Posted on March 20th, 2014

Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature:
The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

(Allen Lane)

Book Summary

This riveting, myth-destroying book reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millenia and decades.  Can violence really have declined? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies – both murder and warfare – really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever  before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to  the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend.  Debunking both the idea of the ‘noble savage’ and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a  ‘nasty, brutish and short’ life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over everything from art to religion, international trade to individual table  manners, and shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world – not simply through the huge benefits of organized  government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas. Why has this come about? And what does it tell us about ourselves? It takes one of the world’s greatest  psychologists to have the ambition and the breadth of understanding to appreciate and explain this story, to show us our very natures.

Stephen Platt Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom:
China, The West, And The Epic Story of The Taiping Civil War

(Alfred A. Knopf)

Book Summary

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a remarkable new account of the Taiping conflict in nineteenth-century China that shows how the destinies of millions of Chinese were affected by British and even American interests. In so doing it offers an invaluable perspective on a terrible and bloody war that could have set China on the path to modernity but instead consigned it to further decades of malaise under the collapsing Qing regime.

Andrew Preston Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith:
Religion in American War and Diplomacy

(Alfred A. Knopf Canada)

Book Summary

A first major work of history on a crucial but under-examined topic, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith explores the role of religion in American foreign policy. From the first colonists to the presidents of the 21st Century, Andrew Preston’s unparalleled study show us how religion has always shaped America’s relationships with other nations, and what to expect in the future.  During the presidency of George W. Bush, many Americans and others around the world viewed the entrance of religion into foreign policy discourse, especially with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a “new” development. But despite the official division between church and state, the presence of religion in American foreign policy has been a constant since before the Founding Fathers. Yet aside from leaders known to be personally religious, such as Bush, Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson, few realize how central faith has always been to American governance and diplomacy–and indeed to the idea of America itself. In Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, Andrew Preston starts at the beginning, and with revelatory findings, shows us how and why.