To my mind, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is easily among the most important books written in the last 100 years. Concern that society is collapsing and a nostalgic longing for a return to past greatness is hardly new. Eusebius quotes St. Polycarp of Smyrna as moaning, in the second century AD: ” O good God, unto what times hast thou spared me?”
Pinker‘s magnum opus, Better Angels, argues convincingly that the present day is the absolute best time to be alive by almost every meaningful metric. While a more naive age of progressives tended to act as though social progress was inevitable and infallible–both to be rejected–to deny that progress is real and to contend that there was some past age of greatness is to embrace an illusion. That illusion can be quite dangerous as when certain democratic republics which shall remain nameless flirt openly with handing executive power over to a demagogue who openly aspires to tyranny, all in the name of making themselves great again.
The case presented by Pinker is compelling enough that, stripped of its mythology, I’m half-tempted to identify as a postmillennialist. This short conversation between Pinker and the Berggruen Institute is well worth checking out. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“I look into why the rate of violence has dropped, and the moral question -– what values ought we teach people to live by? Certainly, I agree with the principles, but it may be a bit unrealistic to think that every person on this Earth abides by a value such as that every life is equally sacrosanct. Looking back to explain to what we can attribute our increasingly humane development, part of it is the utilitarian calculation –- if there is incentive, regardless of morals, to stop fighting, then so be it.
“But what we are witnessing is more than that. A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently.”