Books to help us understand our worldby Prospect Team / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Are things getting better or worse? Contrary to what the news tells us, actually we’ve never had it so good. That’s the argument of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane), which offers a profusion of graphs that show positive trends in life expectancy, crime, poverty and the spread of democracy. Pinker’s manifesto for optimism is exactly what we need right now, reminding us of how far we have come and how far we can still go. His book rails against the gloomy anti-Enlightenment arguments that were inaugurated by Friedrich Nietzsche. Sue Prideaux’s sympathetic biography I am Dynamite! (Faber) shows how the German philosopher denounced reason and urged us to embrace Dionysian desires. In person, though, he was soft-spoken and impeccably groomed—more like the Victorian gent he strove not to be.
The veneer of politeness often disguises our most barbaric instincts. In his elegant and rangy new book, In Pursuit of Civility (Yale), the great historian Keith Thomas explores the paradox that just as Europe was becoming more refined in its manners, it was embarking on the slave trade. Famously, Aristotle thought slavery was a necessary part of a functioning society. But as classics professor Edith Hall argues in Aristotle’s Way (Bodley Head), he also said…