Someone keeping up with high intellectual culture in the twenty-eight years from 1748 to 1776 could have read as they appeared Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the first volumes of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Émile, Beccaia’s On Crimes and Punishment, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Those years were the center of the roughly one-hundred-year explosion of ideas that we call the Enlightenment. Almost everyone agrees that the Enlightenment’s questioning of established intellectual, religious, and political authorities has a great deal to do with the nature of the new “liberal” world that began in Europe and America and is still, sometimes fitfully, spreading across the globe. From the beginning, fervent supporters and opponents have contested its merits—not always just in words.
Steven Pinker’s view is unambiguous: the Enlightenment is the best thing that ever happened to humankind. He understands the Enlightenment in terms of two commitments: first, an ethical and political commitment to equal rights and opportunities for all (as opposed to privileging elites) and, second, a cognitive commitment to reason and science (as opposed to authorities such as tradition and faith) as the best way to understand our world and ourselves. Over the course of just two centuries, he maintains, these commitments have produced a far better world than any before, and they hold the best promise of overcoming both present and future obstacles to human flourishing. Pinker deplores the fact that so many today don’t agree with his assessment, and Enlightenment Now is his passionate and persistent effort to convince anyone willing to listen.
He begins with a barrage of data showing that, by just about any measure available, things have gotten enormously better as Enlightenment ideas have come to shape the modern world. Average life expectancy, stuck for millennia around thirty years, began increasing in the nineteenth century and now stands at around seventy worldwide; the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent in the early nineteenth century to under 10 percent today; world literacy has risen from about 10 percent in the early nineteenth century to over 80 percent today; homicide rates per 100,000 people in Europe have decreased from twenty to sixty in 1300 to low single digits today. Naysayers may cite the deaths, destruction, and moral depravity so prominent in daily news headlines; but Pinker rightly reminds us that the news cycle highlights dramatic evils precisely because they stand out against a much larger background of commonplace goods. To get an accurate picture, we need to look at the dominant trends over long periods, where it becomes clear that we are lucky to live in such a relatively safe and prosperous time.
A more serious objection notes that Pinker’s many graphs (“jaw-dropping” the blurb tells us) often track not the actual number of terrible events—which often grow larger as population increases—but the percentage of such events relative to the population. World War II, for example, killed 55 million people, far more than any previous war, but the ratio of deaths to total population was smaller, and so by Pinker’s reckoning, an improvement. Pinker can defend his approach on the grounds that what matters is our living in a much safer world. Critics can grant this but note that technology inspired by the Enlightenment has, in some important respects, made it much easier to kill large numbers of people.
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