The Civilizing Process


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 3

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 3: The Civilizing Process

“It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.” ~ Sigmund Freud

Ever seen depictions of everyday life during the Middle Ages? It’s disgusting! Greasy, undercooked, mouldy food, bones being tossed to the dogs, rats running about the corners, lewd gestures toward the chambermaids… you get the idea. Whether it’s Braveheart, Beowulf, or Robin Hood, we seem to have this Bubonic Plague version of daily life in the Middle Ages ingrained in us. And it’s totally true.

So what does this have to do with violence? In the third chapter of Pinker’s book, he talks about the first anthropologist to advance a theory called “The Civilizing Process” to explain the connection between violence and, of all things… table manners. His name was Norbert Elias and he analyzed books on etiquette throughout the ages and noticed a pattern that seems to confirm our intuition: Graceful gentlemen, with good personal hygiene, diction, and manners, are less likely to brawl, rape, or murder than a boor. To put it a bit more bluntly, homicide rates are lower among the rich than they are among the poor, and that has been true throughout recorded history. Therefore, the building of wealth over the course of centuries and millennia “did not eliminate violence, but it did relegate it to the socioeconomic margins” (p 143). This helps reveal secularism and standard of living as social pressures that force rates of violence down. It was the kingdoms that took care of their people that saw less violence on the street.

The typical psychological explanation is simple: “A prime target was the inner governor of civilized behavior, self-control. Spontaneity, self-expression, and a defiance of inhibitions became cardinal virtues” (p 174). The very things that lack of etiquette imply are also indicative of an innately violent person. This does not mean that one is born into one class or the other and can never change. It means that there is a tangible connection between a community’s worldview, particularly their tradition of honor and justice, and that community’s crime rates.

Why does this have relevance today? Well, in Pinker’s own words…

An appreciation of the Civilizing Process in the American West and rural South helps to make sense of the American political landscape today. Many northern and coastal intellectuals are puzzled by the culture of their red state compatriots, with their embrace of guns, capital punishment, small government, evangelical Christianity, “family values,” and sexual propriety. Their opposite numbers are just as baffled by the blue staters’ timidity toward criminals and foreign enemies, their trust in government, their intellectualized secularism, and their tolerance of licentiousness. This so-called culture war, I suspect, is the product of a history in which white America took two different paths to civilization. The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance. (p 168)

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.