History Book Summaries Politics

Ch 3: The Civilizing Process (The Better Angels Of Our Nature)

There are less homicides today among unrelated men. But there has not been as much decline in violence within families (women or kin).

Manuals such as Everyday Etiquette and Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior used to be serious sources of moral conduct. Erasmus, one of the great foudners of modernity, wrote an etiquette manual called On Civility in Boys which was a bestseller throughout Europe for over two hundred years.

These books, since they are prescriptions for correct behavior, give us a hint at what people were doing during these times. The people of the Middle Ages were gross.

A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia: Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or other filth. • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers. • Don’t slide back and forth on your chair as if you’re trying to pass gas. • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. • Don’t
make noise when you pass gas. • Don’t undo your clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up afterwards. • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don’t lie so close to him that you touch him, and don’t put your legs between his. • If you come across something disgusting in the sheet, don’t turn to your companion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other to smell and say “I should like to know how much that stinks.”

Steve Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

The rules in this list and others advice people to control their appetites, delay gratification, consider the sensibilities of others, to not act like a peasant, and to distance themselves from their animal nature. The penalty for these infractions was a sense of shame.

In the European Middle Ages, sexual activity too was not discreet. People were naked in public more often, couples had sex without privacy, prostitutes offered their services openly. Men would discuss their sex lives with their children, and man’s illegitimate offspring would mix with his legitimate ones. This openness was frowned upon as unacceptable during the transition to modernity.

Commerce was a big civilizing force. Positive sum games reduced the need for violence. If you trade with someone, they become more valuable to you alive than dead. And you have an incentive to anticipate their needs. Although many intellectuals, like Saint Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their greed and selfishness, a free market puts a high value on empathy. A businessman, if he is to succeed, must learn to keep his customers satisfied. If he fails to do so, a competitor will lure them away.

This idea, which came to be called doux commerce (gentle commerce), was expressed by the economist Samuel Ricard in 1704: Commerce attaches [people] to one another through mutual utility…. Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action. Sensing the necessity to be wise and honest in order to succeed, he flees vice, or at least his demeanor exhibits decency and seriousness so as not to arouse any adverse judgment on the part of present and future acquaintances.

Steve Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

This led to the second change. People began to embrace technology and economic progress. Money replaced barter. The building of roads, neglected since Roman times, resumed. Horse transport became more efficient. Wheeled carts, compasses, clocks, spinning wheels, treadle looms, windmills, and water mills were perfected in the later Middle Ages. Specialized expertise to implement these technologies was cultivated, and these advanced encouraged the division of labor and higher surpluses. There was more positive-sum games, and no reason for zero-sum plunder. To thrive in this world, people had to plan for the future, control their impulses, listen to the perspectives of others, and develop social and cognitive skills.

there are two triggers to the civilizing process, the Leviathan and gentle commerce, and they are both related and reinforce each other.

The major transitions in the history of life mimics the evolution of civilization.

These transitions were the successive emergence of genes, chromosomes, bacteria, cells with nuclei, organisms, sexually reproducing organisms, and animal societies. In each transition, entities with the capacity to be either selfish or cooperative tended toward cooperation when they could be subsumed into a larger whole. They specialized, exchanged benefits, and developed safeguards to prevent one of them from exploiting the rest to the detriment of the whole. The journalist Robert Wright sketches a similar arc in his book Nonzero, an allusion to positive-sum games, and extends it to the history of human societies.

Steve Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

A Leviathan cannot work on its own, it requires that its people coexist through self-control and empathy. The rule of law can end the bloody mayhem of feuding warlords, but reducing the rates further, to the levels enjoyed by modern European societies requires populations to accede to the rule of law that has been imposed to them.

The reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the upper classes pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to “self-help.” In other words, the lower classes take the law into their own hands. Only a minority (less than 10 percent) of homicides are motivated by practical reasons, such as killing a homeowner during a burglary, or the victim of a robbery so that the criminal is not incarcerated.

The most common motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and other acts of jealousy, revenge, and self-defense.

Pinker devotes the rest of the chapter to a comparison between the South and the North and explains why the former is more violent. The South, which was populated by Scotsmen and Irishmen, have a culture of honor, while the North was populated by more civil Northern Europeans. The Northerners depend more on the rule of law while the Southerners tend to be vigilantes.

Read The Better Angels Of Our Nature

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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