Can one say worthwhile things about a book that one has only begun to read? I think, often: yes. One thing one can definitely report is whether one is reading this or that book with enthusiasm, eager to learn what will follow, or only because of a self-imposed, well-I’ve-started-so-I-might-as-well-finish sense of mere duty.
So far, I have only read somewhat over a hundred and fifty pages of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it definitely passes the above test. It is a huge book. Just before finishing this posting I happened to drop my (paperback!) copy of it on my foot, and it really hurt. The text alone runs to over eight hundred pages, and the notes take it over a thousand, yet I already know that I am going to go on reading this book until I finish it, and that when I do finally finish it (I am a very slow reader) I will almost certainly be somewhat regretful, as if coming to the end of a wonderful holiday trip or a particularly satisfying job assignment.
There are so many things I could say about this book, so many thoughts in it and provoked by it that would be blog-worthy, but let me focus on just one, which is that it is such a very, very worthy subject for an academic to be writing about. Pinker has chosen a subject that, he says, needs a long book. Well, a decent but short book could have been written about the relentless decline of violence in human affairs, but I am very happy that this one is indeed extremely long. It is not so much, for me, that this subject needs a long book, as that it so very much deserves one.
The story Pinker tells is of the relentless rise of what he is not afraid to call civilisation. Simply, we humans have become ever less nasty and sadistic towards one another as the decades and centuries and millennia have rolled by, both qualitatively and quantitatively. To make this point, he has already (as I am reading) piled on plenty of agony, about such things as medieval torture devices, and I am sure there will be plenty more such horrors to come.
Says Pinker of this process of moral improvement (on page 160 of the Penguin paperback edition), in a deeply felt parenthetical interjection …
– and if this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is –
Well said. As I say, there is much that I could already say about only what I have read so far, but the main thing I want to say to Pinker is simply this: Well done Sir. You have written a huge book about a huge and hugely important and significant subject, a subject that is entirely worthy of all the work you have put into it.
As Pinker himself surely well knows by now, from all the abuse he gets and from the many directions from which he gets it, he is one of those something-to-offend-everyone intellectuals. He is not a team player, other than in the very broadest sense, of being a member of the let’s-be-civilised team.
Many, for example, just refuse to believe that the progress that Pinker describes has even happened, it being to convince such doubters that Pinker made his book so long. Many intellectual teams have a view of the world and its history which simply forbids them from even seeing this or any other kind of progress, let alone trying to account for it. Related teams might be all set to trash Pinker, only to find that he provides better arguments than they may ever have done for some at least of their most sacred tenets.
Christians, for instance, might welcome the moral achievements achieved by Christians that Pinker itemises, yet not take kindly to his deeply irreverent sprint through all the slaughter and mayhem that is recounted in the Bible, much of it inflicted by God himself or by persons of whom God strongly approved.
Other teams might be inclined to claim Pinker as one of their own, only to find that he trashes one or several of their most sacred tenets. So it would probably be for any regular writer or reader here who reads this book.
We here would surely rejoice that Pinker is not afraid to speak of progress, of the advance of civilisation. Civilisation, says Pinker, should advance, it has advanced, and there is very reason to hope that it will carry on advancing. Most of us here would raise a glass to all of that. Certainly me.
But to explain these advances, Pinker bestows praise upon a very mixed cast of figures, ancient and modern, many of them of the sort that we here might grumble about, such as law-and-order zero-tolerance politicians splashing out on ever more policemen to pound our pavements, and to such people as animal rights activists. A crucial role in pushing down the murder rate, says Pinker, was played by the development of government, of sovereign power over wide swathes of territory. I recall reading something a while back about the “Not So Wild Wild West” (this), but Pinker will have none of that. The USA’s Western frontier was every bit as anarchic, in a bad way, as Hollywood showed it to have been, in fact more so. His views on gun control would not align with the orthodoxy here at all.
But, I really do not care. Such challenges to my preferred ways of thinking are, for me, and coming from a man like Pinker, not bugs but features.
This, I think, is how Public Intellectuals should to live and should work. Long may Pinker continue in his labours on behalf of everything that is true and good.
So, back to reading it. I expect, although I promise nothing, to be posting further thoughts about this book, as I continue to make my way through it.