'One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us,' the Civilisation presenter said

I have just read a thoughtful and balanced article on Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now. This is the link. At this point, I must add that I have not (yet) read the book itself, though I have read other works by Pinker, so I have a pretty good idea where he is coming from.

Pinker is a “heroic materialist”. He is heroic because he goes to enormous, passionate and extremely well-argued lengths to erect an alternative narrative to those who want to peddle bad news about mankind: the media, the natural pessimists, even those benighted Christians who look at our Western, post-religious society and draw their own conclusions from its epidemic of drug-taking, its divorce rates and its distressed young people. He is also a materialist because, from the perspective of his scientific world outlook, he believes this world is all there is.

I borrowed the phrase to describe Pinker from the last episode of Kenneth Clark’s TV series, Civilisation, which he calls “Heroic Materialism”. Having written in a recent blog about the first episode in the series, “By the Skin of our Teeth” – Clark’s way of describing how a new civilisation slowly and shakily emerged during the Dark Ages – I found it instructive to watch how this master presenter concludes his survey of over a thousand years of European history and culture.

What I discovered is that, with all his urbane charm and aesthetic enlightenment, Clark is a pessimist, though a diffident one. After surveying the 19th Century, the age of the great engineering feats and the mighty Brunel (Clark is always himself energised by the amazing displays of “energy” on the part of great men), he comes to the blood-stained 20th Century. Showing pictures of the Blitz and of Hiroshima, he refers to “the urge to destruction” which “released a flood of evil”, and concludes that “One must concede that the future of civilisation doesn’t look very bright.”

Not quite wanting to stick his neck out, he doesn’t think “we are entering on a new period of barbarism” (and like, Pinker, talks about well-read and well-fed modern people) but I think this is because he defines “barbarism” too narrowly; he describes the Dark Ages – the old barbaric times – as a time of isolation, lack of mobility, lack of curiosity and hopelessness, but doesn’t see that technological advance can usher in its own form of modern barbarism.

Interestingly, Clark concludes with Yeats’s much-quoted lines, “Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold…” We have no “centre”, he laments; there is no alternative to “heroic materialism”, yet “that isn’t enough.” His final words, enunciated in his bastion, the library of his ancient and beautiful home, Saltwood Castle, are “One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.” As I said, Clark is a diffident pessimist.

To return to Steven Pinker and his narrative of ongoing “progress”, I stumbled upon this surprising quote (in a superb book, Heroism and Genius, which I shall blog about shortly) by the French poet, Charles Baudelaire: “Genuine civilisation…does not lie in gas nor in steam nor in turntables. It lies in the lessening of the marks of original sin.” What is the Enlightenment’s response to this?