The Inner Demons of The Better Angels of Our Nature

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Daniel Lord Smail Harvard University

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The Better Angels of Our Nature makes a bold contribution to the deep history of human violence. By laying out a framework for understanding this history, Steven Pinker has provided an important point of departure for all future scholarship in this area. Pinker’s depiction of violence in medieval Europe, however, includes serious misrepresentations of the historical reality of this period; his handling of the scholarship on medieval Europe raises doubts about his treatment of other periods. This article also offers a brief review of recent psychological literature that suggests that subjective well-being is historically invariant. In light of this review, I argue that Better Angels is best understood not as a work of history but as a study in moral and historical theology, and recommend that the history of violence should feature the cognitive experiences of victims rather than aggressors.

Contributor Notes

Daniel Lord Smail is the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University. His current research approaches transformations in the material culture of later medieval Mediterranean Europe (1100–1600) using household inventories and inventories of debt collection from Lucca and Marseille. Recent books include Legal Plunder: Households and Debt Collection in Late Medieval Europe (2016) and, with Andrew Shryock and others, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (2011).

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