Do you have impression that people (our global civilisation) have been getting progressively less and less brutal over the past centuries and even more so in most recent decades? I think that we would need some serious convincing, and that is exactly what Steven Pinker wants to do in his new book “The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined” which is causing quite a stir in intellectual circles. This Harvard professor of experimental psychology needs no less than seven hundred pages to make this point thus indirectly acknowledging that his claim is not that self evident.
I have read about half of the book and it seems to be well-written, well-researched and full of statistical data. Even when the atrocities of recent genocides and world wars are counted in, Pinker observes that the general level of human violence has been declining. He claims that this process has been propelled by the social and cultural development of our species.
At this moment I don’t think I am ready for any detailed argument. Yet, I would like to make two meta-observations.
First, I am concerned. Whenever we humans start to speak loudly about our cultural, civilizational or political progress in eradicating violence, soon afterwards something bad has happened. For instance, the era of self-confident progress at the end of XIX century was followed by World War I. Thus, whenever we speak about eliminating violence I fear that it is just our wishful thinking; we might be subconsciously trying to persuade ourselves about our changing, developing and maturing nature.
My second observation is positive and connected with our Sunday lectionary reading. Steven’s book indirectly documents that violence has a contagious nature, violence breeds violence directly and indirectly. How could this observation be positive? Because it implies that violence can be discontinued! The circle of violence can be interrupted. Anything we do which removes any form of violence from circulation will have a great positive impact down the road. This Sunday the apostle Paul and Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew will encourage us and teach us exactly that - how to model God’s motherly loving nature in our macho world and society.
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