Best Version, part 2: The Problem with Steven “Pollyanna” Pinker and the Emersonians

In my previous post, I discussed the idea of being “the best version of yourself.” My main point was that we all believe in this idea in some form; that’s why the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions is so popular. And if we take the idea seriously that there is a best version of ourselves that is possible to realize to some degree or other, then I say that makes us all Transcendentalists. For all of us believe that it is possible to transcend our present circumstances, that it is possible to become something greater than we are.

In my opinion, the present eruption of culture wars boils down to a disagreement about transcendence and the process of becoming the best version of ourselves. And the nature of this disagreement can be located in the writings of the Transcendentalists themselves, as I indicated in a previous post (see “New Walden’s Mission,” below). The combatants in our present culture war argue about many things, on many fronts—in the media, at the ballot box, in the courtroom, on the floor of the House and Senate, in the workplace. But at bottom, I maintain that the real location of disagreement is in our minds, specifically, in our differing ideas about the good life, about the necessary requirements for finding happiness, and for becoming the best version of ourselves. Thus, it is a Transcendentalist debate when you boil it down. It is an argument between competing Transcendentalist schools: the school of Channing and the school of Emerson, as I indicate in “New Walden’s Mission.”

The Emersonian school is where most people are today. This is the position of liberals, secular elites, and a great number of people who call themselves conservatives. Major figures in the Emersonian school include Nietzsche and Freud. More contemporary voices for this school include Ayn Rand, Libertarians, and the New Atheists. The Emersonians believe that the key to achieving transcendence—the realization of our greatest personal potential—is the liberation of the self from “sacred tradition.”   We must “live wholly from within” as Emerson tells us, for “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

“Freedom” is the mantra of this school. On the conservative side, freedom generally means freedom from undue governmental interference and regulation. But on the liberal side, the concern extends to any institution that is seen as oppressive to individual freedom: the government, the Church, even the family are potential oppressors. Whereas conservatives tend to unite around the principle of economic freedom, liberals are more concerned with racism, social injustice, poverty, and sexual liberation.

While there are varying schools of thought within the Emersonian school, nevertheless, a defining principle is discernible, and it is this: The obstacles that interfere with human progress are all institutional in nature. Thus, the key to progress is institutional reform.[i]

There are many contemporary voices for the Emersonian school. One such voice is Steven Pinker:

What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off? How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science? So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence (Pinker, 2012, p. preface).

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker advances the Emersonian argument that the key to human progress is the triumph of individualism over religion and traditional institutions. (He would be quick to chime in with, “Don’t forget reason and science!” I will address this point later.) It’s a twenty-first century version of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” Pinker is echoing the New Atheist mantra—“Religion poisons everything.” The evidence for this argument is based on two claims. First, he claims uncontroversially that society is less religious, more secular. His second assertion, however, is more controversial. He also contends that, because we are more secular, society has become more civilized as a result. And further, this enhanced civility can be measured by the decrease in violence that all of us are enjoying.

Pinker’s first claim that we are a more secular society can be backed up with plenty of evidence, and very few people would dispute it. But the second claim, that we are less violent because of this, is highly doubtful. In fact what is clear to just about everybody is the fact that violence is exploding out of control. In my book, I document

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the fact that the incidence of mass shootings is reaching epidemic levels. One source that I cite comes from the NY Times. The Times article pointed out that, for most of the twentieth century, The United States (the world?) averaged not more than 1-2 mass shootings per decade. Today, in 2015, we average that number per day. The Washington Post reported that, as of October 1st, there have been 294 mass shooting in only 274 days. Now I need to mention that there is quibbling over definitions and accounting. The apologists think that most of these incidents should not count because not enough people actually died from their gunshot wounds. (According to this amazing logic, if you didn’t die, you weren’t shot!) According to the narrower definition of a mass shooting, there have only been 32 such incidents as of October 1st of this year. (This definition requires that 4 people die from their wounds.) The fact remains that, whatever definition you are using, the incidence of mass shootings is not declining, but is skyrocketing instead.

This of course is a problem for Pinker’s thesis. Apparently increasing secularism and personal freedom is not actually bringing out “the better angels of our nature.” And this isn’t just a problem for Pinker, it’s a problem for the entire Emersonian school and its understanding of human progress.

            In my next post, I will talk about the growing evidence that our increasingly secular and “cosmopolitan” culture is correlated, not with the dawning of a new renaissance, but rather with the advent of a new dark age. (Ask yourself what the common denominator is of all these mass shootings: it is mental illness.)


Pinker, S. (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature — Why Violence Has Declined. New York, New York, United States of America: Penguin Books.

[i] (The Channing critique of this school is that it lays too much emphasis on social activism and political action. The Channing school admits that institutional reform is necessary for progress, but insists that personal reform is also necessary. True, our institutions are corrupt, say the Channingites, but so is human nature. In fact, the Channing school would blame institutional corruption on the fallible nature of humanity.)

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