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by William H. Benson

January 12, 2012

     Alexander Hamilton was born 257 years ago yesterday, on January 11, 1755. He was a bright and articulate young man, who had served in George Washington’s cabinet as the new government’s first Secretary of Treasury. But at the age of forty-nine, he agreed to a duel with Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president, Aaron Burr. Honor bade Hamilton meet Burr’s challenge. At the duel Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, and the next day he died, a tragic loss to our country. He would have made a great President.

     Steve Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology, published last fall a most interesting book, The Better Angels of our Nature, in which he examines the reasons that underlay the steep decline in levels of violence over the millennium that humanity has ruled our planet. In his book, Pinker describes Hamilton’s decision. “Yet in 1804 this brilliant man did something that by today’s standards was astonishingly stupid.”

     Dueling was by then on the way out. Because New York state had recently outlawed dueling, Burr and Hamilton rowed across the Hudson River to New Jersey to conduct their business. As a means of dispensing with quarrels, dueling was by then considered an act of violence, and so the government had stepped in and made it illegal.

     The state’s assumption of power was one of the reasons that Pinker identified to explain the decline in humankind’s level of violence, and he calls this exchange of power—that from individuals to a governing body—“Leviathan,” a word he borrowed from the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Before there was government, human beings lived in a state of anarchy in which people lashed out at each other constantly. Angry words were said, and murder, rape, pillage, arson, and theft resulted.

     “Human history,” according to Pinker, “is a cavalcade of bloodshed.” Life in the natural state was according to Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

     Pinker writes: “The Leviathan [is] a monarchy or other government authority that embodies the will of the people and has a monopoly on the use of force.” Acts of violence by individuals are now illegal.

     The Roman writer Tacitus noted this renouncement of violence when he wrote, “Formerly we suffered from crimes; now we suffer from laws.”

     As all psychologists are wont to do, Pinker quantifies violence. He produces convincing graphs that show that the murder rate in the twenty-first century stands now at 1 per 100,000 people. That is below the 45 in Detroit in 1980, and far below the 250 among the Aztecs prior to Cortes’ arrival. It is also a significant distance below the 500 to 600 average across 27 societies at various times in the past.

     According to Pinker, we live in one of the safest times in human history. “This discovery confounds every stereotype about the idyllic past and the degenerate present.”

     Was this “Pacification Process” caused by religion. No way, Pinker argues. The sacred books of religion of ages past contain chapters filled to the brim with revenge, warfare, murder, and exploitation. Just read a few pages of the Old Testament, or especially Homer’s Illiad, and you will be repulsed.

     In Pinker’s third chapter, he looks at the work of the twentieth century writer Norbert Elias, whom Pinker calls “the most important thinker you have never heard of.” In 1969 Elias published a book he entitled The Civilizing Process. Elias was most curious to know why and how people civilized themselves. Because he did not have access to the statistics that Pinker has, he read materials that people of past generations wrote, specifically books on manners and etiquette.

     Elias concluded that people living in the Middle Ages must have been vulgar, uncouth, even gross, because the etiquette books that they wrote insisted that people should display better manners: “Control your appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature. And the penalty for these infractions was assumed to be internal: a sense of shame.”

     Because government has assumed the right to use judiciously deeds of violence and people have developed that sense of shame due to poor manners, humankind has civilized itself. According to Elias it was always within our nature to act this way, but that the people of the Middle Ages had “underused” it. “There is no zero point,” he insisted.

     Pinker concludes that lurking within each of us are those “inner demons” that goad us on to commit murder and mayhem, and at the same time there exist those wiser thoughts, “the better angels of our nature,” that caution and guide us towards peacefulness, self-control, restraint, and cooperativeness.

     I find Pinker’s arguments most persuasive, and for a Harvard professor, he writes well.

     The next time someone treats you shabbily, my dear reader, pick up a ten-dollar bill, stare at Alexander Hamilton’s picture, and count to ten. Self-restraint will always be well rewarded.