The Past is a Foreign Country


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapters 1 & 2

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

Chapter 1: A Foreign Country

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” ~ L. P. Hartley

We have lots of examples of how much more violent the world used to be under our very noses. Just read the Illiad or the Old Testament:

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.” (p 40)

Is Judaism (or Christianity) therefore a violent religion? Of course not. Their holy documents are simply windows, like many other ancient texts, that we can use to peek into the past and survey the landscape. What has happened, is that followers of these texts now take the symbols and imagery metaphorically, as fables to help them navigate a modern life which is far less bloody.

“Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.” (p 43)

What about other texts? Turns out, when read literally, there are lots of examples of violence in texts we now consider innocuous: Greek mythology, the Grimm brothers, Mother Goose nursery rhymes, Lancelot, and Shakespeare. Consider the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, when a personal insult escalates into an out-and-out brawl. Yet today dueling seems anachronistic.

“The career of dueling showcases a puzzling phenomenon we will often encounter: a category of violence can be embedded in a civilization for centuries and then vanish into thin air.” (p 59)

Why is that relevant today?

“People today think of the world as a uniquely dangerous place. It’s hard to follow the news without a mounting dread of terrorist attacks, a clash of civilizations, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. But we are apt to forget the dangers that filled the news a few decades ago, and to be blasé about the good fortune that so many of them have fizzled out.” (p 65)

Chapter Two: The Pacification Process

“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” ~ Thomas Hobbes

Why are we violent? What are the conditions for peace? Hobbes provided history’s first cohesive answers to both of these questions. According to Hobbes, there are three main practical reasons to fight:

  • Aggression: invading neighboring territory for want of resources like food, water, hunting ground, and women
  • Defense: protecting your resources from aggressive neighbors
  • Deterrence: following through on a show of strength, or settling a score, to prevent being seen as weak

Working in tandem, these sources of violence (which apply to animals as well as humans) serve to create cycles of anarchic infighting among communities, waning in the presence of abundant resources, and waxing in their absence. Despite being taught that humans are wicked and animals are naturally peaceful, chimpanzees in the wild (humanity’s closest evolutionary relative) enjoy homicide rates as high as 30%. That is, of all chimp deaths, nearly a third of them in some communities occur at the hands of another chimp, and only two thirds of natural causes. That statistic is far higher than any human community, past or present. This is our biological inheritance.

What about the earliest primitive human cultures? Humans started out as territorial, anarchic hunter gatherers, and some of those communities still exist today. Despite the myth we all learn in school about how peaceful the Native Americans were before the Europeans came, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies enjoy the highest homicide rates in the world, and the reasons are right out of Hobbes:

“One Yanomamö man in Amazonia told an anthropologist, We are tired of fighting. We don’t want to kill anymore. But the others are treacherous and cannot be trusted.” (p 92)

This is a classic description of the Hobbesian Trap. Consider, a homeowner is awakened by a rustling in the garage. He grabs his gun and goes down to investigate, whereupon he finds a burglar with a gun in his own hand. Now, both of these men are thinking, “I don’t want to kill this guy, but I’d better kill him before he kills me.” They might even be thinking, “I know he doesn’t want to kill me any more than I want to kill him, but he might be tempted to kill me preemptively if he thinks I might kill him.” And round and round we go. Taking this one step further, imagine the personal vendetta that would erupt between the two men’s families if one of them did kill the other. It is easy to see, from this simple example, how honor and might can amplify violence that may have been seeded by a simple quarrel over resources. Hobbes’ real thesis is that law is better than honor.

Historically, violence did not start its precipitous decline until the invention of agriculture, with its sedentary lifestyle and the creation of the first primitive states. According to Hobbes, the dominion of a ruling class over a producing mob creates a social pressure against infighting.

“Just as a farmer tries to prevent his animals from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding that just shuffle resources or settle scores among them but from his point of view are a dead loss.” (p 86)

He referred to this influence as the Leviathan, the power “to keep all men in awe.” Today, this influence comes in the form of law, police, courts, standing armies, treaties, penitentiaries, even credit scores. In the above example, it is the thought of “I should kill this man, but I could wind up in jail, and he’s itching to kill me, but he doesn’t want to get locked up any more than I do.” Thus, Hobbes provides a way out of his own eponymous trap: The Leviathan. It is the threat of retaliation by a disinterested third party for any infighting amongst the masses. It is the popularly sanctioned monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Note that “popularly sanctioned” is an important part of that equation. Although despots can reduce violence in their territories relative to their “natural” tribal state, they hit a glass ceiling that only more modern democracies have been able to break. That is, the people’s trust and approval of the ruling power increase its effectiveness.

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.