This was originally going to be a book review of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. However, at 800 pages, it’s a serious commitment, and I only made it partway through. Still, he had me convinced, and I wanted to share my thoughts on what I did get through.
In the book, Pinker attempts to convince readers that violence actually has declined over time, as counterintuitive as that may seen. Part of why the book is so long is that Pinker provides a ton of statistics and graphs to prove his point. I truly have no idea how he managed to write this book in anything less than 20 years; the amount of information crammed into it is just incredible.
Violence, religion, and the Old Testament
Pinker points to the Old Testament as an example of significant violence being par for the course back in the day. “Like Jesus, the early Christian saints found a place next to God by being tortured to death in ingenious ways. For more than a millennium, Christian martyrologies described these torments with pornographic relish.” He adds, “The voyeurism in the martyrologies was employed not to evoke outrage against torture but to inspire reverence for the bravery of the martyrs.”
Regarding religious violence, Pinker writes, “Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful. The human toll of the persecution of heretics and nonbelievers in medieval and early modern Christendom beggars the imagination.” Whether or not the explanation is entirely accurate, the end result is the same. Not so very Christian of them…
The civilizing process
While people seem to do a lot of murdering each other now, what we tend to overlook is how much worse things were before. In general, homicide rates are lower when there is effective government compared to nonstate societies, and Pinker describes how the “civilizing process” theory accounts for this. And by the way, fairly useless Western governments in recent years are still in the “effective government” category; a failed state like Yemen or Somalia not so much. The homicide rate in 20th century England was a whopping 95% lower than in 14th century England.
Oh, and the saying to cut off your nose to spite your face? Cutting off people’s noses was an actual spiteful thing people did back in medieval Europe. Im general, the Middle Ages were incredibly violent, and Pinker describes Medieval Christendom as a “culture of cruelty.” Torture was a popular form of entertainment that was “woven into the fabric of public life.”
The book addressed how violence evolved in the United States, including regional differences. “Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In much of American history, legitimate force was also wielded by posses, vigilantes, lynch mobs, company police, detective agencies, and Pinkertons, and even more often kept as a prerogative of the individual.”
Many of us are familiar with the Brothers Grimm fairytales, but no one seems to be particularly concerned with the “murder, infanticide, cannibalism, mutilation, and sexual abuse” that they contain.
While we may think of genocide as being a relatively new thing, wiping out a bunch of civilians is not a new thing. Do you remember learning about sackings and razings in history class, like when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths? Same kind of thing with civilian killing en masse, just with morally more acceptable-sounding names.
What’s different now?
I didn’t make it to the later part of the book where he talked about what’s happening now, but a couple of things come to mind for me. One is that there are a shit ton more people running around now than there were even back when I was a kid.
To pull a random made-up totally unrealistic number out of my ass, let’s say that there was a constant rate of 1 violent death per million people throughout history. In year zero (or more like the dividing line between 1 BCE and 1 CE, I suppose), when the population was 190 million, about 190 people worldwide would have died violent deaths. In 1700, the 600 million worldwide population would have meant 600 violent deaths. In 1800, 990 violent deaths. In 2022, that would be 7900 violent deaths. And sure, these numbers are made up, but the point remains, there would still be increased absolute numbers of violent deaths even if rates of violence were going down.
The other factor is that we live in the information age. We can easily find out what’s happening right now in some of the most remote parts of the world. Before the internet, it was a lot harder to find out what was going on elsewhere. It was even harder before the telephone, and way the hell harder before the telegraph. The minutiae of violence around the world that we’re bombarded with today wasn’t even remotely on anybody’s radar even 30 years ago.
So there you have it, a quick look at some of Steven Pinker’s points in the first half of Better Angels of Our Nature. I was going in prepared to believe it, partly because Steven Pinker is an academic crush of mine and partly because I know the Middle Ages were all kinds of violent, and he pretty quickly had me convinced.
And here’s a picture, which I have to include because his hair is absolutely magnificent.
Now it’s over to you. Are you open to entertaining the idea that rates of violence have decreased over time?
The Better Angels of Our Nature is available on Amazon (affiliate link).