The Better Angels of Our Nature: A Look Into The History of Violence and Its Impact on Politics
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau
The state of nature refers to the hypothetical idea of how humans would think and act without any form of civilized society. Throughout history, the state of nature has been debated by a number of important philosophers, namely Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The essential idea of Hobbes is that in the state of nature, humans are violent and constantly at war with one and another. This is because everyone will do what they need to in order to survive, which will result in a focus of only survival and ensuring safety for oneself. Locke generally agreed with this theory, although his proposed solutions were less extreme than those of Hobbes. Jean Jacques Rousseau on the other hand, was an 18th century philosopher who argued that by the state of nature humans are pure and good but as we evolved into society, we became “plagued” and individualistic with capitalist values. Both of these theories are incredibly abstract and ultimately come down to personal opinion. However, they are also incredibly important to consider when analyzing modern politics and the societies in which they play out.
The Better Angels of Our Nature, written by Steven Pinker, dives deeply into the idea of the state of nature and how violence in human societies has decreased significantly over time. Although many of us think that we live in a particularly complicated period, Pinker breaks down the facts and figures as to why our cutting edge technological area is in fact one of the most peaceful times humankind has ever seen. In agreement with Hobbes, Pinker claims that we have evolved through the chaos of anarchy into a civilised society and that this is ultimately the best possible outcome that we could achieve as humanity and this theory seems like a good one when first considered. Looking back the times of the Romans and even through to the era of the Tudors, we can see that violence was common in almost every aspect of life. This was particularly evident in the legal system, that frequently hung, executed and physically tortured people as a form of punishment. Violence was also a form of entertainment and often used as a way to exploit the poor to gratify the rich. When looking at the evolution of society from this perspective, it's easy to understand Pinkers perspective and agree that we are evolving in the best possible direction, but it is incredibly important to look at the alternative ways that society could have developed and how they impact us today.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature
Although a decline in human violence is extremely evident and has led us to be relatively peaceful nowadays, with the security of law and order that has expanded past a communal level and into a multinational sphere, it's important to consider that this may not be the ultimate goal for humans as a species and that maybe there are alternative ways that our society could have developed that would make us happier and more peaceful than we are today. Looking at the theory of Jean Jaques Rousseau, we could assume that by nature, humans are peaceful and work together in communities to thrive. However, due to the constraints of society, for example social class, we are forced to comply with a capitalist way of life that takes away from the true human experience. We are so consumed with materialistic values that we have strayed away from our true state of nature and this is what causes violence. According to this theory, humans in their current state are forced by society to be individualistic and violent, but we have just created an effective system to control violence. In this case, we have almost evolved backwards, from working collectively on a small scale to achieve common goals, to creating a capitalist world where everyone must compete just to meet the basic standards of life. This theory relates closely to politics and law because it is evident that we have evolved past the point where we could live in a collectivized and peaceful manner. However, had societies developed in a different way, without monarchs, kingdoms, empires, social classes and most importantly the use of violence, would we be closer to the state of nature and ultimately happier? Is it possible that our decline in violence is actually as far away as we could possibly be from the state of nature if we were never violent in the first place? And have we built the basis of our societies and our legal systems on issues that are not innately human but rather a social construct?
The theories of Hobbes and Rousseau, as well as our own idea of the state of nature, are essential to keep in mind when thinking about modern global issues. Undoubtedly, there is a construct of the way in which our world runs itself and the issues that stem out of our systems. However, thinking back to how and why our society is the way that it is can give us new insight and understanding of global issues in our world, and perhaps inspire innovative solutions as well.
HOBBES, LOCKE, ROUSSEAU | İlim ve Medeniyet. 5 Nov. 2016, www.ilimvemedeniyet.com/hobbes-locke-rousseau.html.
“SOLD OUT: Steven Pinker Discusses the Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined | Rainy Day Books.” Www.rainydaybooks.com, www.rainydaybooks.com/StevenPinker. Accessed 25 Jan. 2022.