Whitewashing History

Pinker’s (Mis)Representation of the Enlightenment and Violence

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques


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.

One of the cornerstones of Pinker’s thesis explaining why violence has declined in the West is to be found in chapter 4, titled “The Humanitarian Revolution.” There are two threads to Pinker’s argument. The first is that people began to question the validity of “institutionalized violence”— by which he means human sacrifice, torture, and the persecution of heretics and witches—and to demand that that kind of violence be abolished. The second strand is that this thinking was “propelled by a change in sensibilities,” by which he means that people (or at least Westerners) began to sympathize (his italics) with others, and were “no longer indifferent to their suffering.”1 This change in sensibilities took place from 1700 onward, and coincided with the advent of what Pinker calls the age of reason, a dated term for the Enlightenment, a movement that placed “life and happiness at the center of values,” and that had “a sudden impact on Western life” in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Pinker likes to make bold statements. The Enlightenment led to: the elimination of capital and corporal punishments; a severe curtailment of govern- ment violence against “subjects”; the abolition of slavery (by which he means the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade); and people losing their “thirst for cruelty.” Most readers would accept these assertions at face value. Like all polemicists bent on proving a point, there is just enough truth to lend them credibility. But historians are a skeptical lot and are trained to question such bold statements. When we start to unpick them, Pinker’s arguments begin to unravel. For a start, the central tenet of Pinker’s thesis, as Sara Butler has pointed out in her article in this special issue, is wrapped in a portrayal of Europe’s past as ultraviolent and irrational. Without that juxtaposition, Pinker’s argument about a decline in violence is untenable. Similarly, the complement to this violent portrayal of an extremely violent past—the creation of an enlightened, rational society in which “happiness” is at the center of our values—lacks historical grounding. Pinker has reduced the historical narrative to a crude dichotomy: before the Enlightenment, the world was superstitious, cruel, and violent; after the Enlightenment, the world was rational and more peaceful. In doing so, he 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. There are, therefore, a number of points that I would take issue with in this view of history and the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, Empathy, and the Reduction of Violence

It is true that the period in history known as the Enlightenment, roughly from the end of the seventeenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century, is a watershed moment in the history of Western civilization. It is during that time that many of the institutions, attitudes, and ideas that helped create the modern world took shape. We see the emergence of human rights with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789; both documents were to have an enormous influence on the development of world politics, not least of which was the development of democracy, something that Pinker argues made violence unnecessary.2 Part of the invention of human rights was the development of empathy, which led to a revolution in the ways in which humans interacted with one another. More than empathy, however, Pinker believes, à la Norbert Elias and the civilizing process, that it was the development of self-control that led to a “thirty-fold drop” in violence from the medieval and early modern worlds.

Although empathy is a twentieth-century term, it is hardly credible to think that people in past societies did not empathize with or were indifferent to the victims of violence, or that they did not possess self-control. Pinker’s argument is that “sympathy” and self-control were a corollary of the Enlightenment and “reason” and that they magically appeared in the second half of the eighteenth century. Anyone familiar with history, however, will tell you that people have always been genuinely concerned and shocked by violence, while those who have critiqued Elias in the past have argued that self-restraint was practiced by lower social orders for centuries.3 Empathy has always been present in varying degrees and forms. Aztec mothers cried when their children were given up to sacrifice; medieval people were shocked by torture; not everyone who attended a public execution did so to delight in the suffering of the victim. There were of course different sensibilities, but the point is that empathy has always existed.

In a short work on the origins of human rights in the eighteenth century, Lynn Hunt has argued that there is a correlation between empathy and our ability to imagine other cultural experiences. She believes that increased empathy is linked to the rise of the epistolary novel in the second half of the eighteenth century—an assertion she admits is difficult to prove or measure.4 Pinker largely adopts Hunt’s arguments, reiterating that the increase in secular books and literacy rates helped set off the humanitarian revolution,5 although his is a somewhat simplistic interpretation of a complicated and nuanced argument that has already elicited a good deal of discussion since Hunt’s work appeared in 2009. For example, one could just as easily argue that heightened novel reading was more a consequence than a cause of feelings of equality and sympathy.6 Moreover, the argument cuts both ways; that is, the novel might encourage empathy, but it may also encourage its opposite, hatred through the ability to imagine violence. That in turn might predispose people toward committing it. This is why so much research has been done on the impact of violence on the screen, big and small, on children. Finally, can we ever really “feel” the pain of others? It is a question Elaine Scarry posed in the 1980s; she did not believe we could.7 It adds an additional layer to the discussions that are missing in Pinker and to a lesser extent in Hunt.

The so-called rise of empathy, in other words, might explain why some people donate to starving children in the developing world, but it falls short of understanding why a number of genocides were committed in the twentieth century, or why “ordinary” people are able to kill and torture. I would go so far as to argue that in collective settings mass killings and torture are not about loss of self-control or lack of empathy; rather, they are about identification with one’s group to the detriment of another. The uses of torture by the French during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), and more recently by Americans during the war in Iraq, are cases in point.8 People placed in extraordinary circumstances are more than capable of committing atrocities, especially if they think they are acting for a higher good. This is as valid a statement of people’s behavior today as it is for past centuries.

Do Ideas Drive History?

The notion of empathy is important for understanding what comes next in Pinker’s argument. He makes a causal link between the Enlightenment and the changes in attitude to certain kinds of violence, such as torture and public executions. In fact, Pinker takes Hunt’s thesis one step further. He contends that the reason so many violent institutions succumbed within a short space of time was that they were slain by a “coherent philosophy” that emerged during the Enlightenment.9

In talking about the Enlightenment, Pinker touches on the question of whether ideas move history or whether ideas simply reflect and encapsulate contemporary social and political trends. It is a question I used to pose to my undergraduate students when teaching the origins of the French Revolution, a question with which historians have grappled for generations: does a “revolution of the mind” necessarily have to precede a revolution in act?10 The answer is that a revolution without ideas is simply a revolt. This is not the same as saying, however, that ideas drove people to revolution, or reform, for that matter. For Pinker, however, the answer is clear: ideas move history and reduce violence.11 In order to arrive at that conclusion, he posits that the disappearance of the opposite of “reason,” that is, ignorance and superstition, such as the ideas that “gods demand sacrifices, witches cast spells, heretics go to hell, Jews poison wells, animals are insensate, children are possessed, Africans are brutish, and kings rule by divine right,” undermines the rationale for violence.12

There are two problems with this kind of thinking. The first is the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of demonstrating a causal link between reading, thinking, and action. This is where Pinker’s obliviousness to history and its methodologies come into play. To assume that one event or idea necessarily leads to another completely underestimates the complexity of the historical process; in this particular instance, of reading and the internalization process.13 As two leading lights on the origins of the French Revolution, Roger Chartier and Keith Baker, have pointed out, discourses do not necessarily shape practices.14 All sorts of other factors have to be taken into account.

The second problem with thinking that the Enlightenment was responsible for a decline in violence is the assumption that humanist reformers were motivated by concern over the suffering of their fellow human beings. That was not always the case; motives appear to have been far more practical and far less idealistic than Pinker allows for. Let me focus on one example: public executions. The right of the state to use violence, and in some instances extreme forms of violence like breaking on the wheel and burning at the stake, was never really called into question. Neither apparently did the taste for viewing public executions and displayed bodies wane during this period.15 On the contrary, there is some evidence to suggest that executions were popular across all social classes well into the nineteenth century.16 Large crowds in the tens of thousands would regularly turn out to see public executions in London right up until they were finally banned in 1868—and not in 1783, as Pinker claims.17

What was questioned, and gave rise to a great deal of concern among the ruling elites, was the behavior and attitudes of the populace, as well as a be- lief that the condemned were no longer abiding by the preordained rituals. English observers considered the crowds that gathered to watch hangings to be far too turbulent and far too merry, but it was the behavior of the crowd along the processional route in London from Newgate prison to Tyburn, the traditional site of public executions, that was particularly concerning. The civil authorities feared that they had lost control of the process. It was one of the reasons why in 1783, public hangings were relocated from Tyburn to the front of Newgate prison. It was thus hoped that by containing the size of the crowd, public order would be restored. That was not to be; there were recurring incidents of crowd misbehavior. In 1849, Charles Dickens wrote to the Times after witnessing the hanging of Frederik and Maria Manning, railing not against the death penalty but rather against “the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd.”18

Other examples across Europe could be given, but the point is that reform was born of a complicated mixture of fear of the rabble at a time when the revolutionary potential of the mob was very much alive, and a shifting of cultural values: crowds had become indifferent to the spectacle of violence; put another way, violence in “progressive” societies no longer resulted in the required pedagogical outcome. This is not to say that crowds had lost interest in visible acts of brutality during the nineteenth century. On the contrary, they were still very much fascinated by displays of violence. Disgust among the elites at the sight and smell of mutilated bodies or public executions were only ever secondary considerations. Eventually, authorities banned public executions in Western Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century, not because they were inhumane—although that thought was certainly there—but because they no longer represented an edifying enough spectacle to the people who witnessed them.

The Paradox of the Enlightenment

Pinker admits to the unevenness of the progress, but what has escaped his attention is the overriding paradox, to use Lynn Hunt’s phrase, between the emergence of the language of human rights during the American and French Revolutions and the extraordinary violence wrought on civilians by opposing ideological parties.19 The great paradox is that human rights could not have occurred without violent revolution, including the American Revolution, which recent research has shown to be far more ferocious than had previously been thought.20 In other words, violence drove change.

There are a number of other paradoxes that are worth highlighting and that permeated the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the same time that Enlightenment values were coming into their own, the English Parliament increased the number of crimes punishable by death fivefold, from about 50 in 1688 to about 240 in 1820.21 Of course, many were able to avoid execution so that the number that occurred between 1770 and 1830 declined to a “relatively modest” seven thousand. But here is the rub. Why the number of executions actually dropped around the middle of the seventeenth century and stayed that way for most of the eighteenth is one of the biggest mysteries in English penal history. Historians have put forth a number of suggestions but none of them is particularly conclusive, because we simply do not know. It is thus a little presumptuous of Pinker, if not misleading, to cut a swathe through this kind of historical dilemma, as if it had not taxed the minds of a number of eminent historians, and to present a simplistic response—it must be the Enlightenment—which serves merely to suit his agenda.

Another paradox is that racism as a pseudoscientific ideology really only came into its own in the nineteenth century, at about the same time as slavery was abolished in Europe. Moreover, this was a period, that is, the decades after 1760, when the slave trade reached a peak. The French slave trade actually spiked in the years 1783–1792/3, only to be interrupted by the outbreak of war between revolutionary France and the rest of Europe.22 It is, therefore, difficult to reconcile the values of the Enlightenment, as they were understood and practiced in Europe, with colonialism and Europe’s excessively violent domination of the non-European world. More importantly, though, it is possible to question the traditional narrative of the abolition of the slave trade as a unique result of the Enlightenment or humanitarian movement. A recent analysis of various cases of abolition around the world reveals the extent to which other motives, often masked as humanitarianism, played a role.23 The British naval campaign against slavery from the mid-nineteenth century was motivated by a desire to enforce abolition, yes, but was also driven by the British desire to control the seas, as well as a personal desire on the part of many navy captains for prize money. Again, the connections between Enlightenment values and the invention of human rights are much more complex than Pinker has allowed for. People, as I am sure Pinker would admit, can be both rational and irrational (or spiritual), can be both practical and idealistic, and can be both concerned for and indifferent to the fate of others. In other words, people are motivated by somewhat contradictory impulses, but change can come about only by a combination of complex historical forces, most of which Pinker seems to ignore.

Reason and Violence in History

The last point I would like to make concerns Pinker’s statement that today “the Enlightenment is often mentioned with a sneer.”24 One might think that this is quibbling, that out of a 700-page book it is unfair to pick up on a small detail, but I think it goes to the heart of how Pinker’s mind works. After having set up a before and after paradigm turning on the Enlightenment, Pinker then declares that everyone from the Left to theoconservatives, passing over moderate secularists, has disparaged the Enlightenment, resulting in a “colossal amnesia and ingratitude,” only possible because of the “natural whitewashing of history.”25 In other words, we (the reader or the historian, it is not clear) have simply forgotten just how violent the past was and have equally forgotten just how important the Enlightenment was in bringing about a peaceful change.

Pinker does not explicitly say so, but it is possible that his general “disparagement” is a reference to the debates that took place in the 1970s–1990s that emerged out of the Frankfurt School. Spearheaded by the likes of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, they argued that the Enlightenment was not the solution to the problems of modern society, but rather its source.26 To put their argument succinctly, the totalitarianism of the twentieth century was the result of rationalism taken to its extreme, so that the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust. Zygmunt Baumann is probably the best-known proponent of the thesis that the Holocaust was deeply rooted in modern, Western civilization, and that genocide was intertwined with democracy.27

This argument has influenced the way people think about the Enlightenment, which is not to say that scholars have dismissed it or “sneer” at it. In the last decade or two, the Enlightenment has been examined from all sorts of different perspectives—gender, the role of women, science, race, sexuality, as well as geographical foci—leaving us with a far more complex view of it.28 Dan Edelstein, for example, has recently argued that the Terror during the French Revolution emerged from Enlightenment ideas—not the same thing as arguing that the Enlightenment is to blame for the Terror—singling out the tradition of what he calls “natural law” or “natural rights,” the belief that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature.29

All of these debates seem to have gone over Pinker’s head, leaving his readers with the idea of a monolithic Enlightenment that historians have long since discarded.30 Not surprisingly, because it is a theoretical-historical rather than an empirical argument, Pinker fails to mention the powerful illiberal current in Enlightenment thinking. That illiberal current includes, in the West at least, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and the Nazis, all political ideologies that at their core believed humans and human society could be improved through violent means. They all not only advocated but also practiced violence in a methodical way to bring about revolutionary change in society.

Pinker rejects these ideologies as “counter-Enlightenment utopianism.”31 He cannot countenance the idea, for example, that there was a link between the “invention of reason” and the industrial extermination of people carried out by the Nazis, because for him violence is necessarily irrational. That is, I would argue, to misunderstand the fundamental nature of violence. Violence serves a purpose and a function, no matter how “irrational” or “barbaric” or “savage” an act might appear to the outside observer. This is as much the case today as it was in the past. Take as an example rape in warfare, which has become a systematic strategy in some modern theaters of war. In Mozambique, soldiers often force local men to watch them raping women; the ritual mutilation of victims is carried out by cutting off noses, breasts, penises, and so on; parents are forced to maim or kill their children, to cook and eat them prior to their own execution.32 These are all “rational” and calculated techniques designed to instill terror into populations, thereby preventing them from engaging in organized resistance. At the heart of attempts to understand human motivation behind violence is a question that can be asked of all political ideologies that descend into terror: what makes ordinary people choose violence?33 Of course the process is complicated; it is not just about understanding rhetoric and ideas, but also about placing them in their social and political context.

Getting the History Right

Perhaps historians would be more receptive of Pinker’s claims if he managed to get most of his history right. It is not merely that he makes mistakes—all of us do—but rather that he makes spurious claims based on at best a misinterpretation, or at worst, a complete misunderstanding, of history. I present three examples; two are relatively straightforward, but the third is complicated and has to do (again) with the manner in which Pinker engages—or rather does not engage—with history. First, his use of sources can only be described as eccentric. For example, in one paragraph discussing the power of despots to kill, Pinker cites the story of King Solomon in the Bible, Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, an anecdote about Narasimhadev I of India from the thirteenth century, and Dr. Seuss.34 This apparent inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, legend and reality, examples of which are dotted throughout the book, cannot serve as a substitute for concrete historical evidence. This kind of mishmash would not pass muster in an undergraduate essay, so why should we accept it from Pinker?

Second, Pinker’s figures for violent deaths are sometimes close to what historians generally agree on, but usually on the high and sometimes on the very high end of estimates, and they are presented with an assurance that belies the complexity of the events they represent. The most concerning aspect of these figures is that Pinker simply does not engage with specialists in the field; even when he does, he seems to ignore their findings. For example, Pinker claims that 350,000 died during the Spanish Inquisition. This is wrong: the historiography of the last 20 years shows the Inquisition was not as punitive as was once thought, so that we now think the figure was probably fewer than 10,000 deaths.35 That figure has been suggested by Joseph Pérez in The Spanish Inquisition. What is odd about this is that Pinker actually cites Pérez elsewhere in his book, which leads one to think that Pinker either missed or ignored the figure in question, or he is cherry-picking and chose instead another, higher estimate simply because it supported his theory.

This careless use of statistics shows up starkly in his discussion of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, my area of specialty. Pinker claims the wars resulted in as many as four million deaths, earning a spot on his list of 21 worst things people have ever done to each other.36 Pinker actually conflates the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, but let’s not quibble. It is a figure sometimes cited by historians, but at best it is a guesstimate; no one has ever tried to count the number of deaths resulting from the wars. There are problems of geography—the wars raged from Andalucía in Spain to the region of Moscow, from Amsterdam to the Illyrian coast, and everything in between—without taking into account the global scale of the wars. There are also problems around the lack of documentation. It is simply not possible to get accurate figures for the numbers of men who died in skirmishes or battles—those killed in the field, or who later died of their wounds—let alone the number of civilians who died, either directly or indirectly from disease and starvation, as a consequence of the wars. As a result, figures for civilian deaths among historians vary wildly, from between 750,000 and 5 million people.37 It might be less than the lowest estimate or more than the highest; we simply do not know. A few regional studies have been done. The French presence in Calabria, in southern Italy, led to a diminution of 21,000 people out of an estimated population of a little more than 800,000.38 That is about 2 to 3 percent of the population, but we do not know how many died and how many simply fled a region of intense violence. Recent studies of the impact of the war in Spain between 1808 and 1814 have estimated the total number of deaths at between 560,000 and 885,000 people (out of a population of 10 million), that is, between 5 and 8 percent of the population, including death by disease and famine.39 But Calabria and Spain are the two regions hardest hit by the wars and we cannot extrapolate from there to the rest of Europe, where figures would have varied enormously from region to region.

As for military deaths, we have a reasonably accurate figure for the number of casualties among French troops. Of the two million men (French and foreign) conscripted in Napoleon’s Grande Armée between 1803 and 1814, probably around 900,000 men (and some women) died, the majority not on the battlefield but as a result of their wounds or of disease.40 According to the most accurate assessment to date, the total number of French troops who died between 1798 and 1815 is estimated at around 1.7 million men.41 But, we cannot know the casualties for the other European combatant armies because no one has counted them. Nor do we know with any degree of accuracy what percentage of the French male population the casualties represent. One historian cites the figure of 38 percent of French males born between 1790 and 1795 who died during the wars; another 20 percent.42 In 1806, the total population of France, without the territories incorporated into the empire, was probably just over 29 million. The death toll therefore was probably 5.8 percent of the total population. Compare this to the number of French males born between 1891 and 1894 who fell during World War I: 14 percent, according to one historian, 25 percent according to another.43 Even when historians do know roughly how many died in a conflict, they will disagree about how to interpret those figures.


Does this kind of criticism around history and the numbers of dead discredit Pinker or detract from his overall thesis? I would argue that it does, largely because it highlights the difficulties historians routinely face when trying to decide what constitutes reliable historical evidence, especially when the evidence is sparse or partial. Pinker’s thesis ultimately fails because he has a limited depth of understanding of history and historical methodology. In effect, Pinker wants history to neatly fit his thesis. Without an intimate knowledge of history, his work can never be more than a collection of generalizations based upon flawed notions of who people were and why they acted the way they did. He constantly exaggerates the violence of the past in order to support his claim that previous centuries were, statistically speaking, much more violent than the present. He almost never, if at all, questions the accuracy or the nature of the sources he uses. We therefore end up with a problematic hypothesis, backed by somewhat doubtful empirical data, and an even more problematic theory. I am referring to Norbert Elias’s the “civilizing process,” upon which other contributors in this special issue elaborate. The point worth underlining here is that the past is never a linear progression and that life was not always “nasty, brutish, and short.” If any “whitewashing” is going on, it is not that we, as professional historians, have forgotten the violence of the past, but that Pinker, as amateur historian, has failed to seriously engage with our work.


Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Allen Lane, 2011), 133.


David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).


For empathy, see the review of Pinker by Hannah Skoda in http://ideas nowandthen.blogspot.com.au/. For self-restraint, see Dennis Smith, Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory (London: Sage, 2001), 161–166.


Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 32.


Pinker, Better Angels, 172–177.


Gordon S. Wood, “Natural, Equal, Universal,” New York Times, 8 April 2007.


Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).


Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).


Pinker, Better Angels, 180, 183.


Robert Darnton, “An Enlightened Revolution?,” New York Review of Books (24 October 1991), 33–36, put the question a little differently: “How did the cultural system of the Old Regime contribute to the political explosion of 1789?”; Roger Chartier, Les origines culturelles de la Révolution française (Paris: Seuil, 1990), 86–115, posed the question differently again: “Do books make revolutions?”


Pinker, Better Angels, 477.


Ibid., 645.


Timothy Tackett, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015), 29–30, 33–38.


Roger Chartier, “The Chimera of the Origin: Archaeology, Cultural History, and the French Revolution,” in Foucault and the Writing of History, ed. Jan Goldstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 167–186, here 175–177.


See Richard J. Evans, Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany, 1600–1987 (London: Penguin, 1996), 135, 214, 193–196, 225–226; and Mark Hewitson, Absolute War: Violence and Mass Warfare in the German Lands, 1792–1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 128–131.


Matthew White, “‘Rogues of the Meaner Sort’? Old Bailey Executions and the Crowd in the Early Nineteenth Century,” The London Journal 33, no. 2 (2008): 135–153.


Pinker, Better Angels, 149.


Times, 13 November 1849. My thanks to Una McIlvenna for pointing this out.


Lynn Hunt, “The Paradoxical Origins of Human Rights,” in Human Rights and Revolutions, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Lynn Hunt, and Marilyn B. Young (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 3–17; Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, 32, 35–58.


Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown Publishing, 2017).


Simon Devereaux, “The Promulgation of the Statutes in Late Hanoverian Britain,” in The British and Their Laws in the Eighteenth Century, ed. David Lemmings (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005), 80–101, here 85–86; James Sharpe, A Fiery … Furious People: A History of Violence in England (New York: Random House, 2016), 393, 394, 396.


James A. Rawley, with Stephen D. Behrendt, The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 15, 111, 113.


Hideaki Suzuki, “Abolitions as a Global Experience: An Introduction,” in Abolitions as a Global Experience, ed. Hideaki Suzuki (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015), 1–24, here 7–9.


Pinker, Better Angels, 133.




A good summary of the anti-Enlightenment trend is in Hunt, “The Paradoxical Origins of Human Rights,” 4–5.


Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990). For a critique of this approach see, Marsha Healy, “The Holocaust, Modernity and the Enlightenment,” Res Publica 3, no. 1 (1997): 35–59.


See Charles W. J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1–6, for an overview of recent scholarly trends.


Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 127–169. See also the critique by Annie Jourdan (http://www.laviedesidees.fr/Le-mystere-dela-Terreur.html), and Dan Edelstein’s reply (http://www.laviedesidees.fr/La-Re publique-la-nature-et-le.html).


Withers, Placing the Enlightenment, 41.


Pinker, Better Angels, 207–208.


See, for example, K. B. Wilson, “Cults of Violence and Counter-Violence in Mozambique,” Journal of Southern African Studies 18, no. 3 (September 1992): 527–582; and John Keane, Violence and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 54–65.


The question has motivated books as diverse as Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), and Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).


Pinker, Better Angels, 159.


Joseph Pérez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 173.


Pinker, Better Angels, figure 5–18, p. 230.


Charles J. Esdaile, The Wars of Napoleon (London: Longman, 1995), 300, estimates a figure of one million civilian losses.


Cited in Nicolas Cadet, “Violences de guerre et transmission de la mémoire des conflits à travers l’exemple de la campagne de Calabre de 1806–1807,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française 348 (April–June 2007): 147–163, here 153.


Esteban Canales, “1808–1814: Démographie et guerre en Espagne,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française 336 (April–June 2004): 37–52; Vicente Pérez Moreda, “Las crisis demográficas del periodo napoleónico en España,” in La guerra de Napoleón en España: Reacciones, imágenes, consecuencias, ed. Emilio La Parra López (Madrid: Casa de Velázquez, 2010), 305–332.


Jacques Houdaille, “Le problème des pertes de la guerre,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 17 (1970): 411–423.


Jacques Houdaille, “Pertes de l’armée de terre sous l’empire,” Population 27 (1972): 27–50.


Peter Browning, The Changing Nature of Warfare: The Development of Land Warfare from 1792 to 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 45.


Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012), 37; David Gates, Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001), 55; John A. Lynn, “Nations in Arms 1763–815,” in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare, ed. Geoffrey Parker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 210.

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Contributor Notes

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.