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Blogging Better Angels: The Bad Old Days

Blogging Better Angels: The Bad Old Days

Back in May, I reviewed Steven Pinker’s hugely ambitious new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline of violence through history. I couldn’t do justice to all the ideas in this book with a single post, so I promised to return to it and write about Pinker’s argument in more detail. It’s taken me a while, but I’m getting back to that promise now. I plan to write several posts exploring some of the major ideas put forth in the book, which I intend to eventually collect into an essay for Ebon Musings.

Pinker’s first major theme is that, when comparing the present to past eras, we tend to forget just how violent the past really was. Some people speak fondly of “the good old days“, which they romanticize as a peaceful, pastoral existence lacking the squalor and dangers of modern civilization. But the reality is that our civilization, today, is probably the safest and most peaceful that the planet has ever known. For ordinary people throughout most of history, life was a constant struggle to survive, with violence an omnipresent reality and death from war, crime or disease a perpetual danger. What’s more, the people of those eras accepted, and even cheered on, a level of brutality and violence that most people today would find sickening and unimaginable.

Much of this casual sadism was bound up with religion: the fact of a cruel world justified belief in a cruel god, which the religious and secular authorities then used to justify additional cruelty, in a seemingly endless cycle. In an especially quotable passage, Pinker discusses graphically what the Christian idea of the crucifixion really means and invites us to consider how sincere belief in this idea would inform a person’s worldview:

“In allowing the crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor. Though infinitely powerful, compassionate, and wise, he could think of no other way to reprieve humanity from punishment for its sins (in particular, for the sin of being descended from a couple who had disobeyed him) then to allow an innocent man (his son no less) to be impaled through the limbs and slowly suffocate in agony. By acknowledging that this sadistic murder was a gift of divine mercy, people could earn eternal life. And if they failed to see the logic in all this, their flesh would be seared by fire for all eternity.” [p.14]

In the early medieval eras, Christians wrote martyrologies that described the torture and execution of saints with “pornographic relish” [p.14]. For example, Pinker quotes a Christian poet named Prudentius who wrote of a believer watching her son be roasted alive: “[She] showed no signs of grief, rejoicing rather each time the pan hissing hot above the olive wood roasted and scorched her child.” [p.15] Other martyrologies praised saints who were variously crucified, impaled, sawn in half, crushed, stoned, beheaded, disemboweled, or broken on the wheel (in which a person was tied to a wagon wheel, their arms and legs smashed with hammers, and then left to slowly die of internal hemorrhage).

When Christians gained secular power, of course, they wasted no time in inflicting on their enemies punishments at least as vicious as the treatment once shown to them. As Pinker puts it, “Medieval Christendom was a culture of cruelty”, used by the Inquisition against Jews, heretics, dissenters, and accused witches, as well as by kings and princes against enemies of the state. And torture wasn’t hidden or euphemized the way it is today; rather, as Pinker puts it, torture was “cultivated and celebrated” as “an outlet for artistic and technological creativity” [p.130]. The whole ideas was taken so lightly that many torture devices were given “whimsical names” [p.132], and people being tortured to death was considered popular entertainment, attracting throngs of spectators to watch the condemned burn at the stake, hang from gibbets or starve in iron cages. (Here’s an illustration, taken from the book, of some common medieval torture methods. Be warned: These are only drawings, but they’re graphic.) Several popes explicitly authorized torture, and one, Pope Paul IV, was himself a former Grand Inquisitor who had carried out his duties with relish.

The height of medieval religious bloodshed was, of course, the Crusades, a series of religious wars in which European armies on a holy mission massacred their way down to the Middle East, slaughtering Jewish and Muslim villages they came across. The political scientist R.J. Rummel estimates the total deaths at 1 million; since the world at the time had about one-sixth of today’s population, this would be equivalent to 6 million deaths in the modern world, about the same as the Nazi genocide of World War II.

One might think that the theocratic cruelty of the Catholic church would make those who broke away from it more peaceful, so as not to emulate their hated enemies. But if anything, during the Reformation era, the early Protestant leaders competed to outdo the popes in brutality. I’ve written elsewhere about how Martin Luther, a notorious and vicious anti-Semite, wrote books like On the Jews and Their Lies, calling for all Jews to be enslaved for forced labor. Another major founder of Protestantism, John Calvin, argued that blasphemers should be silenced by law:

“Some say that because the crime consists only of words there is no cause for such severe punishment. But we muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouths and say what they please?” [p.142]

The Catholic-Protestant divisions were a direct cause of the European Wars of Religion, which plunged the continent into war for much of the 1500s and 1600s. The death tolls from these wars were staggering: for instance, it’s been estimated that the Thirty Years’ War killed as much as 30% of the population of Germany, as compared to about 5% for World War II. Similarly, the English Civil War killed almost half a million people, a loss that was proportionally greater than World War I.

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Although territorial and political differences also played into these wars, it was the religious differences of the combatants that made them so bloody and intractable. As the historian Garrett Mattingly notes, “As religious issues came to dominate political ones, any negotiations with the enemies… looked more and more like heresy and treason. The questions which divided Catholics from Protestants had ceased to be negotiable.” The historian Evan Luard adds that “those who fought in the name of their faith were often less likely than any to show humanity to their opponents” [p.234], citing the example of Oliver Cromwell, who during the English Civil War conquered the Irish town of Drogheda and then massacred many of the inhabitants, calling it a “righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches”.

After over a century of atrocious killing, the European Wars of Religion finally burned themselves out and culminated with the Peace of Westphalia, affirming that each local ruler could decide the official religion of his state or province – by the standards of time, an advance. (As Pinker notes, “Pope Innocent X was not a good sport about this: he declared the Peace ‘null, void, invalid, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time'” [p.143]). But in the New World, as colonizers encountered native people, the violence and genocides continued. In 1638, for example, New England Puritans exterminated the Pequot nation, following which the Puritan minister Increase Mather called for the people to thank God “that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to Hell” [p.333]. Mather, as Pinker notes, went on to become president of Harvard University.

It’s not just the Western world that’s seen violence of this level, nor is Christianity the only religion that’s been used to justify bloodshed. On the contrary, the propitiation of cruel deities through holy war and human sacrifice is a constant all over the world, as is the fact that elevating secular and parochial values into sacred values makes compromise or mercy to heretics almost unthinkable. As one illustration from a non-Western culture, Better Angels quotes a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text, where the god Krishna chastises the warrior Arjuna for being reluctant to go into battle: “There is no better engagement for you than fighting on religious principles,” Krishna explains, and because the soul is immortal and indestructible by weapons, there’s no need to mourn for those who are killed [p.334]. Although particular religious movements, like the Quakers, have been active in promoting peace and reconciliation in particular times and places, as Pinker puts it, “The theory that religion is a force for peace… does not fit the facts of history” [p.677].

Coming up: What are the real historical forces promoting peace? Pinker argues that Thomas Hobbes was right about one of them.

Image credit: istolethetv, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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