Steven Pinker’s new book is a replenishing salve against the helter-skelter mayhem of modernity
Control what you can control. Has there ever been a greater testament, than this deceptively simple line, to the shudderingly complex paradox that just because something is simple does not, for an instant, make it easy.
And yet, through Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, one begins to understand that there is, in fact, a route to that metaphorical perch where the horizon around you is not so cloudy, anymore.
A semblance of peace might just arise, and it would begin with you. And that is the key: it has to begin there. If you can’t control your own emotion, or sort out the mess in your immediate proximity, how can you possibly hope to tackle the world’s problems? I mean, you don’t even understand how that damned can opener works!
This is in no way to say that one should tune out the outside world and focus on me, me, me, and it is reassuring that Pinker in no way advocates that tack. Rather, he begins by instilling a germ of hope that would hopefully spring within you. So often, we hear that we are living in hectic, terrible times, a push of a button away from annihilation.
Yet Pinker refutes this slippery slope toward nihilism through one of his most effective rhetorical flourishes, tethered to a nuanced sense of humor. One of life’s most effective combinations. If newspapers were released just once every fifty years, their front pages would be dripping in a breathless admiration and exhortation of the goodness of humanity. We have, as it happens, accomplished a fair bit as a species in the past half-century.
This is in keeping with the “start from within and work outward” credo. Of course there are countless things that could still get better—that applies to both our immediate surroundings as well as the outside world. But doesn’t it fill you with a greater desire to get up and do something about it when you realize that, in fact, people have been helping change society for the better. You can do so, too.
Yes, we should focus on drawing down nuclear armaments, and make concerted efforts to limit our biological imprint to guard against coming climate change. But before we lose our sense of reality in the wake of the next senselessly sensational news headline in the wake of impending disaster, we should remember that there is an equal and opposite reaction to existential threats: there are countless forces of good ready to face disaster in the hopes of bettering mankind.
“One of the challenges of modernity is how to grapple with a growing portfolio of responsibilities without worrying ourselves to death,” writes Pinker, on page 287. This is no Corona commercial selling calamine lotion in the disguise of liquid bliss; rather, it is a reaffirmation of the Enlightenment principles that Pinker, so rightly, holds dear. With increased responsibility comes worry; so goes the passage into adulthood. That’s a tale as old as time.
And yet, as Pinker notes, invoking the cardinal definition of Enlightenment, that of humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity, we should not fear the worry. It means we are broadening our horizons. Eventually, we will grow accustomed to our newfound responsibility, and it will get easier. While young adults might wish for a Windex that could wipe away the worry from their mental windshield, they should steel themselves instead in the eternal promise of knowledge. Array yourself with facts and reason, and the surrounding world doesn’t seem so sinister, anymore.
If that doesn’t replenish one’s belief in the idea that the arc of the moral universe, though long, inevitably bends toward justice, then maybe this book isn’t for you. But it should be. And you should check it out. =)