After reading Ian Drake’s review over at the Anamnesis Journal, I’ve been busy with Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’s the sort of book that I reflexively smirk at, and sometimes it’s good to take a walk on the wild side and read a contrary opinion. For me that was certainly true of Pinker’s book. It falls into the general category of a Whig History. Pinker is making the case that since the rise of Liberal Democracies (a process that began 400 to 500 years ago) violence due to war, terrorism, slavery, etc. has been decreasing. He argues that we are living in what might be called a “Liberal Peace” (a term harkening back to the Roman Peace or Pax Romana) that is a result of the rise of Liberal Democracies, international trade that has brought the whole word together into an integrated economic whole, and sensibilities opposed to violence growing out the Enlightenment.
I am shocked that I am largely convinced by his arguments. Any casual reader of my blog over these many years knows that I am (and continue to be) a harsh critic of the Enlightenment. After reading at Pinker’s book I believe I have to modify that position a bit. Church historians make the claim that the single most important external factor allowing for the amazing growth of the early church was the Pax Romana which allowed freedom of movement and relative safety for the infant church. This does not change the fact that the Roman Empire was a brutal, pagan regime that offered little good, other than relative peace and safety. Similarly what Pinker calls the “Liberal Peace” has offered the church unprecedented freedom and safety (with notable exceptions) for a very long period of time that has allowed it flourish in every corner of the world.
That being said, Pinker is crippled by the very Whig Liberalism that he champions in this book. He tends to equate order with the good society. While society has certainly grown more orderly, more polite, and is now more horrified by violence and blood, that is not the same thing as saying we have become better. The gains growing out of the Enlightenment (and there are many) have come with certain losses as well. We have lost much of sense of any external order (divine order) that defines goodness and rightness. We have become much softer. (His story about the modern German army is very telling.) Becoming genuinely better human beings is extremely hard work, whether one is talking about Christian discipleship or something more akin to Stoic self-betterment. I suspect both are increasingly falling out of reach as we eschew any sort of violence that might toughen us up.
I can’t recommend the book without certain caveats. He dwells on the details of violence in a manner that I find creepy. I’m sure he would say that it is necessary to make his point. It is certainly not a book that will uplift you in any manner, other than possibly give you a different perspective on the world we live in now.
He also has a deep antipathy toward Christianity. The version he rails against is a certain variety of medieval literalism that is largely non-existent now. His inability to grasp even the most basic nuances of religion in general and Christianity in particular made me think I was reading some flame war on the internet rather than a book that was actually trying to be academic. It is too bad, for in many ways it ruins the book for consideration as a serious academic resource. The shame is once he gets the bile of his own bigotry out of his system, he actually has something worth listening to.
But one should not be surprised by such a thing flowing out of the academy. For those ready to overlook Pinker’s misrepresentation of Christianity, I recommend it as a helpful resource.