Thursday, 22 August 2013

Quote of the day: The past is a violent country

On a day when hundreds of Syrians are reported cold-bloodedly gassed by their government, it might seem almost obscene to post a quote celebrating modernity’s declining level of violence, but read on…

“A common misconception often quoted by media, politicians, activists is that violence is on the rise and has historically been much lower. Similarly, the trend in post-colonial anthropology has been to regard historically indigenous and tribal societies as more peaceful than contemporary Western society. However, archaeological handshakeevidence shows that previous societies had very high level of violence. Likewise, modern tribal societies typically too have extremely high rates of violence, with more than half of deaths being violence related in some cases. Ancient and medieval empires had lower rates of violence, and the violence decreased further as empires became more organized. Modern societies saw still lower rates of violence from the medieval period onwards, with significant decreases after World War II. This trend is general across all categories of violence, from large-scale warfare to murder and animal cruelty, and the trend is discernible on both millennium, century and decade scale, making modern societies the most peaceful the world has even seen.” (Source and references here.)

Hat tip for the quotation to Stephen Hicks, who says, “Take that, shades of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx. And props to the Capitalist Peace and Democratic Peace theses. We are making progress.”

Except, as recent headlines affirm, in the Middle East.

Book Cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its CausesThe source of much of that quote above is Steven Pinker, who recognises the problem.

In a century that began with 9/ 11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.

And it does. But he does make his case, with both dates and data, that for the most part mass violence in the west today is the aberration rather than the norm.  Even the martial impulse is dulled.  “In the West today public places are no longer named after military victories. Our war memorials depict not proud commanders on horseback but weeping mothers, weary soldiers, or exhaustive lists of names of the dead.” Neither Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell nor David Petraeus are ever likely to get themselves a mainstreet statue.

I suspect his response to the slaughters in Cairo and Syria would be that the wholesale violence we see today, especially against their own citizens, is predominantly in those places that most enthusiastically reject the secular and the individualistic modern, and most thoroughly embrace the tribal and religious past. 

And “if the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one.”


  1. Excellent post. The human species is on a continuous upward trajectory. Despite that, why do so many assume things are getting worse, even when they're getting better? Why does every generation think the younger generation have lesser standards than there own? I'm not sure exactly - but think both are related. As you get older most become wiser - but seems the tendency to highlight the negatives and ignore the positives also increases with age.

  2. There is no such thing as the human species, humans suffer from the narcissistic delusion that they are the be-all and end-all of mankind.

    At times human civilization was sick and pitiful compared to the society of the so-called "barbarians".

    Homo humanus and homo barbarus are the original terms used by Cicero to distinguish between Romans and non-Romans.

  3. "On a day when hundreds of Syrians are reported cold-bloodedly gassed by their government........"

    Were they? Or were they gassed by the mob that is being funded and trained by US interests? What is for certain is you do not know. It would be a good thing to find out for certain before writing so carelessly.


  4. @Amit, please note the word "reportedly" there. I'm relying on the same news reports you are.

  5. PC

    "I'm relying on the same news reports you are."

    Clearly you are not, for if you were, then you'd not have written what you did. As an Objectivist dealing in objective reality you'd have been concerned about why Western interests fund this ugly civil war. You'd be trying to understand why it is the West DOES have a dog in this fight (and why it should not). You'd be wondering why the West is funding "radical Islam" and violence and terror. You'd be genuinely concerned by the hypocracy of the Western media baying for war in Syria after an allegation of a gas attack causing hundred or so deaths, meanwhile giving a free pass to the Egyptian govt atrocities and its brutal killings of thousands of civilians earlier this month. Is the US going to invade Egypt? No! Of course not. That govt is a client- a satrap. As an Objectivist you'd have commented about this, but you didn't. You are you relying on the wrong sources for your information about what is going on.



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