Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings
May 8, 2018
“For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death,
health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want,
freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering,
and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”
The Age of Enlightenment extended from the late 17thCentury to the early 19th. It built on the studies and writings of Galileo, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, RenéDescartes and Baruch Spinoza. It encompassed writers, thinkers, scientists and essayists, from Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and David Hume to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot and Thomas Jefferson. It inspired revolutions in America and France, and ultimately gave way to the Romantic period of the 19thCentury.
Early in his book, into which he squeezes 75 charts in 23 chapters, Professor Pinker quotes the American columnist Franklin P. Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the ‘good old days’ than a bad memory.” That is his thesis. Despite the horrors of the 20thCentury and the Islamic terrorism we are now experiencing, the world has evolved for the better. And credit is owed to the Enlightenment, which, after thousands of years with little progress, unleashed a cascade of science, reason and humanism. The consequence was a healthier, wealthier and more humane world. Its positive effects Professor Pinker shows through charts that depict the remarkable increase in life expectancy, the decline in undernourishment, the dramatic increase in global GDP per capita and the subsequent reduction in extreme poverty. As well, the Enlightenment brought democracy, greater equality, and improvements in the environment, safety and quality of life. These changes are quantified in a series of easily-readable charts and descriptions.
In Part I of the book, Pinker outlines the ideas of the Enlightenment; in Part II, he shows that they worked. Part III is a defense of those ideas and ideals – that they are as important today as they were when conceived. We should not let them dissipate in political emotionalism. The message is that progress and humanism are based on science and reason, which in turn are products of democracy, freedom, capitalism and affluence.
As in any book of this nature, questions arose: At what point does governmental social welfare spending and the debt it requires impede economic growth? Does government assistance interfere with individual creativity? Is it better to teach people to fish than give them a fish? To that, Pinker would answer, yes. Can an all-encompassing, all-powerful administrative state morph into autocracy? If the world is growing more liberal and more secular, what explains the rise of illiberal Islamic caliphates? Professor Pinker writes of totalitarianism shrinking, but one wonders, is that correct with governments in Russia and China becoming more despotic. What is the future for the people of Venezuela and Nicaragua where Socialism is dying an ugly death? He dismisses religion in a way I found uncomfortable, for, while science has explained many mysteries, it has not explained all. For example, from whence did the energy and matter, which comprised the microscopic particle that produced the “Big Bang,” emerge? Religion, from my understanding, does not require scientific proof and can co-exist with science. Besides, religion, when it is not imposed by the state, serves to comfort those who are fearful, sick, dying or simply feeling hopeless and in need of love’s salvation.
But my disagreements with the author and his politics that percolate beneath the surface were minor. Professor Pinker’s story is a herculean effort to explain why the present is so much better than the past – that progress has indeed changed our lives for the better, that fond memories of the past belie hardships endured, that a failure to see how far we have come deprives youth cognizance of their fortunate inheritance. And he does so in a readable and enjoyable way. Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist (and best-selling author) at Harvard. Another of his books, Sense and Style, which was published in 2014, is, in my opinion, a book all aspiring writers should keep within arm’s reach.
Enlightenment Nowcovers a lot of ground. It takes time to digest, but the effort is worthwhile.