Angels of Nature, Angels of Grace

One flaw of Pinker’s work is a tired rehearsal of what is essentially anti-Christian dogma. He is ever eager to revisit the worst behaviour of Christians, but is simply not interested on what the other side of the ledger might look like, acknowledging Christian achievements only in passing where the evidence leaves him without excuse. In the first chapter of the book, Pinker presents what he calls a reality check: a vivid reminder of the brutality of past ages. After a section on Homer, Pinker devotes one section to the Hebrew Bible and one on the rise of Christianity, the rhetoric of both of which clearly works, despite some protestations, to impugn Judaism and Christianity. The second section picks up from the discussion of the Hebrew Bible and starts with Jesus, though the earliest event recounted is the Persian invention of crucifixion, and essentially concludes by commenting on how wonderful it is that so few people now accept the logical implications of their religious beliefs. Thus the vast cruelty of ancient empires is used, misleadingly, to build up the moral momentum for a condemnation of Christianity. Bizarrely, he even uses martyrology as an example of the sacralisation of cruelty, which makes one wonder what he thinks of posters of the Tiananmen square protests.

Most interesting is Pinker’s final chapter, where he makes his reckoning. An important section of the chapter is shot through with ambiguity: Pinker takes us through some factors which don’t feature in his favoured explanations for the reduction of violence. But he hedges on just what he thinks of these factors. In one sentences, the factors are not important; in the next, they are not minor. What is his standard? Are these factors that have not made any appreciable reductions to violence over the long term, or are they simply factors that are not completely correlated with violence reduction? When discussing religion, he comes out fighting: ‘little good has come from ancient tribal dogmas’. He then concedes that ‘particular religious movements’ have sometimes done good, and attempts to distance himself from the rashest rhetoric of the new atheists. Only at the end does he aim directly for the claim of inconsistent influence with what might have been considered an immediately clinching argument: religion is a diverse phenomenon, and so it ‘has not been a single force in the history of anything’ (a point that seems to have slipped Pinker’s mind earlier in the book when commending contemporary Catholics for the view that all religions are equally good).

   Plainly, Pinker believes that religion in general and Christianity in particular have not made appreciable reductions in violence over the long term. He needs to tell us that Christianity has been very bad before noting that religion as such is simply not the kind of thing that could be consistently good or consistently bad. Real analysis in support of this view, however, is lacking. He notes that ecclesiastical authorities have opposed humanitarian reforms and that inter-denominational differences have inflamed conflicts. These facts are not especially illuminating, since they can be predicted by more general facts, namely, that those who benefit from the status quo will seek to preserve it, and that ideological differences inflame conflicts (compare Pinker’s exculpation of the Enlightenment from the excesses of the French Revolution). The effect that the particular religious movement inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth has had on violence levels is not really in view.  

 The evidence for the contrary position glimmers beneath the main argumentative currents of the work. One example is what Pinker calls a taboo against taking identifiable human lives. Pinker claims both that the taboo is the upshot of ‘an ideology that held that lives are owned by God’ and that it is ‘in general a very good thing’. He goes on to say exceptions to the taboo were exuberantly made, and that it had little practical effect through most of  European history. Nonetheless, one of the phenomena he must explain is the lionising of human life in what he calls the humanitarian revolution (the moral amelioration following the Enlightenment) and the rights revolution (that following WWII). One of the long-term factors enabling these revolutions, insofar as it furnished them a broadly-accepted ideological foundation, was the human life taboo which, on Pinker’s own account, Western Europe owes to Christianity.

An even clearer debt to Christianity, meanwhile, slips beneath the very tip of Pinker’s nose. After the fall of Rome, Western Europe entered a state of anarchy. On Pinker’s account, this meant bloodshed. Such a state approximates Hobbes’s war of all against all. The way out of the endemic violence is through the power of Leviathan: the state. The state enforces law, thus quashing the war of all against all. This Pinker calls the pacification process. Pacification gains its own momentum, however, as people internalise the attitudes that help them to flourish within a law-governed society. This Pinker calls the civilising process. Pinker carefully documents the wonders these processes have done for Europe: violent deaths a fraction of the average for non-state societies, and homicides plummeting since the Middle Ages.

 After examining specific cases such as the American frontier and postcolonial Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, he is prepared to acknowledge that ‘in zones of anarchy, religious institutions have sometimes served as a civilising force’. Here, two off-hand comments rub interestingly against one another. When discussing the European civilising process, he rubbishes the idea that a life ‘centred on tradition, church, and the fear of God is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem’.  The violent Papua New Guineans whom churches helped to tame, however, he describes as ‘not unlike the knights of medieval Europe’. Which raises an obvious question, one that Pinker overlooks in his earlier rush to rubbish the fear of God. If Western Europe was a zone of anarchy, and religious institutions sometimes serve as a civilising force in such zones, might not the Church have contributed to the civilising process of Western Europe? On this point, the historical record is clear. The Catholic Church exported legal and administrative nous throughout Europe. Bishops were the first to write laws in English. As the feudalisation of France became ever more violent, the monks of Cluny stood up to proclaim the peace of God. Christianity did indeed help to civilise Western Europe.

Beyond these two contributions to Western Europe lies a wider issue. Though global in scope, Pinker’s work retains a cheerful Euro-centrism. This is partly a byproduct of an American writing in English, but also Pinker believes that Europe is at the centre of the global story. Rather daringly, he suggests that European empires pacified and civilised, and so reduced violence, around the world. More than this, it was in Europe that the singular event of the Enlightenment occurred, and the humanitarian revolution that followed. So a question arises: why modern Europe? Why did the singularity of the humanitarian revolution happen where and when it did?

 Pinker appeals to the invention of the printing press. Both humane ideas, and narratives of those suffering various forms of violence, proliferated, leading to the revolution. He also raises the issue of why Islam did not have a humanitarian revolution, pointing suggestively, if sketchily, to the historical and ideological absence of any separation between mosque and state. But  world history is not confined to Christendom and Caliphate. Four centuries before Marcus Aurelius became Caesar, India boasted the extraordinary philosopher-king Ashoka. Nonetheless, it was rife with window-burning and caste division as Europe entered the humanitarian revolution. After millennia of imperial civilisation under the tutelage of Confucius, the Chinese state descended periodically into hemoclysm and familial execution was not officially abolished until the 20th century. As Pinker documents, femicide is prevalent in both regions today. And in Europe itself, no humanitarian revolution ever seemed about to burst forth in the millennium between Solon and Constantine. I don’t doubt that superior printing technology was an important trigger, but Pinker elsewhere rejects ‘technological determinism as a theory of the history of violence’. The singularity of the humanitarian revolution requires further thought.

The printing press, I suspect, was one of two immediate sparks; the fuel, however, had been laid over centuries. Pinker is reluctant to state explicitly what he often concedes implicitly, that the history of religion is a part of the history of ideas, and some excellent ideas have religious origins. The taboo on life-taking we have already noted. Despite claiming that ‘the Bible is one long celebration of violence’, when Pinker goes looking for exponents of peace in Western culture, it is to the Bible that he turns. Rightly so: the book of Amos, whose origins are in the 8th century BC, contains what are likely the first recorded denunciations of war crime. ‘For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishments; because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory’. Other concerns of the Hebrew prophets include the protection of the poor and the impartial administration of justice. Christianity entered the world as an enlightened, humane philosophy. Unlike many similarly enlightened philosophies, such as Stoicism in Classical Antiquity and Mohism in China, Christianity became the dominant ideology of a large portion of the world’s population, encompassing not only an intellectual elite but peasants and powerbrokers. As we have seen with regard to the human life taboo, this facilitated the emergence of enlightened moral consensus, with common people prepared to act and governments prepared to listen.

   More than this, the spiritual power of Christianity was vested in a specific institution, independent, at least in Western Europe, of any particular state. The Church did not merely, as I have already argued, fend off anarchy: it held Europe to ideals. Among those first episcopally authored English laws were prohibitions on the export of Christians as slaves. Pinker mentions how Europeans expanded their circle of concern so that they would no longer enslave one another. What he neglects to mention is that the initial expansion of concern was to cover all Christians (or at least, Latin Christians). The peace of God became a prohibition against assaulting peasants, merchants, women, and children that held throughout Christendom. Even where it failed to restrain actual violence, it helped establish the precedent that non-combatants were not legitimate targets.

 One of the telling signs that Pinker ignores is the low European death rate from war in the period preceding the Wars of Religon: that is, the period of a unified Christendom. Though he makes much of the long term decline in military violence, the death rate does not return to its pre-Reformation level until the 19th century. Pinker suggests that the lords of Europe were self-interestedly avoiding arming their peasantry. Perhaps this was one factor, but the facts go strikingly against the grain of Pinker’s argument. A Hobbesian war of all against all, which is how Pinker characterises Medieval Europe, ought, on Pinker’s own logic, to have a much higher death toll. Nor elsewhere does Pinker allow that large death tolls require large armies: he thinks that much higher death rates were and are generated by habitual raiding in pre-state societies. And indeed comparable situations elsewhere in the world, such as the warring states and warlord eras in China, appear to have been far deadlier.

The deeper answer was that fewer people died in war because Christendom was united. Not only did the Church prescribe restricted warfare, as we have seen, but it upheld a vision of international order. Western Europe was not ruled merely by strongmen, but Christian lords bound by ties of fealty and guided by Mother Church. Naked wars of dominance and conquest, such as prevailed in Classical Antiquity, no longer had a place. The exception shall prove the rule. William of Normandy sought Papal blessing for his English campaign, stressing his legitimate title to the English throne.  He was crowned twice, once by the Archbishop of York and again by Papal legates. The legates forced him and his whole army to do penance for their shedding of Christian blood, and during both coronations he swore to uphold the laws of England. Such was his commitment to penance that he levelled the hill on which the battle of Hastings was fought so that a new abbey could be built the altar of which would stand exactly where Harold Godwinson fell. Such was his commitment to upholding the laws of England that he claimed (probably falsely, but nonetheless tellingly) to have gathered 70 of the wisest men in the land to compile a digest of the law, in a document that came to be known as the Laws of Edward, his predecessor.

This commitment to English law would prove momentous. When William’s son Henry needed to secure his power base, he pledged to uphold the laws of Edward, bolstered by his own Charter of Liberties. And when, a few generations later, civil war loomed between John and his barons, the Archbishop of Canterbury brought the parties to the negotiating table. This in itself is an indication of the Church’s role in keeping peace. But what really mattered is what the Archbishop did next. He reminded the disputants of Henry’s Charter, and under its inspiration drafted a new, great charter. This became perhaps the most famous of all legal documents, and a talisman of the limitation of state power. As Pinker notes, once the leviathan is in place, a new problem arises: how to restrict its own violence. Solving this problem ‘would have to wait another few millennia’, and the Church blazed the trail.

 The Catholic Church, in short, forged Western Europe into a moral community. The weak were taught to expect peace and justice; the powerful were disciplined to promote peace and justice. The expectations were often dashed; the promotion was often half-hearted. And of course the moral community had its limits. Most (but not all: Pinker mentions Antonio de Montesinos, who protested the treatment of Native Americans, though he characteristically overlooks the conversion of the whole Dominican Order and eventually the King of Spain) assumed that everyone outside of Western Europe, and plenty within it, were beyond the community’s limits. This theory and practice of Christian moral community is, I suggest, the fuel of the humanitarian revolution. I mentioned two sparks that ignited it, the first being the printing press. The second was the collapse of that moral community.

  The Reformation divided not only Western Christianity but, as MacCulloch reminds us, the very house of Europe. According to Pinker, the subsequent wars were more devastating than any European wars until the 20th century. The collapse of Christendom was a severe trauma. This trauma prompted intellectuals to imagine, and statesmen to create, a new moral community to replace the old.  Such was the initial impetus behind the humanitarian revolution. The pivotal figure, on this view, is Hugo Grotius, who wrote On the Laws of Wars and Peace in the full flood of the hemoclysm. He was quite open about his motivations: ‘throughout the Christian world, I observed a lack of restraint in relation to war’. His influence was immense, not only on the intellectuals who led the Enlightenment, but among statesmen, who were eager to woo him while he lived and paid him still greater tribute after his death in the Peace of Westphalia. As Pinker notes, this inaugurated the modern era of international order, and is widely seen as a deliberate implementation of Grotius’ ideas.

 After a few more centuries and another period of European catastrophe, this new moral community had become the global community of the United Nations, declaring the universality of human rights. Though Cicero and Mozi lamented the unnecessary violence during the the rise of the Roman Empire and the Era of Warring States respectively, they lacked a broad audience confident that their principles should and could shape the affairs of nations. Cicero was murdered and Mozi forgotten. Christendom bequeathed that audience to Grotius. Without its ruins, there would not have been the resources to build the modern moral community.

  For all Pinker’s scorn, then, Christianity has indeed appreciably reduced violence over the long-term. The Catholic Church watched fearfully as a welter of Germanic warlords swept through the former dominions of Rome. It brought them laws, to which even the warlords were subject; it brought them elevated ideals, recognised by both prince and peasant; it brought them a community larger than tribe, or state, or people. The Church found barbarians and left something unprecedented: the sort of civilisation in which a humanitarian revolution could occur.