In this book, which preceded and inspired the 2013 Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh, Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, identifies six trends that define, or in any case frame, the decline of violence over time. These include, 1) the pacification process, indicated by the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to governmental unity with cities and the like; 2) the civilizing process, indicated by the consolidation of feudal communities and the consolidation of general power, including commerce and infrastructure; 3) the humanitarian revolution, à la Lynn Hunt, specifically organized around Enlightenment/Age of Reason sentiments to cruel institutions like slavery and torture; 4) the long peace, speaking to the transition toward organized conflict in the developed world following World War II; 5) the new peace, a renewed, but shakier post-Cold War peace; and 6) the rights revolution, characterized by the “postwar” push toward equality and human rights across a variety of arenas.
Within the framework of these paradigmatic epochs, Pinker identifies the “why” of his argument, wherein the five “inner demons”—predatory/practical violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, ideology—come up against four “better angels”—empathy, self-control, the moral sense, reason—Pinker drives home the argument he’d already set up, and does so with admirable expansiveness. However, and perhaps more in-line with Pinker's argument as roughly outlined above, is what comes from his work, a more longitudinal consideration of whether (and how) the assertion that our "better angels" win out in modern life, and––if such an estimation is sufficient––whether it is met or not.
It is perhaps telling that the demons do outweigh the “better angels” numerically, though their remits vary greatly. However the test of the weight, efficacy, and indeed the enduring nature of Pinker’s argument rests in considerations that have indeed already been raised in many cases within the critical literature surrounding the book; namely, whether what might be named an increase in moral injury and psychological violence––anything other than strictly or primarily physical violence––can, in fact, be leveled as an equal to the kinds of tangible violences that Pinker is addressing. Moreover, many of the hallmarks of the literature review name issues that humankind has largely progressed through and onward from—issues of equality and relative world peace—which are beginning to veer toward new orientations in recent years across the geopolitical spectrum. The validity of Pinker’s argument––as one that holds up against the modern world––is thus up for debate, but as a function of this fact, it proves its own significance. The question of whether Pinker’s belief in our better angels will out in the end is unanswerable, and the temporary viewpoints may vacillate, but he provides what is a well-researched, thoroughly-constructed, and meticulously-conveyed account of where the issue stands, providing us with necessary grounding for considering—and ever reconsidering—an orienting, enduring question of human culture at large.