As Steven Pinker observes, we recall the twentieth century as an age of unparalleled violence, and we characterize our own epoch as one of terror. But what if our historical moment is in fact defined not by mass killing but by the greatest levels of peace and safety ever attained by humankind? By way of this provocative hypothesis, the acclaimed psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist aims to liberate us from the overblown victimhood-by-contiguity of the present moment, maintaining quite credibly that we ought to be grateful for living when we do.
In his vivid descriptions of the distant and recent past, Pinker draws from a wide range of fields beyond his own to chart the decline of violence, which he says "may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history." He argues that prehistory was much more violent than early civilization and that the past few decades have been much less violent than the first half of the twentieth century. He is opposing two common and related presumptions: that the time before civilization was a golden age and that the present moment is one of unique danger. Pinker rejects the idea that violence is "hydraulic," a pressure within individuals and societies that at some point must burst through. He prefers to see violence as "strategic," a choice that makes sense within certain historical circumstances. Thus, he describes two fundamental transitions: from the anarchy of hunting and gathering societies to the controlled violence of early states and then from a "culture of honor" associated with these states to a "culture of dignity" characteristic of the better moments of modernity. In Pinker's view, the state monopolizes violence and creates the possibility of fruitful trade and intellectual exchange, which in turn permit the development of a new, irenic individuality.
Pinker's first target is the tendency to romanticize the distant past. Since he believes that people fantasize about a peaceful prehistory, he deliberately overemphasizes its violence, dwelling at length on
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.
Browse Related Articles on