In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is a before and an after. Before the Enlightenment, the world was superstitious, cruel, and violent; after the Enlightenment, the world was rational and more peaceful. Pinker thus reduces violence to a fairly simplistic concept: all violence can be equated with irrationality, unreason, and ignorance. History is never as straightforward as Pinker would have his readers believe, and violence is a much more complex notion that is often driven not by superstition or unreason, but perfectly “rational” motives. This article argues that there is little causal connection between Enlightenment values and the decline in violence and that changes came about as a result of a complex series of reasons, some of them less than edifying. It raises the interesting question of whether ideas drive history, or whether they are simply the “ideological” bedrock on which change is grounded.
Philip Dwyer is Professor of History and founding Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He has written on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, memoirs, violence, and colonialism. He is the general editor (with Joy Damousi) of the four-volume Cambridge World History of Violence, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.