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Five inner demons, four better angels . . .

Submitted by on December 24, 2011 – 11:36 am2 Comments

 . . . and a more peaceful 2012? That’s not yet another take on the 12 Days of Christmas, it’s what Steven Pinker, Harvard Psychologist, concludes in his most recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. To say that violence has declined up to our own time will no doubt lead many readers to wonder which planet Pinker is living on. Yet our heightened sensitivity to violence helps to prove the author’s point. As a culture we are less tolerant of violence, and that’s true of most places in the world, not just North America.

Pinker spends the first part of the book demonstrating, based on numerous previous studies, that violence has declined. Again, the reader might wonder how this can be given, for example, the world wars that dominated the previous century. Here–and the author is the first to admit this–it is necessary to think statistically. Casualties are considered as a percentage of total population rather than in sheer numeric terms. So even though the numbers of dead and wounded in these wars was high, as a percentage of the population the human cost was much, much less than previous wars.

But it isn’t just a matter of war. Daily life, too, has become less violent. One example of this is the advertisement for a body building system found in almost every comic book of my youth. You might remember the bully who punches the 90 pound weakling while his girlfriend looks on. The solution, of course, is for the weakling to build his muscles and return, some weeks later, to punch the bully back. This might still happen, I suppose, but it has never happened to me or to anyone I know, and if it did I think the police would be involved.

The observation that violence has declined can be rather easily tested and, I think, proves to be true. The more interesting question is, Why has violence declined? Here in summary is Pinker’s argument.  He identifies five inner demons that cause humans to be aggressive: predatory violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. Four better angels that can cause humans to behave non-violently: empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason. Finally, the author lays out five historical forces that have managed these human proclivities in order to contribute to a decline in violence: the Leviathan (Hobbes’s name for a state monopoly on force), commerce, feminization, cosmopolitanism, and the escalator of reason (an intensifying application of rationality to human affairs).

As a medieval historian, I welcome Pinker’s argument. The past is clearly a more violent–and more unthinkingly violent–place than the present. Explaining why we might be becoming less violent is an important exercise for our God-given vocation as citizens. It is worth noting that to observe a decline in violence does not necessarily contradict the belief in human sinfulness. Pinker is not one who thinks that humans are innately good, just that they are capable of being more or less “bad.” As Lutherans might put it, the First Articles gifts of reason and the like are not given only to Christians but are accessible to all human creatures and can lead them to be more or less “righteous” humanly speaking.

Most readers of this blog will not appreciate everything in Pinker’s book, such as his treatment of the Old Testament, his assumptions about evolutionary psychology, or his assertion that Christianity is one of many ideologies (in the “five inner demons” list above) that has provided a cause for violence. Yet these aspects are not devastating to the argument as a whole, and his ideas offer much food for thought to Christians who wish to live peaceably with all people.

So even as we contemplate Christ, our true peace, in this Christmas season, we are reminded to continue to pray and work for a little more “peace on earth.”

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