rise to greatness. He was a Greek who lived in Rome just when Rome was becoming the uncontested superpower of the Mediterranean. His goal in writing his Histories was to explain to his fellow Greeks how a once small and insignificant Italian city-state had managed to conquer the world in just half a century. While Polybius today plays third wheel to the other two major Greek historians—Herodotus and Thucydides—his star burned brighter in the past. For the Founding Fathers of the United States, Polybius was perhaps the most important of all historians. The US Constitution—especially its conception of mixed government—owes much to Polybius. For Polybius’ understanding of the patterns of history, you can start with book 6 of his Histories. There he sets forth the theory of anacyclosis, which attempts to explain the evolution of all the different types of government that have been observed. You can read the section on anacyclosis by clicking here.

3. Politics, by Aristotle (c. 330 BC)

Aristotle led the first large-scale data-gathering project in the history of political science. He sent his students all around the Mediterranean to write descriptions and histories of the constitutions of all the notable states. These numbered over 158. While only one of them survives complete (the Constitution of the Athenians), we can assume that Aristotle’s treatise Politics distills much of the wisdom he gleaned by studying the character and history of many different states. The Politics can be difficult to read for modern readers on account of its dry style. But it can be equally rewarding. It is an ambitious work that covers, among other things, the different types of democracies and republics and the way they tend to develop over time. You can get a taste of the Politics by clicking here to read Aristotle’s famous defense of the “middle class constitution.”

2. The Republic, by Plato (c. 375 BC)

Arguably Plato’s greatest work, the Republic is most known today for its theory of justice and famous cave analogy. But tucked into the latter part of the work is a theory of political evolution (or perhaps degeneration), which purports to describe how democracies tend to evolve from oligarchies and to degenerate into tyrannies. This process of alleged decay is described in books 8 & 9 of the work. While Plato’s model is not widely accepted today, it still manages to find its way into contemporary debates, and even “go viral,” as happened thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s 2016 article: America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.

1. The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides (c. 420–400 BC) 

The father of historical realism, Thucydides was perhaps the first historian to articulate a belief in the unchanging laws of history. He famously claimed that “given human nature, what was done in the past will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so.” (1.22) It is fitting to end our list with this work, since it is also famous for its description of the great plague of Athens. While sitting at home in quarantine, you can at least be thankful that the current epidemic is nothing like the horror that visited the Athenians between 430–426 BC. For an introduction to Thucydides’ work in podcast form, check out this discussion with Thucydidean scholar Emily Greenwood of Yale University.

One Comment

Wolfgang Theil
April 1, 2020 5:16 pm

Excellent List. I’d like to add a (maybe surprising) suggestion, covering origins and decay of states in global comparative fashion: Francis Fukuyama’s 2 vol comparative history of states. Vol. 1: “Origins of Political Order”, 2011; Vol. 2: “Political Order and Political Decay”, 2014.

For those who associate Fukyama only with his 1990s hegelian “End of History” thesis, let me say that with this work, he has made a lot of headway and covered a lot of new ground.

One of the things I find enlightening about this work is that much like Scheidel, Fukuyama starts out with our animal ancestors, moving on to anthropological studies of stateless hunter-gatherer and segmentary communities, the covering the origins of states, beginning with CHINESE history. With this, he deliberately overcomes the usual eurocentric perspective. He then works right up to the present in global, comparative historical fashion.

One of the most important result of Fukuyama’s work, much in line with the anacyclosis model, is that there is a permanent tension between family and friendship ties and abstract, state-mediated, merit-based legal-bureaucratic relationships, a field of tension in which “corruption” happens to various degrees. State building – working against family ties – is therefore in constant tension with state decay by way of “re-patrimonialization”.

If there is one disturbing omission in this work, it’s Fukuyama’s choice to leave out greco-roman antiquity. This was pointed out to him by many, and he regrets this gap, promising to fill it (let’s see when he will actually do that).

A very enlightening read, highly recommended.

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