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 he was open to having his mind changed by a convincing argument. Hall’s book is a welcome addition to the burgeoning genre of philosophical self-help—or popular practical ethics, if you prefer.
Post-war Paris produced some of the most stylish—and most imitated—thinkers of the last century: Sartre and de Beauvoir, of course, but also expat American writers like James Baldwin and Saul Bellow. Left Bank by Agnès Poirier (Bloomsbury) entertainingly reveals how their rackety personal lives intersected with their philosophy of sexual liberation.
The west has the habit of believing that the history of ideas runs in a straight line between Greece and Europe. But as Julian Baggini explores in his eye-opening How the World Thinks (Granta), the intellectual traditions of Japan, India, China and the Muslim world have much to teach us.
In Hello World (Doubleday) Hannah Fry looks at what is, for many, another undiscovered country—mathematics. Developments in algorithmic technology and artificial intelligence have already changed our lives—and will only continue to do so. Whether that’s something to feel optimistic or pessimistic about is a moot point: but if we want to shape this new world, we had better start trying to understand it.