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"The Better Angels of our Nature"

By Charles Butterfield


By the time Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural speech in Washington, D.C., March 4, 1861, six southern states had already seized federal property and seceded from the union. Fort Sumter would remain in government hands for only another month. Lincoln knew civil war was looming, and he used all the force of his rhetoric to do two things in his speech: Make clear to all that he would preserve the union, come what may; and to reassure the slave states that he would do nothing to disrupt that peculiar institution on which their economies depended.


Speaking under such dire circumstances, Lincoln made his famous reference to “the better angels of our nature.” Listen again to the sentence that closes his address:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


We have to wonder what Lincoln thought about these “better angels.”


Here is a clue. When he asked his Secretary of State designate, William Seward, to comment on a draft of the speech,  Seward urged Lincoln to conclude his inaugural on a calming and confident note, and he offered Lincoln this closing sentence:  “The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”


Lincoln, the more poetic orator, recasts Seward’s sentence. Seward’s version implies that the nation’s guardian angel comes from on high, as do all Biblical angels. Lincoln, in contrast, refers to “the better angels of our nature.”  Lincoln shifts the angelic perspective from an outer guardian angel to those inner better angels. 


When I began putting these remarks together, I did a search to see where the expression, “better angels” came from.  Did it originate with Lincoln?  I could not answer that question, but in my search I came across a book by psychologist Steven Pinker titled, “The Better Angels of our Nature.”


If you don’t already know his name, Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, now at Harvard.  As a cognitive psychologist, he studies how we think and learn.  Two of his other books on my shelf are How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought.  Those titles will give you an idea of where Pinker’s interests lie.


When I found Pinker’s book on better angels, I almost put it back on the library shelf, because it is a huge tome, 800 pages.  And it has to be.  Pinker has taken on an enormous project.  He wants to find out if violence—domestic, racial, international and intra-national—has increased or decreased over the course of human history.


The first half of his book is an analysis of violence, going as far back in history as he can find data.  The trends that he presents in some 60 graphs are encouraging.  Despite the news of racial violence at home and civil war and “religiocide” occurring in the Middle East brought to us via iPhone, that might make us think otherwise, violence has declined markedly throughout human history.


The homicide rate in the Middle Ages, for instance, was three times greater than in our present day. Those of you who are following Wolf Hall on PBS on Sunday nights may not be surprised by that statistic.


Pinker supplies graph after graph plotting such data as numbers of wars, number of war-related deaths, lengths of wars, incidence of domestic violence, and more and more, and all show a downward slope from higher in years past to lower in our own time.


These graphs are not smooth lines. As we might guess from the passages I read from the Hebrew Bible, incidences of war when plotted against time look like jagged saw teeth. Just as the Israelites swung from peace to war, other cultures have too, depending on circumstances. 


Nevertheless, Stephen Pinker’s analysis clearly shows that civilizing influences took hold as solitary cavemen, each viciously fighting for survival, formed family-clans with warriors selected from the many; clans united in kingdoms, kingdoms consolidated into city-states, city-states became nations, and nations negotiated pacts with one another. This progress in social organization was accompanied by decreasing numbers of designated fighters, which translates, over time, to shorter wars with fewer casualties and longer intervals between wars.


It’s been seventy years since advanced industrialized nations fought a hot world war—the longest peaceful interval ever.


Now what can account for these encouraging trends? Pinker notes that the printing press and the subsequent distribution of books and concomitant learning played a big role in humanizing our species. As people read about other cultures, other technologies, other ideas, including those expressed in poetry and fiction, they open up wider perspectives.  It becomes possible to empathize with people one never meets in person.


The Humanist Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and America brought changes that enhanced human flourishing, and with it came restrictions of public behavior, enforcement of laws,  and open judicial proceedings. Even rules of etiquette were codified.  People stopped eating peas with a knife when stabbing an argumentative dinner guest was taboo.


Better communication, transportation, advances in technology and learning in all fields accompanied the social advances.  True enough, weapon technology advanced along with everything else, but better weaponry did not lead to more and longer wars. Just the opposite. Believe it or not, Pinker’s exhaustive—and exhausting—research indicates that overall we live in the most peaceful time human society has ever known.


But what about the violence in the Middle East? The Muslim world, in Pinker’s words, “is sitting out the decline in violence.”  He points to these reasons: The Moslem nations and independent movements like ISIS by and large thrive on illiteracy, they lack democracy and human rights, and rely instead on violence sanctioned in the name of honor.  Where fundamentalist religious interpretation flourishes, terrorism reigns and the door is shut to modernization.


But our Western civilization is not yet free of dehumanizing influences.  Pinker addresses in detail those demons that act counter to our better angels. He identifies several, including predation in the form of genocide, dominance in the name of nationalism, revenge, cruelty for cruelty’s sake (something minorities know too well), and perhaps the most insidious—ideology.  Ideology is not subject to negotiation, it’s often delusional, and it is subject to the herd instinct and group think.  Ideologues rationalize their behavior, including political gridlock, on the basis of loyalty to an idea they claim is justified by the greater good that can be achieved.


So then, why doesn’t human society run amok worldwide?  Or perhaps you think it has, or will, given time.  The evidence that violence has declined over time does not guarantee that the future will be safe and secure. But there is hope.  Steven Pinker writes this: “Most of the harm that people visit on one another comes from motives that are found in every normal person.  And the corollary is that much of the decline of violence comes from people exercising these motives less often, less fully and in fewer circumstances.”


That is how the better angels of our nature come into play. They may not create utopia, but they do cause us to exercise our base, destructive and hateful motives less often, less fully and in fewer circumstances.


Pinker ascribes our good behavior to four better angels.  The first is empathy.  The empathetic drive probably developed from the mothering instinct.  Understanding another’s need and acting to meet it without thought of reciprocity is crucial to the survival of offspring of many species of animals, and importantly so in the case of humans.  When that drive is extended outward from the family to include unrelated individuals and groups, there must follow a concomitant decrease in violence against those others. Pinker concludes that through the ages empathy toward individuals has goaded changes in policies and norms that determine how the people in a group are treated.   


The second better angel is self-control. Because Pinker is a research psychologist, he has filled his book with descriptions of psychological experiments. In the marshmallow test, for instance, a child is left alone in a room with a marshmallow and given the choice of eating the candy now or waiting a while for the reward of a second marshmallow.  The child’s response is observed from another room, and the distractions some children devise to keep their hands off the marshmallow are fun to watch. Important to our consideration of better angels is the finding that those young subjects with well-developed self-control are less likely to be aggressive, and, as a bonus, grow into adults who live healthier, calmer lifestyles, and gain more education than those with no or little self-control.


If you are a fan of Zits, you may recall the recent comic strip in which Jeremy, the main teenager, asks his friend Hector how it is that he gets perfect grades, does hours of public service, and has a very decent social life.  Hector replies, “Oh, self-discipline, I guess.”  At which incredulous Jeremy shouts back, “Dark Magic! It’s voodoo, isn’t it?”


Far from voodoo, self-control is hard-wired in our brains, but the wiring involves opposing neural networks, and so self-control is the result of a tug-of-war between delayed and immediate gratification.


The third of our better angels is the moral sense. Comparing cultures around the world and through the ages, Pinker finds that in some instances, as we might expect, moral codes are derived from religious beliefs.  But morality is often based on mutual benefit, or win-win situations having nothing to do with religion. Morality also derives from loyalty to authority.  In some cultures, tribe members agree that the chief knows what’s best. (I trust there are a few heretics).  In still other cultures the moral code is based on communality where people acknowledge that they’re better off when they share resources.


Pinker calls the moral sense the “crazy angel,” by which he means that our sense of right and wrong rests on justifications that vary widely among us.  And although some terrible things have been justified on moral grounds, so have some beautiful human behaviors.


Reason is our fourth better angel. Our reasoning permits us to enter a hypothetical world and to explore consequences.  It is through reasoning that we expand our circles of concern.  The Rights Revolution characterizes our age.  Unknown in former times, think of advances in human rights, civil rights, gay rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and animal rights that are finally being recognized. More needs doing, of course, but our reason shows us the way.


With empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason prodding and goading us, we have managed to bring about a civilizing process, a humanitarian revolution, a long peace, and an expanding circle of rights.


These better angels of our nature were not enough to prevent a Civil War. But might they the next time states are in conflict?  Marking the 150th  anniversary of the end of that terrible Civil War and the 100th anniversary of the genocide of Armenian Christians by Moslem Turks, I close with Pinker’s final paragraph:  “To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness…. Yet, for all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”



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