Interesting if True

The Better Angels of Our Nature
Why Violence Has Declined
Steven Pinker
Viking, $40, 832 pp.

Conquest, War, Famine, and Death—except for the last, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse have lost their ability to terrify us. They have been reduced, as a Google search will swiftly demonstrate, to metaphors for bad habits in personal relationships: “criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.” But for most of human history, the horsemen’s shadows were never far from the horizon; being overrun by a conquering army, caught up in the lethal chaos of war, or perishing from hunger were real possibilities, as much a part of the human condition as the certainty of death. Only in the eighteenth century did some European thinkers begin to argue that conquest, war, and famine might be overcome, that history need not be, in Hegel’s memorable phrase, “a slaughter bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed.”

Optimists offered a number of reasons why violence would decline, most prominently the psychological effects of commercial expansion and material prosperity. Trade, Alexis de Tocqueville believed, was “the natural enemy of all violent passions,” a conviction echoed by liberal theorists throughout the nineteenth century. The destructive energies in modern society revealed by the twentieth century’s two great wars seemed to damage irreparably the optimists’ case, which later generations dismissed with the facile irony that often attends the demise of other people’s dreams.


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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.