Does literature make us better human beings? Can poetry lead us to moral action? Do novels encourage us to be more empathetic? These are age-old questions, of course. But I was thinking of them after finishing Steven Pinker’s much-talked about book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Why Violence has Declined.
Pinker, an internationally best-selling author, argues (via secondary evidence) that our society has been the most peaceful in history. Recognizing that he faces a skeptical reader, Pinker assembles nearly 800 pages to show how modernity abhors violence in the home, the neighborhood, and the globe.
If you think that the twentieth-century has produced the most conflict in history, Pinker has countless charts and graphs to persuade you otherwise. He demonstrates, for instance, that the Mongol invasions proportionally caused more deaths than the two world wars of the twentieth century.
Persuasive, the book is also overly long, overwhelmed by parataxis—one example following the other. At the same time, it promotes an End-of-History type of teleology and an untroubled faith in enlightenment thinking. Of all the factors he examines to explain our more irenic humanity, he elevates the power of reasoning. The argument turns out to be another version of the “civilizing process” theory and thus not really that original. Thus the conventionality of the explanation for the decline in violence gives the book a very anti-climactic ending.
Perhaps its sanguine view of humanity and the evolutionary sweep of the argument explain the panegyric treatment it has received in the press. It has become the book to gush over. (Remember the competition last year among critics to see who could heap the most uncritical praise on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom?) It is destined for the Pulitzer.
Pinker outlines an elegant and orderly story of moral progress in which there is little paradox or contradiction – no dialectic between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces but a path towards an angelic future. As a result, Pinker does not ask whether violence could take different forms. How could a peaceful people commit ecocide? How can those dedicated to social harmony exploit others economically? Why would people be so willing to defend their pacific life with weapons of mass destruction?
Violence, he says, is a problem of self-control. Was the Holocaust not a product of a civilized society? Was the dropping of the atomic bomb not an act of cold reason? Was the police officer spraying the students at UC Davis not a logical individual?
Sometimes Pinker is naïve, as when he points to the growing tolerance of racial difference and of homosexuality. Well, who essentialized racial and sexual identities in the first place? It seems that modern tolerance is a modern solution to modern constructs such as race and homosexuality. Furthermore, limited to physical force, his notion of violence does not sufficiently take into account economic domination or the merciless assault on the environment. We may no longer be warring but we are certainly warming ourselves to death. Perhaps we are patting ourselves on the back for helping each other climb unto precipice of a menacing volcano.
For those working in literature, it is Pinker’s rejection of empathy as a motivating factor in human behavior that raises concern. Empathy, he believes, may make us more sensitive to the existence of others but does not lead us to moral or practical action. In one respect Pinker is right. Writers, such as Lynn Hunt and Martha Nussbuam, have overblown the possibility of literary texts to “conduce certain type of citizenship.” (Inventing Human Rights. A History and Cultivating Humanity. A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.)
Surely this type of one-to-one correspondence, though desirable, is not always possible, as Zuzanne Keen has shown (Empathy and the Novel). At the same time, however, we may be expecting too much of literature by demanding of it practical effects while ignoring the multiple perspectives it promotes.
Although we can’t demonstrate conclusively that literature produces these results, can we do of reason? Ultimately what proof does Pinker offer for the power of enlightenment thinking other than conjecture? “Once a society has a degree of civilization in place, it is reason that offers the greatest hope for further reducing violence.” His pages of statistics prove less the force of reason than his faith in reason to bring about the end of force.
What literature may do, as even Pinker admits, is complicate our perceptions and encourage us to consider other viewpoints and even stand in the shoes of others. In this, literature has been always ahead of its time. Let me provide a few examples:
Aeschylus’ play the “Persians” was produced in 472 BCE, eight years after the Battle of Salamis when the Persian invaders had burned the city of Athens. Sitting in the Theater of Dionysus, below the Acropolis, Athenians could still see the evidence of Persian aggression. Yet, the play presents a sympathetic picture of the Persians. The chorus sings of “Persians widowed vain” and “mothers losing sons.” The Persian soldiers are “excellent in soul and nobly bred to grandeur,” but dying in “infamy, dishonor, and in ugliness.” We will never know how the Athenian audience reacted the play’s portrayal of the enemy. But what is important is that it had asked the audience to consider the enemy as mourning mothers and dying sons.
Jumping forth two thousand years, we come to Lessing’s powerful play, “Nathan the Wise” (1779). “We must, we simply must be friends,” Nathan pleads, as he tries to persuade the Knight to relinquish his hatred of Jews. With the Knight unmoved, Nathan asks “Are Jews and Christians rather Jews and Christians/ Than human beings?” For Nathan what is important is to say that “this is a man.”
Of course, we can shrug and ask about the practical consequences of the play. Obviously it did not prevent the spread of anti-Semitism. But it partook in wider discussions about the place of the marginalized in society. That its consequences can’t be measured empirically does not mean the play was inconsequential.
In the same way, by itself Uncle Tom’s Cabin could not have ended slavery. But it contributed to its end by enlarging conversations and by asking people to change their positions. Radclyffe Hall similarly asked readers to imagine the lesbian as daughter, neighbor, and friend rather than as an “abomination.”
To get us to think about ourselves in the position of the other person is what literature is good at. “Isn’t that what is most important about fiction,” Elizabeth Costello says in J. M Coetzee’s eponymous novel, “that it takes us out of ourselves, into other lives?”
Pinker, as a psychologist, argues that there is no empathy center in the brain with its own empathy neurons. I am sure he is right. He also says that empathy does not necessarily cause people to change their behavior, to transform policies and norms. But is this correct?
I continue to enjoy meat because I distance myself from my dinner, never allowing myself to see it as once our baby lamb or the fish in our aquarium. Could someone really harm someone else if he first saw her as a human being in possession of consciousness and body, if he put himself in her position, and imagined her pain and her joy?
“Can’t we simply be friends?” These are powerful words. We don’t sufficiently credit literature for expressing them through the ages, often decades ahead of history, philosophy, political science, sociology, statistical science, and psychology.
“With what stones, what blood, and what iron,” says the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis; “With what fire we are made/ Though we seem pure mist/ And they stone us and say/ That we walk with our head in the clouds.”