Review of “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker
I started this book 99.5% sure violence had declined over time. I finished it 65% violence had declined over time and 100% sure that Steven Pinker needs a more aggressive editor.
Everyone liked this book, but it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s also really long.
Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines “violence” in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulling. “Violence” to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.
A while back, I linked to a story about a guy in my neighborhood who’s been arrested over 60 times for breaking into cars. A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have been killed for this sort of vandalism after he got caught the first time. Now, we feed him and shelter him for a while and then we let him back out to do this again. Pinker defines the new practice as a decline in violence – we don’t kill the guy anymore! Someone from a couple hundred years ago would be appalled that we let the guy continue destroying other peoples’ property without consequence. In the mind of those long dead, “violence” has in fact increased. Instead of a decline in violence, this practice seems to me like a decline in justice – nothing more or less.
– from this blog post by Foseti
I’m digging your blog lately. In many ways, you are a younger, more successful version of me (based on blog comments I’m pretty sure you and your wife make about three to five times my family income) working at the federal level living in D.C. I even think you have two kids like me, or maybe you are thinking of having a second? Either way, I admire your work and your life a lot. Of course, I wouldn’t trade places as I love Chicago way too much and I love the Lord way too much, so I’m content with what I’ve got.
Speaking of the Lord, I’ve been meaning to write about Pinker as he increasingly annoys me as well. Not surprisingly, I find his atheistic discussion of religion and its influence on violence ignorant and tedious. For a detailed look at just how ignorant and tedious, the place to start is the always sharp and lively prose of David Bentley Hart. Here is just a taste:
He detests religion and thinks of himself as a champion of something he blandly calls “reason” (that is the most enchantingly guileless aspect of his creed). In his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he devotes over seven hundred pages to arguing the case that modernity, contrary to the common impression, has seen a steep decrease in every kind of violence—domestic, political, criminal, and martial—as a result of a variety of causes, but principally because of the triumph of “Enlightenment” ideas. It is a simple narrative, and at many points a painfully simplistic one, but it is clear and bracing and merits sympathetic consideration.
Whether Pinker himself does the tale justice, however, is debatable. He is definitely not an adept historian; his view of the past—particularly of the Middle Ages, which he tends to treat as a single historical, geographical, and cultural moment—is often not merely crude, but almost cartoonish (of course, he is a professed admirer of Norbert Elias). He even adduces two edited images from Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch as illustrations of “the everyday texture of life in medieval Europe,” without noting that they come from a set of astrological allegories about planetary influences, from which he has chosen those for Saturn and Mars rather than, say, Venus and Jupiter. (Think what a collection of Saturnine or Martial pictures he might have gathered from more recent history.)
It is perfectly fair for Pinker to call attention to the many brutal features of much of medieval life, but one would have more confidence in his evenhandedness if he acknowledged at least a few of the moral goods that medieval society achieved despite its material privations. He says nothing of almshouses, free hospitals, municipal physicians, hospices, the decline of chattel slavery, the Pax Dei and Treuga Dei, and so on. Of the more admirable cultural, intellectual, legal, spiritual, scientific, and social movements of the High Middle Ages, he appears to know nothing. And his understanding of early modernity is little better. His vague remarks on the long-misnamed “Wars of Religion” are tantalizing intimations of a fairly large ignorance.
Perhaps such complaints miss the point, though. Pinker’s is a story not of continuous moral evolution, but of an irruptive redemptive event. It would not serve his purpose to admit that, in addition to the gradual development of the material conditions that led to modernity, there might also have been the persistent pressure of moral ideas and values that reached back to antique or medieval sources, or that there might have been occasional institutional adumbrations of modern “progress” in the Middle Ages, albeit in a religious guise.
He certainly would not want to grant that many of his own moral beliefs are inherited contingencies of a long cultural history rather thandiscoveries recently made by the application of disinterested “reason.” For him, modern culture’s moral advances were born from the sudden and fortuitous advent of the “Age of Reason,” which—aided by the printing press—produced a “coherent philosophy” called “Enlightenment humanism,” distilled from the ideas of “Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill.” We know what he means: not the dark side of the “Enlightenment” and the printing press—“scientific racism,” state absolutism, Jacobinism, the rise of murderous ideologies, and so on—but the nice Enlightenment of “perpetual peace,” the “rights of man,” and so on.
First Things, where that essay appeared, also agreed with you in thinking that Timothy Snyder’s review in Foreign Affairs was one of the best out there. But for my money, this detailed series of delightful posts at the wonderful blog known as Quodlibeta takes apart a number of specific Pinker claims with careful precision, detailed marshaling of facts, and simple statistical knowledge (also Steve Sailer pops up in one of the comment threads as does the always amusing polymath Michael Flynn, who I need to blog about some other day).
So I would recommend you check out those posts, including the comments, and you’ll have a better sense of just how sloppy Pinker can be with his data and his basic history. Which doesn’t surprise me because he has an axe to grind with religion so he went looking for facts to back up his conclusions rather than developing a hypothesis out of a careful study of the facts.