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Enlightenment Now:
The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

by steven pinker
viking, 576 pages, $35

Steven Pinker, as his blurb reminds us, has been reckoned by Time magazine among the “hundred most influential people in the world today.” In Enlightenment Now he devotes more than five hundred ­pages to making the case for “reason, ­science, ­humanism, and progress.” It’s not really clear why pushing a rolling stone downhill should be such hard work, but Pinker seems to think that the four horsemen of the Acro­polis are under attack now as never before. I can’t say I’d noticed. There aren’t that many people against reason or science, and as for humanism and progress, well, it all depends on what you mean.

For the most part, Enlightenment Now is an effective enough demonstration against professional doom-mongers that the world ­today is populated by more, healthier, ­wealthier, longer-lived, better-housed, better-educated, and better-equipped people than ever before. If Pinker confined himself to setting people straight on some key facts, no problem. But there is an element of mission creep as he glides effortlessly from the domain of facts and science to the domain of values and judgments—a domain in which the scientific method certainly has not managed to produce consensus. For Enlightenment Now is not just a recitation of reasons to be cheerful. It is also an exercise in confessional polemics, and it displays the virtues and vices of its genre. The polemics are in aid of secular humanism rather than Christianity or Islam, but the methods are much the same. It is often jolly and entertaining, especially when on the attack against confessional targets such as religion or postmodernism, but it can be preachy and it tends to the prolix. And it subjects its own presuppositions to somewhat less ­critical scrutiny than those of its opponents. Tedium is likely to beset those readers who simply want to focus on the arguments, though the liturgical incantation of the ­triumphs of the truth will comfort true ­believers. The tricks of the trade are all on show: selectivity, special pleading, sleight of hand, straw men, strategic statistics, suggestio falsi, suppressio veri.

Pinker is not averse to having his cake and eating it. For “Enlightenment” turns out to be shorthand for “what I like.” And “­Enlightenment thinkers,” likewise, seem to cash out as “people like me.” Is it mere coincidence that the Johnstone Family Professor of ­Psychology at Harvard University sees the members of this various group as “inquisitive psychologists”? When they receive the Pinker seal of approval, they are “Enlightenment thinkers.” At other moments, they are peremptorily excommunicated. Thus ­Rousseau, an Enlightenment thinker on page 10, becomes on page 30 a Romantic reactionary pushing back hard against Enlightenment values, before being readmitted to the fold two hundred pages later.

The “Enlightenment thinkers” invoked throughout this story therefore remain an ill-defined and ill-assorted bunch. Their role in the argument is reminiscent of that of the “Fathers” in Christian controversy, with Pinker as the self-appointed pope whose ex cathedra obiter dicta decide what is, and what is not, in the authentic tradition. These “Enlightenment thinkers” are the subject of bold if unsubstantiated claims. Thus “most” of them, it seems, rejected the idea of an “anthropomorphic God” (as do most theologians). But “some” of them were deists (though not theists) and “others” pantheists, while “few” were Christians. In the absence of definitions or numbers, it is rather difficult to put this taxonomy to the test. It bolsters that sneaking suspicion that “people like me” is indeed the functional criterion.

But then again, some of the lists of “Enlightenment thinkers” call even that into question. The presentation of opponents of war gives us Swift, Dr. Johnson, Pascal, and Voltaire: two Tory Anglicans, a Jansenist, and a Jesuit-educated deist anticlerical. Historical scholarship on the Enlightenment has for quite some time deprecated the simplistic secularism of the interpretation that Pinker espouses. Enlightenment Europe remained predominantly Christian (though deism and atheism were now firmly on the intellectual and moral menu), and most of those who read the Enlightenment thinkers, and were influenced by them, were themselves Christians. Education, health care, and social and political reform (such as the abolition of slavery) may indeed have been Enlightenment causes, but this did not stop them being Christian causes as well, or at least causes for Christians. Christians of all kinds, Presbyterians, Quakers, Evangelicals, Catholics, clergy and laity alike, were busy in the processes by which what Pinker defines as Enlightenment values were given real expression in the nineteenth century. But confessional partisanship often encourages polemicists to exaggerate the achievements of their own side and to diminish those of others. There is no obvious reason why confessional atheists, or humanists, or rationalists like Pinker should break that particular mold.

The glide from science to ethics is accomplished with the aid of the trademark Pinker graphs, seventy-five in this book. Graphs make things look very simple and persuasive. In books like this, that’s what they’re for. But they depend on counting things, and counting things depends first and foremost on deciding what does and doesn’t count. Counting things has worked very well where “things” are clear-cut, predominantly in the natural sciences. But in the tangled webs of human society, things aren’t always like that, as Pinker is well aware. Counting things does not always make for good history (as was once said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, count”) and is virtually useless for purposes of philosophy. Moreover, carefully selected and carefully drawn as they are, Pinker’s graphs do not always bear out his slick ­generalizations.

The first education graph, for example, apparently informs us that until the Enlightenment, all languished in ignorance, while since that happy dawn, all have come to the light. But the graph itself tells a less ­binary story, showing a long, differen­tiated rise in much of Europe and the West since the later Middle Ages. In ­Pinker’s version of the story, religion is mentioned only to explain why Spain remained so long in benighted ignorance: all those nasty clergymen in control of the schools, teaching only creeds and catechisms. Maybe so: Education and literacy arguably advanced slowest in Europe where the Inquisition was strongest. Yet it was the clergy also, or at least definite Christians—including, toward the end, nuns—who provided almost all the schooling anywhere prior to 1800, and most of it over the next hundred years. In many countries, the march to near universal literacy was achieved largely under the leadership of priests and pastors—fastest, after the Reformation, in Protestant countries, perhaps because direct familiarity with the Scriptures was so highly prized. Over the longue durée it was the Church, and then the churches, which built up so many of the institutions of learning. Within the context of European culture, the high social valuation of education that Pinker appropriates for his secular Enlightenment was a Christian and even a medieval cultural legacy. But we hear nothing of this. Pinker himself is only too well aware of the insidious effects of cognitive bias. So it is salutary to observe how easy it is for even Steven, the high priest of reason, to succumb to it.

That the world as a whole sees less per-capita everyday lethal violence than in the early modern era, and vastly less than in ancient and again in prehistoric times, has become something of a truism. To get a sense of what living in the ancient world was really like, for example, try reading Josephus’s Jewish War, his account of the century or so culminating in the Roman sack of ­Jerusalem. But the self-­congratulatory narrative graphed in Enlightenment Now fails to persuade. It is difficult to see “the Enlightenment” as the bringer of peace when we consider the spectacular destruction and death tolls of the wars of the ensuing two centuries. Of course, using the vigorous gymnastics of controversial exigency, one can deflect responsibility for those wars onto “Counter-Enlightenment” forces. But it is harder for those who are not confessionally committed to the Enlightenment to exonerate it so completely from responsibility for revolutionary fervor, nationalism, imperialism, and Marxism—the driving forces of the ensuing slaughters. Pinker chalks up World War I to a populist nationalism that he feels entitled to cut off from the Enlightenment. But the Kultur of German propaganda in 1914–1915, endorsed by hundreds of scientists and academics, sounds like a war cry for Enlightenment values (or some of them) against decadence on one front and primitivism on the other.

Nor is one entirely persuaded by the secondhand statistics of Matthew White’s “necrometrics,” adduced to justify such claims as that “religious wars” (a tricky category if ever there was one, at times little more than a construct by which the emerging secular nation-states sought to legitimize their own power), particularly of an earlier age, were so much more destructive and lethal than the wars of the era of mature nation-states and global empires; and that civil wars tend to be less destructive and lethal than other wars (as say on page 164, before undercutting that view on 199). Of course it helps to define civil wars such as those in Britain in the seventeenth century and in France in the sixteenth century as “wars of religion.” (Pinker himself manages to insinuate that the American Civil War might somehow belong in that category.) And it may be just as helpful to set the innumerate claims of medieval chroniclers on a par with the meticulous casualty lists of modern conflicts, or to gloss over the extent to which, until relatively recent times, so much mortality in war was a matter of epidemic disease in unsanitary encampments (thus, often, displacing and intensifying the impact of disease rather than indexing brutality and cruelty). The whole exercise of weighing up wars in this way, though well worth the attempt, is fraught with those problems of definition and verification on which, in other contexts, Pinker himself is the first to insist.

What some critics identify as the bitter fruits of the Enlightenment, then, Pinker simply picks off and hangs on other trees. Populism, to which he is as allergic as the next bien pensant, owes part of its appeal to a thoroughly Enlightened rejection of aristocracy and authority. Nationalism is hardly unconnected with the Enlightenment. Some “Enlightenment thinkers” may have been “citizens of the world,” but most were more specifically rooted than that. Romanticism itself, which Pinker sees solely in terms of a “Counter-Enlightenment,” is a product of the Enlightenment as well as a reaction against it. The nation-state and nationalism, treated alike with aloof disdain, are a major part of the explanation for that massive decline in everyday levels of violence which Pinker documents. Either they are part of the Enlightenment, or they are not. Either way, the Pinker thesis will have to give a little.

For a more delicate and differentiated inquiry into the intellectual and moral condition of modernity, one might turn to Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which combines historical rigor with philosophical acuity, and fully acknowledges the material and moral achievements of Western modernity, while not allowing itself so readily to absolve that same modernity of the excesses and atrocities that Pinker offloads onto the obscurantist enemies of Enlightenment. Gregory’s disquieting but irrefutable observation that “the fundamental categories at the basis of Western modernity’s most influentially institutionalized philosophy—liberalism—cannot be rationally legitimated on the terms of the scientistic naturalism that prevails in research universities in the public sphere” offers a robust counter to Pinker’s humanistic huffing and puffing. Modern liberalism and modern science are both, from one point of view, products of the Enlightenment, but that does not make them the same thing, nor does it even establish any logical or necessary relation between them.

Liberalism and science both presuppose the fact-value distinction of the Enlightenment, but science is all about facts, and liberalism is all about values. The Pinker ­project, pursued through its seventy-five graphs, is to make us think that the values of liberalism can be established by the methods of science, that morality can be established em­pirically. Well, we’ve known since Kant that it can’t. Kant labored valiantly to base morality on reason alone, offering the dogmas of conscience and the categorical imperative as the dictates of pure practical reason. But here we have to take some heed of Nietzsche, who, more mercilessly than anyone else, called out the empirical nakedness of the Kantian imperator. At one level, all he does is stand Kant on his head, responding to the categorical imperative—“You must”—with the equally categorical interrogative of the obstreperous child: “Why should I?” It’s a good question.

While he figures in Pinker’s narrative simply as the arch-enemy of the Enlightenment, Nietzsche takes us to the heart of the problem. For if he is the Enlightenment’s most potent critic, he is likewise its rebellious child, turning its distrust for authority against itself. Pinker is quite right to quote the immortal Jeeves’s lapidary judgment that Nietzsche was “fundamentally unsound.” But the Wodehousian allusion brings ­irresistibly to mind another of the master’s comic creations, the Reverend Harold ­Pinker, the clumsy clergyman who could not be trusted within ten feet of any occasional table freighted with ornamental crockery. An exponent of muscular secularism rather than muscular Christianity, Professor ­Steven Pinker shoulders his way into the china shop of history with equally devastating effect.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Making of Martin Luther.

Photo by Bhaawest via Creative Commons. Image cropped.