Our Better Angels?


A few weeks ago I blogged about Steven Pinker’s magnificent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

In his summary, Pinker observes five forces that appear to lead societies toward broad reductions in violent behavior: law-bound states, commerce, feminization, the broadening of moral sympathy (expressed in cascading “rights revolutions”), and the entrenchent of reason in moral calculations.

No society is ideal, of course. For any one you might hold up for admiration, you’ll find a hundred ways it has retreated in shame from enlightenment and humaneness. Our country’ basis in the rule of law, for example, did little to protect Native Americans from conquest or African slaves from rapaciousness.

Demonstrators protest the Muslim ban at the Philadelphia Airport

Still, for all our flaws, America has done well by enlightenment, and we have been one of its greatest proponents. We have, in many respects, led the way out of the most destructive forms of violence that used to be hideously common among humankind–slavery, colonial wars, religious torture, and rampant child abuse, to name just a few.

The Trump administration has already mounted open attacks on three of Pinker’s pacifying forces and stealthy attacks on the other two.

The pullout from TTP, the first volley in a trade war with Mexico, and the promise to use protectionism to create jobs are an open attack on free trade. Trade, Pinker notes, has an almost miraculous ablity to reduce violence. Trading partners, whether they are fond of one another or not, have an overriding interest in seeking each other’s well-being. Often, in the escalation of an international conflict toward war, trade sanctions are made to pressure one’s adversary to negotiate. In other words, free trade is a tool for avoiding war. We now propose to throw it away.

The inauguration of Trump as sexual predator-in-chief, his desire to re-assert old men’s control of women’s health decisions, and his failure to include a single progressive female voice in his cabinet or staff are an open repudiation of the feminist cause. The “great” America he wishes to return to is one made placid, pretty and domesticated by the silencing of women’s voices and the exclusion of their minds from positions of power.

The “Muslim ban,” which we just witness chaotically taking action, as hundreds of airline passengers (and a few pilots) found themselves last weekend unable to travel to America, or stay once they’d touched down. The ban is a direct assault on the idea that we ought to recognize other individuals’ basic rights as similar to our own. The “America first” imperative takes a large, deliberate step back from the enlightened humanitarian principles that made us a nation of immigrants. If we follow the path of Trump’s jingoism, we turn away from the historical arc Martin Luther King Jr. called us to, the one that bends toward justice.

Aside from these direct attacks, Trump is also waging a lower-intensity war on the other two pacifying forces–the rule-of-law state and the entrenchment of reason in our moral life. Trump’s nepotism and blithe diregard for presidential ethics suggests he scorns the rule of law. With any luck, the courts will soon hear particular cases. His Muslim ban appears to be illegal in some respects as well.

Trump’s shakeup of the National Security Council over the weekend denuded it (at least in its usual format) of the rational voices we expect to pronounce dispassionately on the greatest threats to our security. Now instead of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff we have Steve Bannon, a demented reactionary ideologue who seems genuinely to want a race war. Although it sounds odd to say the NSC’s terrain includes “morality,” its members actually makes decisions about actions that have immense moral consequences, primarily decisions about whether to go to war.

Pinker would be the first to say my reactions are a sort of coffee table discussion, not a deep consideration of his ideas. The pacifying forces he identifies are long-term; they have evolved over the course of millennia, and they cannot easily be set back by one actor in a few short years. I accept that. The alarm bells I’m ringing may prove to be premature. But they still ring true. If we are to affirm our better angels, it will not be by sitting back and hoping to be more virtuous. It will be by changing course.






James Baldwin and the Problem of Grace


James Baldwin is an American Dostoevsky. Practically everything he wrote touches on the undying quarrel between faith and reason. For Baldwin, as for Dostoevsky, the essential question was, does religion try to tell literal truths that guide the individual soul to salvation, or does it merely create values, rituals and myths that enhance group identity and strengthen feelings of community? In other words, is religion an instance of metaphysics or culture?

One can, of course, have it both ways. There is nothing that says religion abandons its metaphysical claims (e.g. God exists) just because it also creates cultural artifacts. But in both Baldwin and Dostoevsky we see the persistent theme that people can believe quite strongly in religion’s cultural manifestations while harboring deep, even lifelong, doubts about its metaphysical claims.

go-tell-itThis tension is the main theme of Baldwin’s partially autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. The protagonist, John, is a 14-year-old boy growing up in a Pentacostal family in 1930s Harlem. He is destined to become a preacher, his parents say. The story comes to a climax as John undergoes a transformative religious experience, rolling in a feverish trance on the floor of his father’s church, being prayed and sung over by the “saints” of the congregation for several hours. It seems, in the novel’s final pages, that John will live up to his Biblical name and become a preacher of the Gospel.

Or will he? Leading up to the climax, Baldwin’s novel probes the back stories of all John’s family members, and it echoes with a deep ambiguity about the questionable power of religious transformation in their lives. Are people actually and truly born again, or do they merely experience the subjective, hopeful flush of the promise of a new life before drifting back to the status quo ante?

All John’s relatives are in some way morally compromised; they are constantly fending off doubts about the efficacy of their salvation and the hypocrisy of the “anointed.” An aunt recalls how Pentecostal preachers where she grew up in the deep South routinely kept concubines. The preachers found a way “to do their dirt,” as she put it, while calling their flocks to the purity of Jesus and the abstemiousness of Paul. If God’s ordained messengers hadn’t truly been transformed by grace, and indeed led secret lives of constant sinfulness, what hope was there for the mere flocks? John and other characters in Go Tell It have their doubts.

John’s world, though, is one he experiences overwhelmingly in Biblical terms. The Gospel can’t be hollow, we gather, when we witness the pervasiveness of its message in everyday life and the strength of the fellowship bonds it builds among the people around John. For all of them, hope, joy, longing, forbearance—in fact, all the moral emotions—are sanctified by the promise of Christianity’s summum bonum, eternal life in heaven. It is this endpoint that keeps John’s friends and family oriented to the cardinal Christian virtues.

Baldwin’s writing about the social function of Christianity is very much akin to Dostoevsky’s. For Dostoevsky, one of Christianity’s greatest glories was its power to sustain Russian peasants through the crushing hardships of feudal life on the Steppe. Russia’s peasants were utterly uneducated, nightmarishly poor, and, most importantly, politically weak—completely deprived of the power to act on or even assert their grievances. They were slaves. But the promise and solace of Christianity got them through. In The Bothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky famously asserts: how does one know Christianity is true? Because when the priest proclaims, “Christ is risen,” the peasant masses clamor back in unison, “Truly He is risen.”

And so it is for Baldwin’s characters, more or less. Religion is a promise of justice in the form of a better life to come. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, all the adult characters grew up in the Reconstruction South, menaced and terrorized by Jim Crow violence. They moved northward to big cities that promised a better life. But the North prommised that life “with one hand while taking it away with the other.” Still, John’s extended family kept their hope and dignity, because they believed, as steadfastly as Dostoevsky’s peasants, that truly Christ was risen.

Dostoevsky has been accused of giving the devil all the best parts in his novels despite maintaining his belief in the Gospel. Baldwin comes off as doing just the opposite. He is secular but gives all the best parts to the faithful. When his devout characters pray, suffer and commune with one another in Christian love, they do so with a beautiful lyricism and without a touch of irony. Their faith sustains them, and that seems to be enough.

But the novel’s terrain is the human situation, and any novel worth its name is as ambiguous as life itself. Baldwin’s Christians shine a beautiful light, but there is a hidden darkness behind them. What Baldwin cannot square, and what remains in the shadows for him, is the Christian doctrine of grace. When a sin is committed, it deforms the sinner’s character and traduces a law of God, but these two harms are not the end of the story, are they? In almost every case of sin, it harms a third party as well. How does grace take account of third parties? Or does it?

Here is the conundrum in simplest terms. I as a victim could forgive someone for harming me—that is clearly within the scope of my moral authority—but by what expansion of moral authority could I forgive someone for harming someone else? Wouldn’t that someone else have a say in whether forgiveness ought to happen? In fact, doesn’t the harmed party have the only say worth voicing? A god who could, for example, forgive a child abuser even as the abused child walks the earth in shame and misery is a god who is effectively telling the child her misery does not matter. Grace has reconciled all harm done: she should be at peace.

John’s stepfather, Gabriel, is a preacher, stern in manner, demanding of others’ piety and deference. He beats John. He controls his subservient wife; he expects to be called reverend even by his family members. What has produced such arrogance? Faith and forgetting, as we find out. Gabriel is so confident the sins of his youth have been washed away, he comports himself as if they had no existence whatsoever, even on the historical record. And why not? Grace tells him this is so. He has been washed white as snow.

But Gabriel has a secret past, and a sister who has discovered it. As a young man in the South, Gabriel was married to a devout but ugly woman he did not love. He had an adulterous affair with a younger, more nubile girl, who became pregnant. Gabriel secretly sent the girl north, where she died alone, birthing his child. The child later died too. They both simply disappeared from Gabriel’s history, from life itself. Grace, through its purifying power, opened up the space for Gabriel to move on, and this moving on became an irrevocable “fact” in his life history. His life went on as if his mistress and son had never suffered from his cruelty, or even existed.

baldwin-and-coffeeOften the most interesting thing about a novel is what it does not say. Not once is the hymn “Go Tell It on the Mountain” sung in Baldwin’s novel of the same name; nor do its words appear in any epigram. Why not? We don’t know until the closing pages. Emerging from the haze of his religious transformation–prayed over and sweated over by the saints–John is born again. Gabriel physically looms above him now, not just as his earthly stepfather, but as his spiritual master, a saint and a prophet in the very church John will serve. It doesn’t seem John’s rebirth in Christ will shield him from the tyranny and brutality of his stepfather.

Then there is a twist. Florence, Gabriel’s sister, threatens to tell secrets that would expose Gabriel’s past and give names and faces to those he wishes to stay forgotten–those unrepresented in the court of Grace. Those whom faith has told him to blot out.

In believing himself expunged of all sin, Gabriel has swept more under the rug than decency permits. The message Florence threatens to ring forth from a mountaintop turns out not to be the Gospel that the novel’s title suggests, but havoc and scandal. She would have Gabriel’s story told, and along with it, the story of those he harmed so callously. In his view of his youth, Gabriel sowed his wild oats, repented, and had his name written in the “Book of Life.” Then he moved on without a look back. That is what his whole facade of piety demands. But others were involved in his past, Florence reminds him, others whose very identities seem to have been obliterated in the act of grace.  Gabriel’s mistress was named Esther:

“You ain’t forgotten her name,” [Florence] said. “You can’t tell me you done forgot her name. Is you going to look on her face, too [in heaven]? Is her name written in the Book of Life? . . . I’m going to find some way—some way, I don’t know how—to rise up and tell it, tell everybody, about the blood the Lord’s anointed is got on his hands.”

So this is the message that threatens to ring forth from the mountain: there are more claimants on Gabriel’s transgressions than himself and his God. Esther has a claim. Their dead son Royal has a claim. Were their interests represented when God washed Gabriel white as snow? When Gabriel pleas for a statue of limitations, protesting that he has long been in a state of grace, Florence fires back that a two-party process of redemption is tragically incomplete:

“If you done caused souls right and left to stumble and fall, and lose their happiness, and lose their souls? What then, prophet? What then, the Lord’s anointed? Ain’t no reckoning going to be called of you?”

At the end of Go Tell It on the Mountain, we don’t know which message will ring forth from the mountaintop—the Gospel, or the secret, scandalous flaw at the heart of grace. John may fulfill his appointed mission to go forth and baptize the fallen, or he may flee the cynical kind of holiness purveyed by his stepfather. But no matter what, for Baldwin, the social power of the Gospel persists. If the flock does not trouble itself with whys and wherefores; if it keeps today as the horizon of its moral calculations, it can carry on. It still makes a certain kind of sense for the masses to ring out that “Truly Christ is risen.” But look too closely, and grace disintegrates as a worthy moral imperative.

As Crazy as French Intellectuals


One of my favorite lines from Walker Percy is when one of his protagonists says a rival has “gone as crazy as a French intellectual.” From Lyotard to Deleuze, French intellectuals tend to say loftily inscrutable things about non-problems, a very un-American way to carry on. I fumed for days, for example, when I read Jean Baudrillard’s execrable The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. One sighs and tries to understand what other people think.

Still, even French intellectuls have their moments. In 2009, as Alain Badiou was doing one day in London what he tends to do anytime he is invited to an international conference–preaching that we should give communism a good, honest re-try–he proposed a fullblooded resurrection of the communist-revolutionary idea of the cult of personality.

And why not give Stalin’s main contribution to history another go?

Here are Badiou’s reasons, as glossed by Slavoj Zizek: “The real[ity] of a Truth-event is inscribed into the space of symbolic fiction through a proper name of a leader–Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che Guevara. Far from signalling the corruption of a revolutionary process, the celebration of the leader’s name is immanent to that process.”

Two years ago I would have just cocked an eyebrow or chuckled to myself, a standard Anglo-American reaction to this kind of quip.

Then came Trump. His rise has accomplished many phenomenal things, as I think he himself would gladly put it. Among others, it gives one cause to repeat that last sentence from Badiou-Zizek and give it a moment of honest attention:

Far from signalling the corruption of a revolutionary process, the celebration of the leader’s name is immanent to that process.

I don’t want to speak down to anyone following along with me, but when Badiou says “immanent to” he means “part and parcel of.” (It’s a piece of jargon that philosophers following the 19th-century idealist Hegel have adapted from Kant.) Saying Trump’s name to invoke awe, fondness or respect, as he seems very fond of doing, is part and parcel of building his cult of personality.

desolation____by_day_lightWhile this sounds like the kind of French intellectualism Percy dismisses as nonsense, it is actually something Trump and many of his supporters are deeply invested in. Trump’s insistence that “only he” can solve intractable political problems, his invocation of the Trump “enterprise” or “business empire” at every opportunity, his subsitution of a (self-knowing) smirk for an apt phrase, and his increasing references to himself in the third person, all go to build a brand that answers precisely to Badiou’s description of a cult of personality. When you name it, you help make it happen. “Trump” has become, in Badiou’s terms, a “Truth-event.”

So who has gone as crazy as a French intellectual? Not whom you’d expect. It’s not me, a college educated 50-year old bureaucrat who actually reads French philosophy because I think it is part of a literary project–including novels, science and history–that helps us understand who we are. It’s the so-called outraged white poor; they’re the ones willing to roll the dice on Trump’s tawdry revival of authoritarianism. In a crazy turn of events, they’re with Badiou.

Badiou, although deluded, has given us this gift: he has diagnosed why the very word “Trump” has become toxic, a vector of disease, why it has become objectionable in certain camps merely to say it or write it. Saying it is part and parcel of Trump’s cult of personality. The joke was funny when it was played in its natural environment of reality TV. But it is far from funny today. Wether we choose to be or not, we all as crazy as French intellectuals now.

You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better


In his latest novel, Nutshell, Ian McEwan has his main character make the following challenge to the pessimist: Why do we consider ourselves worldly when we say things are worse than they’ve ever been? Why is this the “knowing” attitude? The world tells a different, more hopeful story.

Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before—and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies—for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners—swell daily? When hundreds of millions have been raised from wretched subsistence? When, in the West, even the middling poor recline in armchairs, charmed by music as they steer themselves down smooth highways at four times the speed of a galloping horse? When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries? Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere.

Half the advances McEwan extols here can be chalked up to technological progress. Smooth roads, for example, are nice things, but they are just an end result of our species’ drive for ever-better toolmaking. They are, so to speak, morally neutral accomplishments. The truly miraculous achievements on McEwan’s list are the ones indicating humans are actually becoming more humane.

It is not only novelists who notice curious facts about the human animal; scientists make their observations as well. The psychologist Steven Pinker, for one, also believes we are becoming more humane. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker argues that, despite common impressions, the data of history and the laboratory results of psychology indicate strongly that we have become measurably less violent over the centuries. There are simply too many violent practices we have recently left behind for the decrease to be coincidental. Better Angels gives Pinker’s best explanation of this striking trend.

Steven Pinker

For all its heft—700 pages of text, 300 pages of notes—Better Angels has a structural tautness and appealing style that make it highly readable. In six “historical” chapters, Pinker analyses the data of humanity’s main, enduring violent enterprises and shows convincingly that in most societies humans are becoming less willing to harm one another. In two “psychological” chapters he delves into the science behind the claim that our better motives can get the upper hand against our baser ones.

Chapter one sets out the adaptive logic of violence, based on the question, “Why should organisms evolve to seek to harm other organisms?” It’s a striking question, not least because it deflates the moral emotivism from our usual stance toward human violence. If we do something as socially perverse as harming one another, Pinker hypothesizes, there must be a strong biological impulse behind our acts. And indeed there is: survival competition. We seek to overpower our competitors for resources. But that’s not the end of the adaptive logic story; we also limit violence if we can see our way clear to cooperation in pursuit of resources. We need, or at least do better with, confederates. “When a tendency toward violence evolves,” Pinker writes, “It is always strategic. Organisms are selected to deploy violence only in circumstances where the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs.”

The strong Hobbsian state, or Leviathan, evolved as the structure that would help humans keep violence in a manageable equilibrium and optimize chances for cooperation. Early social humans may have continued to suspect one another as rivals, but when they created the state, with its defining monopoly on the use of violence, they instituted a functional guarantee that individuals need not constantly fear one another. The police could be counted on to step in and discipline abusers of the system. The creation of the state was, in Pinker’s estimation, the crucial first step in mankind’s self-pacification.


Chapter two charts the astonishing decline of homicide in Europe from the Middle Ages (roughly the time Europeans evolved the various apparatus of state) to the present. The chapter’s centerpiece is its discussion of a methodological tool that is a fascinating revelation in itself—the centrality of homicide for the study of violence in general.

Homicides, Pinker writes, have been one of the better documented facts in European history, at least since Medieval times, when births and deaths correlated with the highly salient institution of property inheritance. And the relatively data-rich record of homicide provides scientists with the gold standard for measuring human violence. Pinker explains:

Homicide is the crime of choice for measurers of violence because regardless of how the people of a distant culture conceptualize crime, a dead body is hard to define away, and it always arouses curiosity about who or what produced it. Records of homicide are therefore a more reliable index f violence than records of robbery, rape, or assault, and they usually (though not always) correlate with them.

So, although Better Angels addresses a broad spectrum of violent practices, from child abuse to spousal rape to religious sacrifice, the book is at bedrock about humans killing each other and how this trend has dropped like a rock in recent centuries (yes, even with the 20th century’s two cataclysmic world wars: more later). According to rates in five European countries, homicides fell from approximately 75 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to one per 100,000 in the 20th century.

Today this figure (1:100,000) is considered the standard homicide rate of a peaceful society. It not only tells us how gentle we have become (in general), but also serves as a highly useful diagnostic tool for illustrating exceptions to the trend. If you live in Switzerland, for example, you are a lucky, cossetted citizen of the 21st century, facing only a .5 chance in 100,000 of being killed by your fellow man. In Papua New Guinea, though, your chances go up to 10 in 100,000, somewhere around Europe’s rate during its late modern period. If you live in Chicago or New Orleans, you face homicide rates so steep Europe hasn’t seen them since almost Medieval times, when knights killed each other for fun and the Church executed citizens freely with the full force of law (and Monty Python-esque logic).

Pinker also has very good things to say about commerce in chapter two. As peasants developed the means to specialize in the production of various commodities, trade increased significantly. Ho hum, right? Far from it. With Europe’s massive scaling up of trade, individuals who formerly based their lives on hoarding and thus had reason to fear everyone else as a potential raider presently had an interest in the well-being of other people as viable commodity-producers and trading partners. Again, humanity was climbing Hobbes’s ladder out of the ruthless state of nature: specialized economic development, what Hobbes called a more “commodious life,” created huge incentives to treat others well.

For me the most absorbing chapter of Better Angels is the third one, in which Pinker describes how Europe triumphed over the institutionalized sadism of religious violence that held sway from early Medieval times until late modernity. I risk going on too long if I note all this chapter’s graces, so I will limit myself to two.

First, Pinker notes the key role played by mass literacy in liberating the laity from priestly torture. As long as the Church leaders controlled the texts that gave the masses meaning in life, they protected not only a monopoly on the use of violence, but even the means of controlling public opinion about what constituted a good life and a proper fate—including highly consequential judgments about who deserved to be put on the rack for the good of their soul. After Gutenberg, though, books became available to the masses, who suddenly improved their ability to imagine other people’s perspectives, including the experience of pain, death and humiliation.

The literacy revolution contributed directly to a civilizational attitude shift that changed European culture forever (well, at least so far). Gradually, as the Church lost its authoritarian grip on the minds of the masses, the people came to replace the Church’s doctrine of the sacredness of the soul with a doctrine of the integrity of the body. Let the soul take care of itself in the private realm of religion, the people said, but we will not tolerate the killing and torturing of physical bodies for a “righteous” cause anymore. Although it took Europe’s religious elite a good (?) 400 years to abandon practices of sacred harming altogether, when the pivot away from holy torture happened, the masses never looked back. Today, religiously-inspired acts of harm have disappeared altogether from European and North American culture.

Chapter five offers an insightful, statistically informed analysis showing that wars between states have become less and less lethal. This chapter requires patience, as one must suspend one’s intuitions about the unique disastrousness of the 20th century’s three major blood-lettings—World War One, World War Two, and Mao’s mass killing of his own citizens in China. Despite the sheer size of these “hemoclysms,” they must be measured in terms of homicide rates if they are to be validly compared to other phases of history.

And the story is indeed a surprising one. When rates of killing are adjusted for world population size, the religious wars of early modern Europe (of which the famed Thirty Years War was just one) achieved homicide rates that easily outdo World War One and nearly keep pace with World War Two, sometimes described by historians as the greatest disaster in human history. The downward trend of lethality in war is a sawtooth graph with two spike toward the low end of the present day. But it still goes down.

In chapter six Pinker emphasizes the oft-neglected fact that the 20th century had two halves, and the second half, which he terms the “long peace,” has been the most peaceful period in history, by far. Not only have whole categories of violence disappeared, such as colonial war and open slave trade, but most of the categories of violence still in existence have seen large drops.

There is a clear bias at work in our tendency to see the present as very bad despite all the good news. Hume chalked it up to a petulant part of human nature. For Pinker, it is primarily a failure to appreciate simple math and statistics. We are simply being innumerate when we bemoan the near-past as a repeat of the “same damned” evils that plagued the more-distant past:

This [attitude] assumes that 5,000 Americans dying is the same damned thing as 58,000 Americans dying [in Viet Nam], and that a hundred thousand Iraqis being killed is the same damned thing as several million Vietnamese being killed. If we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programming policy “If it bleeds it leads” will feed the cognitive shortcut “The more memorable the more frequent,” and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.

Another reason violence has plummeted since the Enlightenment, according to Pinker in chapter six, is that we have criminalized or at least “stigmatized” temptations to violence through “a cascade of campaigns for ‘rights’—civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights.” The advancement of rights for one category of sentient being after another indicates we are converging on Jeremy Bentham’s ultimate criterion for membership in the moral community. We qualify for moral regard, Bentham wrote, not by virtue of what Aristotle would have called our “accidental” properties, such as height, skin color, gender, or even ability to reason. What sets us apart is our sentience, our capacity to suffer. Increasingly, Pinker argues, we are building our entire ethical system on the principle that we ought to avoid, prevent and sanction suffering; and, we are reinforcing this principle with the status of law.

The historical narrative of Better Angels soars so high, it can be a letdown, and hard work, to attend to the gritty laboratory results of psychology that support Pinker’s hypothesis. But without the lab work, all Pinker has is an appealing psycho-history of Western civilization. In chapter eight he lays out an extensive (and in places depressing case) that we are all “wired for violence” even if we steadfastly refrain from acting violently. We have five “inner demons,” psychological systems which make the potential for violence part of our ordinary life: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. Yes, even sadism. that unimaginably bad thing, plays an adaptive role in our psychological makeup; it expresses a drive to probe our own vulnerabilities. Very luckily for the human race, it rarely goes haywire in the form of psychopathic violent crimes.

Chapter nine tells a much more optimistic story, that we are not just raging predators only kept in check by the state’s police power, but that we may achieve genuine changes in mindset (I am inclined to call them advances), which have real correlates in our individual psychologies. After reviewing a broad swathe of primary literature Pinker concludes that we have ingrained too many attitudes that preclude the kinds of cruelty we once callously tolerated—or even delighted in—to attribute our whole change of heart to external factors like more jails and better policing. The evidence shows we have actually increased and reinforced our violence-reducing faculties, such as “prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.”

What is driving our development of such faculties and our overall turn from violence? Although Pinker says there is no grand unifying theory, there are five forces that appear repeatedly in the processes describing our pacifying trend.

  1. The creation of the state. “A state that uses its monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence reducer that we have encountered in this book,” Pinker writes. We all deplore politics, at least occasionally, but our lives without politics and government truly would be nasty, brutish and short.
  2. The rise of commerce. Building, crafting or growing things then exchanging them as benefits turns life from a zero-sum competition for resources into a positive sum pursuit of profit. You may not like the guy you do business with, but you have a rational motive to wish him well and do well by him.
  3. Feminization. For most of our species’ history it has been customary for males to control women and exclude them from public life. This is too bad. “From the time they are boys,” Pinker writes, “males play more violently than females, fantasize more about violence, consume more violent entertainment, commit the lion’s share of violent crimes, take more foolish risks in aggressive attacks, take more delight in punishment and revenge, vote for more warlike policies and leaders, and plan and carry out almost all the wars and genocides.” Only in the last minutes of human existence have women entered public life and begun to infuse it with their gender values, evolved over millennia of nurturing. The early results of this revolution are promising: “Societies in which women get a better deal, . . . tend to be societies that have less organized violence,” Pinker concludes.
  4. The expansion of the circle of sympathy. The Hobbsian individual, in the state of nature, is unable to see his fellow man as anything other than a potential adversary. At a basic level we are wired to fear and suspect others. Once we form groups capable of collective action, we are wired to fear and despise other groups, which also have collective goals, potentially clashing with ours. What a long way we have come. From the rise of novels in early modern Europe to the most recent developments in LGBTQ activism, people are getting ever better at imagining and re-prioritizing other people’s perspectives and interests. Put very simply, we have evolved a unique ability to feel solidarity with others who are not like us but with whom we have a shared interest in keeping the social peace.
  5. The escalator of reason. Our ability to take on other’s perspectives is a two-part act. It involves the pre-rational, affective achievement of suspending one’s all-or-nothing group loyalty and then, in a rational act, extending to others a claim equal to our own on basic rights and freedoms (beginning with the right not to be harmed). In much of the developed world, Pinker argues, we have taken the elevator of reason out of the jungle of Hobbes’ state of nature, enabling a universalist system of ethics.

Science is expected to predict the future. Do Pinker’s findings indicate we are on a path toward Kant’s dream of perpetual peace? Pinker is cagey, as I think he ought to be. The social sciences can barely predict the present, as he points out in several places; they should be very chaste about trying to predict the future. It would be “arrogant” Pinker offers in conclusion, to think his case indicates a force or direction in human history. Our better angels must always be guarded and cared for.

The recent rise of right-wing populism in Europe and America suggest there is nothing permanent about enlightenment; we always retain a violent instinct that can be deployed in the service of in-group loyalty. Or as Slavoj Žižek put it (admittedly, somewhat drastically): “What if culture is itself nothing but a halt, a break, a respite, in the pursuit of barbarity?” Then Better Angels is a sort of prayer of thanks for what we have.




Two Cheers for Mortality


The thing about Orwell’s essays is you never know what you’re going to get. The title doesn’t always tell you.

Orwell’s most beautiful, possibly most moving passage, about the meaning of life, is tucked away in his essay “Reflections on Gandhi.” It is to my mind the best thing he ever wrote, but you won’t get to it if you say to yourself, as I did for years, Hmm, I’m pretty familiar with Gandhi; this can wait.

But here is what you would miss. Orwell is taking up the theme of ascetisism, the idea that we improve ourselve by mortifying our appetites and walling ourselves off from “worldly” attachments:

This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.

I feel about this passage as Orwell’s admirers often feel, that he is speaking directly for me. My own life took a powerful turn for the happier when I dropped the adolescent pursuit of perfection (at which I was doing poorly anyway).


But back to Orwell’s titles, I still hadn’t learned my lesson, even after “Reflections on Gandhi.” Going by titles alone, it took me another long period to get to “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool.” In it, Orwell critiques an obscure pamphlet by Tolstoy in which the old master disparages Shakespeare as a fraud. That’s right, a fraud. Tosltoy thinks Shakespeare’s greatness is a cult kept up by an elite conspiracy.

Well, Orwell is nothing if not fairminded. While he believes any right-thinking English ciritic must come to the defense of Shakespeare’s (true) greatness, Orwell homes in on the curious hypothesis that there must be something of deep interest at work in Tolstoy’s mind to set him against the most celebrated English author of all time.

The hunt takes some twists and turns, but at last it finds gold. The reason Tolstoy—who had a thing for ascetisim throughout his life and more or less went over the edge for it at the end—cannot stomach Shakespeare is because of Shakespere’s unremitting worldliness. The man refuses all temptations of the transcendental, although some critics occasionally impute spiritual themes to him. Shakespere’s all-consuming joy consists in making up phrases about things happening “on the surface of the earth,” as Orwell puts it. Shakespeare simply won’t be drawn into a serious religious discussion, and Tolstoy cannot forgive him for this. Here’s the basic tension between Tolstoy’s mindset and Shakespeare’s art, according to Orwell.

It is the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life. Here one comes back to the central theme of King Lear, which Tolstoy does not mention, although he sets forth the plot in some detail.

Lear is one of the minority of Shakespeare’s plays that are unmistakably about something. As Tolstoy justly complains, much rubbish has been written about Shakespeare as a philosopher, as a psychologist, as a ‘great moral teacher’, amd what-not. Shakespeare was not a systematic thinker, his most serious thoughts are uttered irrelevantly or indirectly, and we do not know to what extent he wrote with a ‘purpose’or even how much of the work attributed to him was actually written by him. In the sonnets he never even refers to the plays as part of his achievement, though he does make what seems to be a half-ashamed allusion to his career as an actor. It is perfectly possible that he looked on at least half of his plays as mere pot-boilers and hardly bothered about purpose or probability so long as he could patch up something, usually from stolen material, which would more or less hang together on the stage.


You might get the impression from this passage that Orwell doesn’t care much for Shakespeare either, but he does. Not only does Orwell think Shakespeare is a supreme master craftsman, but he also believes the Bard comes down on the right side of a hugely significant moral argument, the one he noted above between religion and secularism. Here Orwell pounds the hammer of judgment in that dispute:

Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for. According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human being is happiness, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures and ambitions, and living only for others. Ultimately, therefore, Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was not happy. On the contrary he was driven almost to the edge of madness by the behaviour of the people about him, who persecuted him precisely because of his renunciation. Like Lear, Tolstoy was not humble and not a good judge of character. He was inclined at moments to revert to the attitudes of an aristocrat, in spite of his peasant’s blouse, and he even had two children whom he had believed in and who ultimately turned against him — though, of course, in a less sensational manner than Regan and Goneril. His exaggerated revulsion from sexuality was also distinctly similar to Lear’s.


Why, particularly, was Tolstoy so miserable? What had deluded him so?

Tolstoy was not a saint, but he tried very hard to make himself into a saint, and the standards he applied to literature were other-worldly ones. It is important to realize that the difference between a saint and an ordinary human being is a difference of kind and not of degree. That is, the one is not to be regarded as an imperfect form of the other. The saint, at any rate Tolstoy’s kind of saint, is not trying to work an improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put something different in its place. One obvious expression of this is the claim that celibacy is ‘higher’ than marriage. If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth — including love, then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive.

Must we all be Tolstoys, then? Or perhaps Gandhis? Not if we want happiness in its only available form, says Orwell:

But a normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is ‘weak’, ‘sinful’ and anxious for a ‘good time’. Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana.

Orwell’s essays, so often political, are, for me, deeply personal. When I read them I am keenly reminded of the bleakness of the mindset I left behind in my 30s and the solidity my life has staken on since then. My liberating discovery was that my idea of moral seriousness aligned precisely with Orwell’s. It cannot be put any clearer than Orwell puts it above: the solipsistic idea of a place reserved in Heaven utterly deflates life of moral seriousness.

One of the great joys of litereature is the serendipity of reading. You come upon something a new author offers you, and you notice a striking relationship with something else from literature you hold dear. I think the preciousness of these discoveries unfolds from the idea that writers explore the world in perfect freedom, and when they make similar discoveries they shine out with light that is more than doubly intensified. What are the odds?, you ask yourself.

It was precisely with that feeling that I read this arresting passage from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time recently:

It seems to me that on ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

This appreciation of life for its fleetingness mirrors Orwell’s attitude almost precisely. (It’s not clear that Orwell found the prospect of permanent unconsciousness terrfying.)

James Baldwin

Existentialists often get a bad press for focusing on death. Why be so morbid? But it is not morbid at all. Notice Baldwin’s emphasis on the fact of death. This choice of terms is an important one; it distinguishes the inevitability of death from from the experience of dying, which, of course, no right-thinking person could relish.

The fact of mortality, that ever-looming background knowledge, is precisely what Tolstoy tries to sweep away from the human experience. This sweeping away, though, is what denudes life of moral seriousness. It sets us blithely on a course to ignore this vale of tears and invest our few earthly years—our first century, as Jorge Luis Borges puts it—in the unending experience of Heaven. Twain, by the way, was right to dsiparage this prospect as a particularly offensive kind of lunacy–an amped-up dictator worship that lasts forever.

Orwell’s words once helped relieve me of this untenable and unattractive idea. The serendipity of finding the same attitude in Baldwin, a great liberation writer, was a deep pleasure. Great litereature weaves long tapestries that can, if you follow them, point out general directions in life. But they can also present captivating little details—sayings, mottoes that fall naturally from the lips. Today, such a small, absorbing detail is from Baldwin: one is responsible to life.