Philosophy Weekend: Is The World Becoming Less Violent, or More?

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it’s on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.

How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?

Both books lay out convincing arguments. Pinker’s thick book bulges with statistics and charts that show why an average human being’s likelihood of dying a violent death is smaller today, by orders of magnitude, than it has ever been before. Since his book is brand new, we don’t know yet whether or not other statisticians will emerge to contradict his data. As it stands, Pinker’s argument amounts to an endorsement of the value of sensible government, and will not please any sincere anarchists. Pinker even describes, in a slightly loopy personal interjection, how as a child he bristled at his mother’s instruction that it was impolite to eat with a knife, but came to understand the symbolic importance of table etiquette once he began researching the history of the knife as an instrument of murder.

The book addresses an old argument, an eternal argument — roughly, that between Thomas Hobbes (who advocated strong government) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (who urged a return to the lifestyle of the bon sauvage who has been made evil by the influence of society). Pinker stands with Hobbes and rejects Rousseau: a sober look at history, he says, shows no evidence of a noble savage living in a natural state of peace and grace. Instead, ancient and medieval societies indulged in endless crime, theft, plunder, rape, torture, slavery and unjust punishment.

Yet it’s not Pinker’s message that man is essentially brutal, or that mankind is basically evil. He seems, rather, to see humanity as a work in progress, and his message is that our progress has been positive. A psychological historian, he writes about violence with the patient tone of a therapist or an analyst:

Many people implicitly believe in the Hydraulic Theory of Violence: that humans harbor an inner drive toward aggression (a death instinct or a thirst for blood), which builds up inside us and must periodically be discharged. Nothing could be further from a contemporary scientific understanding of the psychology of violence.

What, then, is making us improve ourselves? The Better Angels of Our Nature answers this methodically, breaking down the individual steps forward that add up to the improvement of modern civilization. He identifies major trends that helped move humanity forward: the civilizing influence of agricultural and urban society, a rising common awareness of each other’s right to happiness, an increasing sensitivity to the rights of minorities or dissidents. A series of lists provides the basic structure for Better Angels, spelling out the “Five Inner Demons” that often cause us to act in evil ways towards each other:

  • Predatory or Instrumental Violence
  • Dominance
  • Revenge
  • Sadism
  • Ideology

These are countered by the “Four Better Angels”of human nature:

  • Empathy
  • Self-Control
  • Moral Sense
  • Reason

Pinker’s book is sometimes a plodding read, and at times his perky optimism or awkward attempts at humor become irritating. But Better Angels is undeniably a useful book, because it moves an important argument forward, allowing us to take sides clearly for or against his position. If we are serious about improving our lives through ethical philosophy, we should welcome any book that lays out any definite position with strong supporting evidence. If we agree, then the book supports our beliefs. If we disagree, the book gives us a target to aim at.

So what about David A. Bell’s The First Total War? According to this fascinating book, published in 2006, war in Europe was a far more limited, contained affair before the French Revolution in 1789 than it has become since. Warfare was then bound to an aristocratic tradition, and as such it tended to simply leave the populous masses alone and untouched, unless they had the bad luck to live in the vicinity of a battlefield, a march or a military occupation.

Tellingly, according to The First Total War, the very idea of a military coup d’etat would have made no sense in Europe before the French Revolution, because the aristocratic code of war was completely grounded in the idea of service to royalty. Knights and officers might prefer one royal candidate over another, but they could never conceive of a military leader becoming the leader of a nation.

This changed quickly in the era of liberty and equality. The newborn United States, suddenly without a king, could find no better choice than its victorious general George Washington to become its leader. We don’t realize today how unusual this choice was, but a major military leader had not risen from the middle classes to the ranks of national leadership since Julius Caesar (who was promptly killed by his own Senate for rising too fast!). Two decades after George Washington’s leading example, Napoleon Bonaparte followed in his path, carrying the threat or promise (depending on which side you were on) of French-style revolutionary enlightenment to Italy, Austria, Prussia, Russia and England. After this, it became commonplace in every corner of the world to choose military leaders as government leaders, and the ideological loyalty of a nation’s military branch has become the cornerstone to political intrigue and revolution. Since, in modern times, a military is no longer implicitly faithful to its king, it has learned to become faithful only to itself — sometimes with dreadful results for society at large.

The First Total War emphasizes an ironic point: in feudal times, when peasants or serfs felt just as disaffected from their own leaders as from the leaders of invading kingdoms, the peasants or serfs were mostly allowed to live in peace. Once we all stopped living in kingdoms and began living in nations, we all began falling into ethnic or ideological groupings represented by political leadership. This, along with the fact that military careers became open to all classes of society, was the beginning of the age of Total War (“Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?”, Goebbels shrieked). Unfortunately, we still live in the age of Total War today.

How can Steven Pinker’s book and David A. Bell’s book both be telling the truth? In fact, Pinker anticipates this question, in a passage that suggests that he may have read David A. Bell’s book himself:

Today one often reads that total war, which targets an entire society rather than just its armed forces, is a modern invention. Total war has been blamed on the emergence of nation-states, on universalist ideoligies, and on technologies that allow killing at a distance. But if Homer’s depictions are accurate (and they do jibe with archaeology, ethnography and history), then the wars in archaic Greece were as total as anything in the modern age.

An even better example against David A. Bell’s theory (Bell mentions this himself) is Europe’s era of religious warfare, beginning with the Crusades and ending roughly with the Thirty Years War in 1648. These wars were also ideological, and caused millions of helpless innocents to suffer. Bell’s clearest theory, as he even mentions within The First Total War, is smaller in scope than his book’s title suggests, but it’s still a stirring one: there was a period of about 150 years (roughly, 1650-1800) during which there were no ideological wars in Europe. During this period, war was much more benign than it has been since.

So, overall, who’s right, Pinker or Bell? Steven Pinker’s book is structured as an argument, and the argument appears to be sound. David Bell’s book presents an interpretation of history that is, overall, very convincing too. The two books appear to contradict each other, and deliver opposing messages, but on a technical level they can both be true at the same time, because Pinker’s scale of time is measured in thousands of years, while Bell’s is in hundreds of years.

On a broader level, the contradictory messages also seem to be simultaneously persuasive. It does seem obvious that the trends of basic civilization have improved the quality of life on Earth since the age of Moses and Agememnon.

It also seems obvious that the 20th century (and, so far, the early 21st century) show trends of increasing barbarism, institutionalized violence and hysterical ethnic and ideological hatred that threaten the future security of every living person in ways that are frighteningly new in history.

How can both books be telling the truth at the same time? I’m not sure, but it looks to me like they both are. What do you think?

7 Responses

  1. Violence is our major
    Violence is our major evolutionary obstacle. It’s always preceded by the decision to commit it. Nothing clouds judgment more than a sense of entitlement; whether real or imagined.

    Accessibility to weapons of mass destruction allows anyone to make a devastating assertion without the backing of state or country. If someone’s conception of happiness is restricted to superiority over others, we all could be in jeopardy. Luckily, limited world views are bounded by consciousness which can be expanded with wisdom.

  2. So many books with such a
    So many books with such a poor grasp of history. It’s almost enough to make me want to go back to school and my MA and PhD. Anyone who claims wars before 1789 were limited affairs needs to research the Thirty Years War, the Crusades (both the ones in the Levant and those against the Cathars), and the Renaissance wars in Italy, not to mention a host of Ancient conflicts, the wars of Genghis Khan, and wars in China, which killed millions of people. Anybody who wants to pine about chivalry can read about the Condottieri.

    This Sunday, the Washington Post had a good essay criticizing Pinker’s methods. It also talked about Michael Lewis’ book (Boomerang) on the economic crisis which I think merits a discussion because of its reliance on stereotypes and notions of national character.

  3. like all short-cuts, violence
    like all short-cuts, violence found a bit lacking across the generations… unless god wills it of course. or unless we could make some good money at it …

  4. Nardo, if I make David Bell’s
    Nardo, if I make David Bell’s book sound simplistic, that may be the fault of my telling. As I wrote above, the book does mention the fact that the Thirty Years War was as broadly violent in many ways as modern total war, and the real thesis of the book is not that the Napoleonic wars were the first total war in history, but rather that there was a period of 150 years after the end of the Thirty Years War (1648) when this type of war seemed to have disappeared. With the Napoleonic wars, it returned, and has since lasted not for thirty years but for the past two hundred years.

    As for your statement that “Anybody who wants to pine about chivalry can read about the Condottieri” — yes, that’s exactly Steven Pinker’s point. That sentence could have come right out of his section on the romantic myth of chivarly, which he ridicules repeatedly in “Better Angels”.

  5. I find it interesting that
    I find it interesting that Pinker’s book uses words like ‘angels’ and ‘demons’ – even prominently in the title. I didn’t read the book and he may simply be using these words descriptively. I wonder if he believes in supernatural forces at work.

    Fascinatingly, the Bible is very forthright in its depiction of the demonic – hence violent – influence on mankind.

    (Of course, that opens up a whole other line of thought!)

  6. Haven’t read either book but
    Haven’t read either book but based on the above, it seems both authors (and all commenters here) have chosen to ignore the violence of everyday life that defines our culture.

    For example, using this computer means I agreed to the mining of coltan (a major component of computer circuitry) by child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: mining profits used to find a brutal civil war and the slaughter of the world’s largest primate (Eastern Lowland Gorilla) to make room for mining. Every keystroke I make is violent.

    The reason why I just paid for my groceries was because if I didn’t, I’d face violence from the State (police, arrest detainment, prison, etc.). Same reason why I pay rent. Indirectly, same reason why I go to a job.

    The reason Occupy Wall Street is a “peaceful” protest is because the army of the rich (NYPD) has created a ring around it, threatening unaccountable violence to anyone who doesn’t play by the elite’s rules. (There’s no such thing as a peaceful protest.)

    I could go on but it’s easier to sum up: Industrial civilization is built on and based on and functions on violence. Any discussion of violence that ignores this reality is an exercise in deep denial.

  7. Steve, that’s a great point
    Steve, that’s a great point about angels and demons, thanks.

    Mickey, I can’t disagree that these books each only discuss small slices of the reality of violence. Well, a book that tried to write about all the violence in the world right now would be about ten billion pages long.

    But, isn’t it also true that the main reason Occupy Wall Street has been peaceful is that peaceful protests are more likely to succeed in their objectives than violent ones?

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