Tag Archives: Western Civilization

Ranking Historic Atrocities: Pinker’s “Better Angels.”

I have been swamped recently, but regardless of how busy I get, I try to make time for reading of one type or another. In this case I have recently started to reexamine Steven Pinker’s much debated book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking, 2011). For those unfamiliar with the book, Pinker argues that, in contrast to modern assumptions that the modern age (World War I, World War II, etc…) has been more violent than the past, violence has actually declined in the modern era in comparison to past centuries.

Various aspects of Pinker’s many arguments related to his thesis have been praised or criticized by scholars in a variety of fields and disciplines. I do not intend to add to either those praises or criticisms here. First, so much has already been written about Pinker’s book that I am very late to the party. I also do not have the time, at this busy point in the semester, to offer any substantive analysis.

But regardless of where one falls in their estimate of Pinker’s arguments, his book contains a lot of interesting information that can provide useful fodder for classroom discussions on the topic of historical violence in human societies, particularly (perhaps) in a world history survey course. One example is the chart (borrowed from Matthew White- who has since updated his figures and rankings) laid out on page 195, which ranks the 21 greatest causes of death (related to violence in one form or another) in human history.

Pinker notes: “’The twentieth-century was the bloodiest in history” is a cliché that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. But is it true?” (page 193)

Pinker then cites the above mentioned chart, which lists seven of the ten greatest death tolls in history as taking place Continue reading

Defending Western Civilization: An Interview with Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown

Although slavery has existed since the “dawn of civilization,” Columbia University historian Eric Foner points out that the modern west was the first to abolish it. This was a result, Foner argues, of a unique blending of evangelical and Enlightenment thought that “placed a new emphasis on every person’s inherent dignity and natural rights….” Princeton historian Bernard Lewis notes that the west then effectively influenced the abolition of slavery in non-western societies as well, leading to the worldwide decline of the institution in the modern era. Similarly, as University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Kors has argued, it was in the west that capitalism (for all its warts and critics) emerged to produce “the greatest alleviation of suffering; the greatest liberation from want, ignorance, and superstition; and the greatest increase of bounty and opportunity in the history of all human life.” Moreover, in terms of women’s rights, no other society has been more open to the concepts of legal and political equality between men and women than the modern west, where women now hold unprecedented liberties and freedoms not found on the same scope or scale in any other past or current society. Indeed, former Clark University Philosophy Professor Christina Hoff Sommers has noted that American women “are among the most liberated and privileged — and safest — people on earth.”

One might think that, in light of such achievements, one would find greater value in the study of western civilization than expressed by many critics calling for its removal from college and university curriculums and general education requirements. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, no less, once joined students at Stanford in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!”

Many academics who do study western civilization tend to emphasize the worst aspects of it. It’s true, after all, that although slavery and overtly discriminatory laws have been overturned, that racism continues to have an impact on people’s lives and is a worthy subject of study. Similarly, while capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty than any other economic system, there are many who fail to thrive in a capitalist economy and so scholars and economists who seek ways to improve a capitalist society to insure its humanity (hopefully without destroying economic freedom and the potential for economic growth) do noble work. Similarly, while women hold unprecedented legal rights in the western world (the unique birthplace of modern feminism), it took considerable effort to get to this point and there are still many concerns about reaching full equality. Continue reading