Steven Pinker on slavery and the Enlightenment

Here is his Quillette response to critics.  Here is one of his arguments, one where I do not find the framing so convincing:

Slaves were always the most desirable spoils of conquest, and anyone who has been to a Passover seder or seen the movie Spartacus knows that slavery was not invented in 18th century Europe or America. Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition…

As the historian Katie Kelaidis put it in The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics, “Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity, but no one—not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates—considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment was not the inventor of slavery, but it was the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave.”

This strikes me as a classic case of mood affiliation: “we must have a positive mood toward the Enlightenment!”  And perhaps we must. But what is wrong with this alternative formulation?:

“Early modern Europe, including its later manifestation of the Enlightenment, brought great benefits to the world.  Part of those benefits involved enhanced capacities.  Some of those enhanced capacities were used to do great evil, such as to capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale.  The extermination of many indigenous groups could be added to that ledger too.  Therefore we should beware of greater capacities, because even when they bring significant good, they also can carry great evils.”

More accurate than Pinker, but it also invokes a more complicated mood toward progress.

I would note also that so many of the most radical abolitionists, including in Britain, were Christians.  It is fine to consider them part of the Enlightenment as well, but still to describe the Enlightenment as “the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave” seems off-base to me.  The 16th century Spanish Salamancans — theologians I might add — strongly opposed slavery well before the Enlightenment.  To call the Salamancans themselves “proto Enlightenment” is perhaps not wrong, but also has a tautological element if such a move is being used to defend the primacy of the Enlightenment (otherwise identified by Pinker as originating in the 18th century) in this regard.

It is also worth a query of the Pinker passage “Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition…”  First, you can hold a properly mixed opinion about this whole matter without “blaming the Enlightenment for slavery.”  (Most of all I would blame the slave capturers, traders, and owners.)  Second, “particularly ludicrous” is too often the mark of an under-argued claim, beware such rhetoric.  Third, so many of America’s greatest Enlightenment figures were themselves slaveholders or at least slavery defenders or tolerators.  I don’t mean to suggest any simple “blame the Enlightenment” approach here, but surely that is worth a mention and discussion?  Finally, the Enlightenment in America is well up and running by 1765, and slavery lasts for a full century more?  More yet in Brazil.  Maybe that is worth a bit of discussion too?

I am very much an admirer of Pinker and his work, and I consider myself an optimist, especially across longer time frames.  But what is sometimes called progress does also have a dark side, and we will do better fighting that dark side if we are clearer — in our own minds and with each other — on how things have run to date.


While not an expert on this topic, isn’t it true that slavery was (industrialized and then) abolished in the West before anywhere else, based on the ideas of the Enlightment? Even if its originators did not begin by focusing on the practice, would slavery have gone as quickly without its principles? Abolitionists were certainly Christians, but many Christians were comfortable with the practice. Something more was needed to cast it out. If not the Enlightenment, then what?

But many people influenced by the enlightenment were comfortable with the practice, too.

Name some.

Just about half the founding fathers of the United States?

Pinker's critics argue that the world was better before Europe and its enlightenment values took off. They point to slavery as evidence of this.

Pinker argues that slavery was a common place institutoin before and after the enlightenment and it is largely enlightenment ideas that motivated it being abolished.

It is also true that even before the civil war that there were more white slaves in Africa than there were black slaves in America.

Slavery itself goes back as far as written and oral history does. The first slaves in the new world were native Americans who were slaves of other native Americans and all before Columbus.

African slavery in the new world was accomplished a lot like illegal drugs are today. Most of it came in from other countries and delivered by ships captains and crews from other countries. Most of it happened without our permission or consent. Dutch slave traders dumped ship loads of slaves at ports in the Americas without being asked to. Most of the slave trade happened before there was a local government and the colonies were ruled from European countries.

Almost all of the slavery in Africa and exported from Africa was controlled by Muslims whose religion embraces slavery. They bought or traded for the slaves from African tribes and they sold the slaves to European ship captains who transported them to the new world and sold them to European companies to work on European owned plantations. Slavery was foisted upon the U.S. and we went to war to free them.

Do you have any proof or citations for your claim that "It is also true that even before the civil war that there were more white slaves in Africa than there were black slaves in America."

Read up on the barbary coast muslim pirates. They went up the coast of Great Briton and Europe capturing slaves. The women were sold into harems and the men built those beautiful mosques In Northern Africa.

Ironically the Muslims in Africa also sold the black slaves to slave ship captains who took them to the new world.

About a million and a half white European/English/Irish slaves were kidnapped and taken to Northern Africa. Somewhere between 300,000-600,000 black slaves were taken to what became the U.S.

> About a million and a half white European/English/Irish slaves were kidnapped and taken to Northern Africa. Somewhere between 300,000-600,000 black slaves were taken to what became the U.S.

Of course this statement is designed to obviate the fact that around 12.5 million slaves were taken on the Middle Passage to the Americas, which was the middle leg of the triangular trade route operated almost exclusively by Europeans. This of course far outstrips the numbers taken by Barbary pirates, but even that is irrelevant; just because "the Moooslems dunnit" doesn't excuse Christian slave traders.

First of all you said "The Americas" that is not the U.S. Secondly you use numbers that are unrealistic, do the math. There is no way that they brought 12.5 million slaves to the new world. Maybe a million or so.

"There is no way that they brought 12.5 million slaves to the new world. Maybe a million or so."
This is a database of data from 36,000 trans-Atlantic voyages from the early 1500s to the mid-1800s. Note that very few went to what later became the United States.
As for the number of slaves in the US in 1860, there were far more in the US than in the rest of the Americas, because slaves in the US lived longer, were healthier, and were more likely to have children than slaves elsewhere in the Americas. The 1860 census counted just under million slaves in the US

Slavery was foisted upon the U.S. and we went to war to free them.

The best evidence for this is that as soon as the US achieved independence it immediately abolished slavery. That's right, isn't it?

The British brought slavery to the colonies. And French to a lesser extent.

The best evidence for it is that most of the slaves were brought here before 1776 and they were brought here by foreign ships. You can argue that slavery should have been abolished before the 1860's, I won't disagree but it was abolished. Do you know it still exists in Africa and many Muslim countries? Does that bother you?

Alan Taylor's book American Colonies talks about how slavery in early colonial Virginia wasn't explicitly racist in that blacks could buy there way out and then actually own other slaves. I believe he found court records of a freed slave doing exactly this. Later on, a racist belief system developed which outlawed this kind of thing from ever happening. This later change occurred in the 18th century right about the time of the Enlightenment and I'm sure it had a big influence on this development. So even if the ideas of the Enlightenment may have been used to argue against slavery at a later date, they had just as great an influence promoting slavery, and particularly the racist promotion of it, in the first place.

The Enlightenment arguably bolstered American slavery by adding adding "scientific" theories of race.

The changes you cite began in the late 1600s, as a response to Bacon's Rebellion, which frightened the owning class in Virginia.


Yesterday, I was so upset I called my head shrinker and had my meds adjusted.

Today, I'm headed out to the gun show to buy 500 rounds (as if the 10,000 I already have aren't enough) of high-capacity FMJ AR47 ammunition, with no background check.

Re Slavery: The Libyan slave markets reopened two weeks after Barrack Hussein Obama (no one ever said, "He be Enlightened.") overthrew Gaddafi in one of his numerous unconstitutional, unnecessary wars.

Round Two Shut Down Commences In Two Weeks.

How much of the anti-slave trade, anti-slavery movements of the 19th Century were more a part of the Romantic reaction to the earlier Enlightenment than of the Enlightenment?

My vague impression is that Enlightenment figures tended to be not fanatical enough to take on slavery. Voltaire, for example, made a few witty remarks about the injustice of slavery, but didn't do much about it. Wilberforce, in contrast, did get Parliament to ban the slave trade after decades of trying: he was a devout Christian.

One thing I've noticed in recent years is that the Romantic Era (roughly 1800 to 1850 or so) doesn't anymore have much of a booster club the way the Enlightenment still does.

There was a strong religious element to Romanticism, even among those Romantics who rebelled against Christianity. So, in a much more secular era, there aren't as many people taken with Romanticism. Second, a lot of the anti-Enlightenment energies have been sucked into the hardcore irrationalism of post-modernism. The Romantics just aren't crazy enough for such folks.

Ben Franklin, a famous representative of the Enlightenment, often owned one or two personal slaves during the middle of his life. Finally, about age 80 he became an abolitionist, which was good for his long term reputation, but seems mostly to have been part of his usual luck -- in this case living a very long time for his era.

Franklin and Voltaire are attractive figures, but they just weren't extreme enough to take on slavery.

Re Sailer's thesis: European Romanticist Eugene Delacroix's "Scenes of the Massacres of Chios" probably did a lot in Europe to help the Greek war of independence vs the Turks (not to mention the UK poet Byron, who is lauded as a Greek patriot today). The Turks' military force called Janissaries were largely Greek slave troops who fought for the Ottoman sultan (and fought the Austrian Habsburg's albeit at a disadvantage in firepower- "few Janissaries even knew how to use an arquebus").

As every Greek historian but hardly any Greek schoolboy knows, Greece was so poor that to be selected as a Janissary was a great honor and often desired by the families, even with the strict rules (celibacy, forbidden from growing a beard, starting a business) (Wikipedia: Greek Historian Dimitri Kitsikis in his book Türk Yunan İmparatorluğu ("Turco-Greek Empire") states that many Christian families were willing to comply with the devşirme [slave recruitment] because it offered a possibility of social advancement).
Gradually the Janissary troops captured --akin to bureaucratic capture not physical possession --the court at Constantinople (Istanbul), and eventually they were slaughtered after a 1826 mutiny during the Greek war of Independence in the so-called Auspicious Incident (called the Inauspicious Incident by the Greeks, in the same way Turkish coffee is called Greek coffee) . Ironically the Janissaries, despite being Greek, were not concerned with Greek independence so much as preserving their power (Wikipedia: "However, by the early 17th century the Janissary corps had ceased to function as an elite military force, and had become a privileged hereditary class, and their exemption from paying taxes made them highly unfavorable in the eyes of the rest of the population"). Talk about the "deep state"!

Bonus trivia: the Turks not only got their best military forces from the Greeks, but two-thirds of their tax revenues.

“Bonus trivia: the Turks not only got their best military forces from the Greeks, but two-thirds of their tax revenues.”

Someone knew how to get taxes out of a Greek? The current Greek govt should find out what they did, and copy it.

+1 Greeks. Fool me once shame on you.....

And let the state of NY know too. Squeeze some back taxes out of Donnie the Tax Cheat or slap some cuffs if he starts whining about cash. At least the Turks got some good military service out of those Greeks. Can't say the same about Uncle Sam's luck with Orange Bone Spurs.

Hah, one way to get tax out of Greeks is probably by not having centuries of them groan under the excesses of autocratic Ottoman Turkish taxes. This way admittedly has immediate implementation problems though!

"the Romantic Era (roughly 1800 to 1850 or so) doesn't anymore have much of a booster club the way the Enlightenment still does."

It will when Pinker writes his next book: "Romanticism Now!"

Haha! And for some serious romantic action just contemplate that Steven Pinker/Jeffery Epstein tag-team!

Fake Ray Lopez. The real Ray doesn't use one line gutter balls.

'is that the Romantic Era (roughly 1800 to 1850 or so) doesn't anymore have much of a booster club the way the Enlightenment still does'

Could just have to do with a government and ideology that was fully in love with its national romantics, though that version came after the English variety, and was not identical.

This little nugget from wikipedia just might provide a hint for another reason that German Romanticism is not held in such high regard - 'In particular, the critic Heinrich Heine criticized the tendency of the early German romantics to look to the medieval past for a model of unity in art and society.'

Really, who needs the Renaissance, much less the Enlightenment, when pursuing the highest goals of human existence. Or hanging out in Xanadu with Kublai Khan in an opium dream, for that matter.

That you (Ray) felt the need to say "the UK poet Byron" is all the evidence I need that we have experienced cultural decline.

@Larry Siegel - true, but this blog is for a mass audience. I think (from memory) he was British, not UK, and of course it's superfluous to learned people like you to say he's a poet.

Bonus trivia: Byron was friends with the Romantic poet and atheist philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley who married Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein (whose parents were the Utilitarian philosopher William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who according to Godwin twice tried to commit suicide before dying after giving birth to Mary).

Byron was of Scots and English descent and lived 22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824. So "UK" would do though "British" would be more usual. Mind you, that's not Larry's point. Jesus, the Jewish preacher; Einstein, the German physicist; Ford the American car manufacturer; Rembrandt, the .....

There's no particular reason to hold him accountable for anything, but I looked up Wordsworth, to see where he came down on slavery. Not really a man you'd want in your corner perhaps. "No one could deplore it more than I," etc., except for all the times he actively didn't, finally landing, with respect to abolition, at "I was too Little of a Man of Business to have an active part in the Work – Besides my place of Abode would have prevented it, had I been so inclined."

Perhaps the true heirs of the Romantics are those who live in a way that they don't have to see too many things that might make them uncomfortable, or that they might find hard to square with the beautiful space they've furnished in their own minds.

I don't follow politics much, but I deduce from yesterday's comments that Trump lost in some way. No wall?

Great post.

yeah. someone tell Taleb.

Agreed. This conversation is way too nuanced for modern discourse though.

I too am in general agreement with Pinker's grand optimistic thesis but he does a great disservice to his readers with the plainly ahistorical narratives in his writings. And it's completely unnecessary to his main point.

This is such an excellent and refreshing example of good faith specific critique. Bravo.

Actually, St. Gregory of Nyssa was the first person in Europe (broadly considered) to call for an end to slavery.

Several Stoics like Epictetus (a slave for part of his life) were also critical of slavery:

"[Epictetus reproaching a slave-owner] Slave yourself, will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus for his progenitor, and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? But if you have been put in any such higher place, will you immediately make yourself a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule? that they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus? But I have purchased them, and they have not purchased me. Do you see in what direction you are looking, that it is towards the earth, towards the pit, that it is towards these wretched laws of dead men? but towards the laws of the gods you are not looking."

'But what is sometimes called progress does also have a dark side, and we will do better fighting that dark side if we are clearer — in our own minds and with each other — on how things have run to date.'

Except for eugenics - there, how things have run to date is apparently only a road bump, at least according to one of the Prophets of the Marginal Revolution.

America was founded by the biggest virtue signalers. They talked a mean game about the equality of men, their inalienable rights, and even talked about how slavery was wrong, yet they kept plantations worth of slaves. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc were are all hypocrites. Although to be fair, Washington freed his slaves on his deathbed. All that guilt from white privilege caught up to him.

I like this take. In fitting with modern times with modern sensibilities. My hats off to you, good Kanye.

"Although to be fair, Washington freed his slaves on his deathbed": a good yarn but untrue. He left them to his widow, to become free only on her death. She grasped the nettle and freed them anyway. Or so I understand - anyone here know more?

She didn't free her own slaves though.

Washington was able to have his slaves freed because he was a good businessman who became rich, unlike Madison and Jefferson, who couldn't afford to free their slaves. Even good Quaker Dolly didn't free Madison's slaves after he died because he was broke.

Jefferson fretted about owning slaves but was too indebted to free them.

As indictments come down I think it’s important to remember mr stone and mr mamafort have families and friends who could very well see your snarky tweets about them so let’s try and show a little decorum in this public space.

I get that the anti-slavery advocates were not necessarily products or part of the enlightenment, but English legal system and its independence that produced the Somerset ruling and the future parliamentary acts outlawing slavery were products of the enlightenment - the idea that individuals had rights as well as duties was one of the key aspects.

Fair point, but I think this is subject to the same caveats. The English legal system and the withering of serfdom in England long predated the Enlightenment.

Pinker: "not Jesus, not Buddha ... considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment"

Pinker, Pinker, Pinker. We have no idea what they thought on this, only that it was not core enough to their teachings (or too socially disruptive) to be replicated consistently, if they even publicly issued a stance.

Wiki: "In 1569, a man, Cartwright, was observed savagely beating another, which in law would have amounted to a battery, unless a defence could be mounted. Cartwright averred that the man was a slave whom he had brought to England from Russia, and thus such chastisement was not unlawful.

The case is reported by John Rushworth in his 1721 summary of John Lilburne's case of 1649. He wrote: "Whipping was painful and shameful, Flagellation for Slaves. In the Eleventh of Elizabeth [i.e., 1569], one Cartwright brought a Slave from Russia, and would scourge him, for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, That England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breath in. And indeed it was often resolved, even in Star-Chamber, That no Gentleman was to be whipt for any offence whatsoever; and his whipping was too severe."

1569 is the Enlightenment? Looks like this is a "slow evolution of legal institutions and norms" thing, not an "Suddenly, Enlightenment!" story.

The Enlightenment simply seems an era when settlement of territories by Western European societies is more extensive and integrated than a few rogues setting up plantations distant from the metropole, and with extensive settlement comes the drive to bring norms on slavery back towards Western European social norms that exclude slavery that the mass of non-slaveholders can feel comfortable with.

Similarly, we see British intellectuals able to make these pronouncements about universally ending slavery because they have the universal imperial power to make it stick! Making such pronouncements in the Age of Elizabeth would be laughable, when in the Age of Victoria it is not.

Even intellectually, we can see William Wilberforce formed his ideas from an Evangelical Christian basis, not particularly from secular Enlightenment ideas.

"Let no one dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals." - Church Council of London 1102.

It isn't that Christianity ended slavery where it became ascendant, it was that it did so repeatedly, in direct opposition to highly lucrative back of secular regimes. Slavery in England was falling away decidedly before the Pagan invasions, but by 1200 slavery was basically extinct in England. British slavery really only began again with the truly obscene profits Drake managed; at a time when the politico-religious conflicts were of extreme importance and the navy needed funding. Yet, within a short bit of history, the international slave trade was ended, again.

Further, consider what happened when Christianity was removed from the picture. The Bolsheviks removed Christianity ... and promptly built the largest slave system the world had ever seen. The Nazi's subborned the Christian churches, and built the second largest slave labor state. Even going back to the Islamic conquest, the number of slaves somehow managed to increase in basically every place that was once Christian. Nor was it just Islam, when the Mongols or the Huns came through, slavery also increased.

Argueably, even the modern era is not immune. It certainly seems like human trafficking is higher in Western Europe than in similar, more Christian, countries.

On a tangent, anyone wonder if Pinker's Ashkenazi Jewish background influences the degree to which he promulgates this stuff?

The Haskalah really was a big deal and total transformation of Ashkenazi Jewish life away from its Medieval norms of life centered around rabbinical authority and religious law. This group went from having zero intellectual productivity outside the religious law and theology, to profuse and very important productivity at the leading edge.

Pinker possibly projecting back onto Christendom the same transformative power?

Probably it has more to do with all the time Pinker likes to spent jetting around with his good buddy Jeffery Epstein.

It's a strange omission to leave out the comment to which Pinker was responding. Pinker is absolutely correct in his defense of the Enlightenment in the context of the comment to which he was responding.

"The Enlightenment is not worthy of celebration. It gave the world racism, slavery, imperialism, and genocide."

On the other hand, the comment to which Pinker was responding is so stupid that Pinker looks silly himself to take the time to respond to it.


Pinker was responding to his critics, not giving an authoritative assesment of the benefits/costs of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is not worthy of celebration. It gave the world racism, slavery, imperialism, and genocide.

The only part of this claim that is right is that some of these practices continued to take place after the 18th century. Otherwise it is exactly backwards. Each of these crimes is as old as civilization (see my 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), and it was only during the Enlightenment that people singled them out as moral blights and sought to eliminate them from the human condition.

The world had all that parade of horribles millennia before the Enlightenment

It gave the world imperialism

And here I thought the Romans had that down much earlier.

Heh. Well done.

But Pinker is responding to people blaming the enlightenment for Slavery.

Lots of Christianity with very little abolition. One enlightenment, lots of abolition.

Indeed. Lots of Christianity with very little slavery. One enlightenment, lots of slavery.

When the Enlightenment appeared, there were already lots of slavery promoted by Christian states and individuals. I wonder how it happened.

"Some of those enhanced capacities were used to do great evil, such as to capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale."

I'd like to see some evidence for that assertion of "probably an unprecedented scale" because I seriously doubt it is true. For example:

"Estimates of the percentage of the population of Italy who were slaves range from 30 to 40 percent in the 1st century BC, upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BC, about 35% to 40% of Italy's population".

(see under "demographics").

That makes his point; 2-3 million is a much smaller number than were moved in a similar period at the height of the slave trade. For comparison, there were almost four million slaves just in the United States (and mostly just in the South) in 1860--and that is post-ban on international trade, post-manumission in big parts of the Caribbean, and totally ignores Brazil. Percentage comparisons break down, too, depending on which part of the sugar-cultivating world you are discussing. Bottom line: the latter-day slave trade utterly dwarfed the previous high-water mark for slavery.

You mean Italy comprised the entire world pre-Enlightenment and their slaves were the only one's which counted? How does that prove his point?

Italy would not have comprised the entire world. That's why I selected the U.S. south as a point of comparison. But whereas Italy was the heart of an enslaving empire (and probably the single largest enslaving polity at its particular moment, depending on how you count), the U.S. was a fairly peripheral destination during most of the slave trade. That's why post-Enlightenment slavery was of "unprecedented scale"; in order to match it, you would need to find an example when a similar number of people (or at least a similarly-sized segment of the population) was put into chattel-slavery over a similarly short time period. Citing the Roman Empire for comparison reminds us just how unprecedented the scale of slavery was during the latter period.

Apologies for not offering a more complete explanation earlier.

The same source I cited above estimates the total number of slaves in the Roman empire alone at about 5 million. At the peak of slavery in the US there were just under 4 million slaves (per the 1860 census) in all of the US. Slavery was extremely common through history up to and prior to the end of the Enlightenment period---and much more brutal. And, the Romans "moved a lot of slaves"---they had to because the life expectancy of a slave was very low. In short, you have not at all convinced me that Tyler's claim is accurate or that "I made his point"...

Everyone talks about the anti-slavery movements in Britain and America in the 19th century, but in connection with the enlightenment, one must not forget the complete abolition of slavery by the new-born French Republic in early 1794, a move the that was directly and explicitly motivated by the Enlightenment. As you know, slavery was re-authorized in the colonies by Napoleon in 1802 (who didn't act in the name of enlightenment), and only re-abolished for good in 1848 when the Second French Republic came to birth.

Overall, I tend to find Pinker naive with his excessive admiration of Enlightenment, and I agree more with Tyler and his more nuanced idea of progress, but on this particular debate, I am more convinced by Pinker's arguments. Note that the "by association" reasoning of Tyler in his post:
Enlightenment is part of the history of "early modern Europe", and "early modern Europe" also developed new capacities and used them for good and evil such as slavery. It seems a rather week indictment of Enlightenment.

To appreciate where Pinker is coming from intellectually, you need to take a closer look at the Jeffery Epstein flight logs.

Good comment.

Only someone of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, could write the American Declaration of Independence ("all Men are created equal"). The American Constitution, on the other hand, wasn't concerned so much with freedom as with the protection of property rights, including the property rights of slave owners. How could America's founding documents have such radically different points of view? Different contexts. In the context of the Declaration of Independence the point of view was of the revolutionary. In the context of the Constitution, the point of view was not of the revolutionary but the protection of the property the victors had secured in the revolution. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were not the radicals they are often presented to be, but the new nation's elite (the creditor class) with assets to protect not only from the British, who the delegates feared would invade if the delegates showed disunity by failing to adopt a constitution, but more importantly the less affluent American citizens who were suffering from the deep economic slump following the end of the Revolutionary War and were prevailing upon state legislatures to adopt debtor forgiveness laws and other measures (such as the abolition of taxes) that challenged the security of the property rights of the delegates. While whites in the South may have feared black rebellion, whites in the north feared white rebellion (by, among others, anarchists). The revolutionaries were willing to sacrifice life and property promoting the ideas of the Enlightenment, while the framers (the creditor class) were protecting the property secured in the revolution.

On the other hand the Constitution is a most impressive, serious-minded document whereas the Declaration is a crass and untruthful advertising flyer.

Tyler is technically correct. Pinker has developed more of an advocate's voice over the years, tending from "highly accurate" toward "inspirational, and generally right". This is indeed a slippery slope.

But Tyler suffers from a worse affliction: trying to scrape status off of Pinker by pointing out a lack of nuance in his (terse) argument. The post would be admirable if it was really about trying to elevate the level of discourse among top thinkers - but I suspect it's more about Tyler's own mood affiliation toward his own belief that history goes in cycles and that a downswing is about to happen (e.g. pandemic flu paranoia, perpetual pessimism about the Chinese economy, predictions of increased war and violence, etc.).

The cyclical view of history presumes that even the best instituted governments carry in them the seeds of their own destruction. "All that can be done therefore to prolong the duration of a good government, is to draw it back, on every favorable occasion, to the first good principles on which it was founded." Stow Persons, The Cyclical Theory of History in Eighteenth Century America (American Quarterly, Summer, 1954). Aren't the ideas of the Enlightenment the first good principles on which America was founded?

Could be worse. As we discuss The Enlightenment, we have a swath of Americans who believe the Biblical Armageddon is coming in their lifetimes.

Or is "cyclical history" mood affiliated with Armageddon?

"capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale". That's not the case. During the period of the Atlantic slave trade at least as many Africans were taken to the (Islamic) Middle East as the New World. At the same time millions of Europeans and South Asians were enslaved in the Middle East. Even adding in Iberian depredations against the New World's inhabitants there number is slaves in Middle East was greater.

The Enlightenment deserves credit for (mostly) ending the Islamic world's slavery as well as it's own.



Slavery was not abolished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen until 1962 and 1970 in Oman.

According to Wikipedia, Saudi Arabia the US State Department has designated Saudi Arabia as a Tier 3 country that does not attempt to suppress human trafficking:
"The Government of Saudi Arabia does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. Saudi Arabia has moved from Tier 2 to Tier 3 because of its lack of progress in anti-trafficking efforts, particularly its failure to protect victims and prosecute those guilty of involuntary servitude. Despite reports of trafficking and abuses of domestic and other unskilled workers and children, there is evidence of only one Saudi Government prosecution of a Saudi employer for a trafficking-related offense during the reporting period. Some victims of abuse, due to procedural hurdles, choose to leave the country rather than confront their abusers in court. They are required first to file a complaint with the police before they are allowed access to shelters. The government offers no legal aid to foreign victims and does not otherwise assist them in using the Saudi criminal justice system to bring their exploiters to justice. If a victim chooses to file a complaint, he or she is not allowed to work. The Saudi Government does, however, provide food and shelter for female workers who file complaints or run away from their employers. Criminal cases are adjudicated under Sharia law, and there is no evidence trafficking victims are accorded legal assistance before and during Sharia legal proceedings."

Why push here for a "mixed," "complicated" and nuanced approach or way of thinking (or in general - but that's a separate issue)?

It reminds me of what Malcolm X said to Coretta Scott King when he visited her - to paraphrase - that he was trying to offer a more extreme alternative if people didn't accept Dr. King's approach. Increasing the polarity is a very rational and productive response in situations where the proverbial pendulum has swung too far.

And although some may disagree, there is also good reason to believe that the American-style system of legal representation in criminal trials - where defense attorneys are not impartial like many European barristers - actually leads to better outcomes.

I'm plenty conflicted about the Enlightenment, but what's the bigger payoff for Tyler's preference of a nuanced view - particularly when Tyler is generally bullish on the notions of progress and rationality that Pinker is defending?

“It is better to be roughly right thanprecisely wrong.” John Maynard Keynes
Pinker is certainly roughly right.

We need to name the beast: capitalism. While slavery has always existed, the rise of capitalism is what created a viable market for slaves - the demand for large scale human labor on plantations, the supply of humans from colonies etc.

Enlightenment may have spawned capitalism (which in turn spawned the rise of slavery), but the Enlightenment also provided the antidote to slavery. The recognition of the inherent value of a human - politically by Locke, Paine and so on, and morally by Kant ("no man is a means to another man's end") - is a pure product of the enlightenment.

In short, slavery was the second order effect of the Enlightenment (through capitalism) but abolition was very much a first order effect. Pinker's argument gets at this better than Tyler's.

Yes. African enslavement by Europeans was a footnote until sugar cane cultivation took off. Getting a sugar plantation going in the 17th century was highly capital intensive. Local labor was largely unavailable and had to be imported (and reimported due to high disease rates) at great cost. The raw material had to be processed on site. Sugar cane was to bulky to be shipped. It was a sophisticated economic enterprise. The Spanish and Portuguese couldn't make it work on a large scale. The Dutch were the first to do so during their occupation of Brazil. From there it spread to the English in Barbados and from there to Virginian tobacco farming.

Of course saying capitalism was responsible for slavery is like saying sturdy oceangoing ships were. It's a technology that can be used for good or ill.

This. If you want to argue about slavery, define slavery.

I would suggest that agricultural societies required slavery to function, and that civilization, where some people write, think, legislate, protect required other sources of labor in the fields to grow with food for everyone involved.

And that for the vast majority of people throughout history being a slave was not much different from the back breaking labor involved in subsistence agriculture. The only difference being how your labor was stolen from you, by roving bands or by whoever was your slave owner.

The industrialization of this process as described, as well as the contrast between a free working person and a slave made it untenable.

Defining slavery is important. Many conversations this past year have convinced me that woman's equality requires something akin to a Roman or greek slavery. Be prepared to be called misogynist if you dare oppose such a thing.

And never forget that Pinker likely was taught by professors who supported a slave state. Communism in its full fruition produces industrial scale slavery.

I once blathered at my Southern husband some sort of equivocating question about slaves and indentured servants, or modern-day slavery in the seafood industry, or something along those lines, and his curt reply was, "I'm pretty sure those were lost years for them" (American slaves). And other historical comparables may be less clear, but it's plain that it would be better to be Cicero's Tiro than Scarlett's Big Sam. But I agree that putting either the Enlightenment or Christianity on trial without reference to the demands of tropical agriculture during the same period is a little strange. If nothing else, a caution against mindlessly worshiping "doers."

This is a good point. The slave trade, ocean shipping, and the agricultural industries in which slaves worked, required massive financing, borrowing, and sophisticated debt and insurance instruments on a level that the world hadn't seen before. Maybe we should blame 15th Century Venetians for propagating double-entry bookkeeping and mercantile finance.

I give him +1000 just for stating that "slavery was not invented in 18th century Europe or America." That's a hate crime to today's American left.

Heck, I'll even give Tyler +10 for daring to mention the slave-capturers as complicit. No one ever discusses them. For some reason.

Slave traders have diplomatic immunity in Clinton's, Bush's, Obama's and Trump's America:

I'm curious what the neo-enlightenment crowd thinks of similar arguments made against ninteenth century populism or early twentienth century progressivism. For example, Thomas Leonard's Illiberal Reformers. Do they believe modern progressives should ignore the racism of the past or do they think that history imperils the enterprise. I suspect it's the latter. My own view is closer this post. The history matters and shouldn't be discounted but it doesn't imperil the project.

I am not sure where I picked it up, perhaps even before Pinker, but I would refer to The Enlightenment as the greatest thing since sliced bread. This was obviously very casual on my part, because I have never been a serious historian. But it did seem that this time, rise of secular science, advancement in political theories and philosophy, a reduction in fealty to gods and kings, was necessary to create our modern world.

I think I agree with Tyler above that Pinker's position could be better argued, and maybe you have to say something cumbersome about "Early Modern Europe, The Good Parts"

Still, it seems odd to push back against a word, Enlightenment, that does capture so much about leaving behind gods, kings, and kings chosen by gods.

Is there a better single word for the idea that humans could understand their world as a natural system?

Blogger Pseudoerasmus (who was ahead of the curve on "Pinker doesn't actually know very much about the Enlightenment") is content to simply discuss the benefits of reason and empiricism. Rather than valorizing "the Enlightenment", bringing a false respectability to its proponents of "Enlightened Absolutism" and all.

Jeez, I am not even sure what nerve I hit there, but .. I sometimes throw a "Scottish" in there:

Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. They held to an optimistic belief in the ability of man to effect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason. It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.

This sort of thing necessitates an ad hominem attack, why?

Oh, you mean literally the blogger "pseudoerasmus." Sorry.

I read some of that stuff, and it never really got traction for me. As I say, "forget all the good stuff, The Enlightenment was not Nirvana"

Shrug. If you care about accurate intellectual history, that stuff should "get traction" for you. If you care about telling yourself narratives that you can own and lay claim to for identity, perhaps you won't.

I'm not sure that is a fair criticism. History does move in both bold trends and minutiae.

To say "oh no, you can't embrace the bold trend, because it ignores the minutiae" might be more pedantic than heroic.

Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, fairly naturally, embraces an age of reason. Why not, it was both a positive change in the world, and the origins of his cognitive worldview.

It's not about "minutiae", the idea that there was a) a trend break with "The Enlightenment" and b) that this is as Pinker describes it, are both extremely dubious.

Read John Gray's review of his book - . It takes 10 minutes and he really is spoon feeding it, so if you don't get it after that, there's probably not much chance you're much smarter than Pinker.

Yeah, the more I think about the criticisms of Pinker, the more I think there is something else going on, rather than just an imperfect match from the word Enlightenment to the good stuff Pinker likes.

The leftists probably think it is too WASPy, the religious probably think it is too Godless, and something else? Who's left?

Anti-rationalists who might cite counter-Enlightenment objections to dispute Enlightenment-era epistemological accounts of "rationalism", itself symptomatic of as woefully inadequate an anthropology as rationalism itself constitutes a woefully inadequate account of cognition and epistemology.

Is that where Tyler is coming from when he says to Pinker "no, you don't like rationalism, it's mood."

Seem a cheap shot, actually.

And it makes me wonder if that is one thread of resistance to "Enlightenment Now."

It's futile, even as an aspiration, because we are (as a species?) hopelessly slaved to our moods and emotion?

(Or maybe I am overthinking it and it really is just a "status" fight between "public intellectuals.")

I've never seen Tyler as either anti-rationalist or as counter-Enlightenment champion, so this could well be but a minor quibble among so-called "rationalists" (an ardent anti-rationalist, I am persuaded that rationalists deceive themselves first before proceeding with attempts to addle others with their defective and deficient accounts).

Reason: the mental faculty that placates our separate volitions in order to confirm us in our common prejudices.

An anti-rationalist sounds like a guy who's too smart to come in out of the rain.

"I mean, it's just too obvious a solution."

Not perzacktly, no: anti-rationalists are duly skeptical of rationalist apologetics and agitprop every bit as much as they (we) are prudently skeptical of rationalist flattery whenever so-called rationalists attempt to impute rational capacity to humanity-at-large: it's a damned lie worse that any set of statistics Disraeli ever came upon.

For a fine example of anti-rationalist fiction:

I offer this at least as much for accuracy's sake as for self-defense, but: the anti-rationalist is the one who thinks Goya in his famous aquatint print to've inadvertently argued that all (self-declared) rationalists are in fact and in deed . . . somnambulists, from whom monsters routinely escape.

What a strange way to dismiss that intellectual movement.

Joseph de Maistre, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy...

I’m fully on board with empiricism, cosmopolitanism, and the enshrinement of negative liberty, etc.

But the whole point is that reason is a terrible foundation. What can be built by reason can be torn down by reason. Paraphrasing de Maistre.

America happened. But so did the French Revolution and it’s prescient mass slaughter by the guillotine. Presaging the industrial scale mass genocide of the Holocaust, holomodor, cultural revolution, Khmer Rouge, Juche...

Sure we had the Mongols. But intentional mass murder of one’s own kin and countrymen for no purpose required the enlightenment.

The church is certainly guilty of its crimes, no doubt. And I’m an atheist. But without the enlightenment and the tearing down of Papal authority, you’re not gassing millions of Jews to death. You’re not starving millions of kulaks. You’re not starving millions of Chinese peasants. You’re not murdering every Cambodian with glasses. Etc etc

Going back to antiquity you can examples of civil strife which led to high body counts. Peasant revolts especially tended to be put down with wanton bloodshed

Maybe people are just complaining that the Enlightenment was not Nirvana.

That happens. Someone says "this is great," some will shout back "yeah well, it didn't solve *everything*."

This post and commentary is another example of the national fixation on slavery while ignoring the near genocide of the native Americans and theft of their land. Slaves were valuable property, it was generally in the interest of their owners to provide them with accommodations and sustenance sufficient to maintain their physical abilities and value. They may well have been mistreated by some owners but as a group were never subjected to a national policy of extermination or relocation such as the native Americans suffered. Evidently, the Enlightenment, actually an intellectual fad, felt that it was wrong to make people pick cotton in exchange for food and shelter but OK to kill native Americans and take their land.

Well, wasn't it?

Chuck, that's the backup argument. All the Chinese 50 cent army and Ivy League faculty are well versed on every evil inflicted on native Americans. I'd say it was the less enlightened people who did the killing. But such civilizations were doomed to wither due to their backwardness, one way or another.

Quakers. Quakers. Quakers. The movement that led to worldwide abolition clearly originated among them as early as the end of the 17th century and counted few or no non-Quakers until the last third of the 18th. By the 1720s, Quakers who approved of slavery, while still the vast majority, faced fierce denunciations of the instutution as a universal evil at meetings. At a 1738 meeting Benjamin Lay famously concluded an antislavery rant by plunging a sword into a bible full of fake blood that spattered on the audience. The non-denominational group that successfully fought to end the slave trade in England was founded in 1787 and was still majority Quaker. They had no political influence being non-conformists and recruited evangelical Anglican allies.

It's hard to argue that Quakerism is a product of the Enlightenment as it is formally defined. It's a product of the religious ferment of early 17th century England. But before a Christian can congratulate himself on his co-religionists' priority he might consider that the followers of George Fox were the most unorthodox Christians of their day and eventually secularized themselves nearly out of existence.

If "history" is the ostensive topic here, why has no one cited the historical role of the success of the American Revolution in leading England to move steadily from its leadership in slave-trading to its position of abolishing its slave trade?

English colonial policies introduced slave-trading and slave-owning to the American Colonies, a fine economic system for the Crown and the nobility to benefit from as long as the colonials themselves were pleased to remain loyal British subjects. (Liverpool retained some five-eighths of the Transatlantic trade as late as 1790: within twenty years most of this would be taken over by ship captains from Newport and Bristol, Rhode Island.)

--and as of 2019, certo, NO ostensive "historical" treatment of slavery in US history merits serious consideration if it fails to deal with the millennia-old history (three, four, five thousand years prior?) of the practices of slavery native to Europe, from Iberia to Russia, from the British Isles and Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. (Continuing failures to adduce that specific context have yielded all kinds of wild idiocy in US history texts and US history classes for decades, decades, and decades.)

Someone else might cite the competition launched in colonial settlement and profiteering schemes between Roman Catholic Spain, Portugal, and France (Nantes was Liverpool's one-time rival in the slave trade, prior to the Napoleonic Wars) and Protestant England, the Netherlands, and most American colonials.

Further, given my insistence above on the necessary treatment of the background of European slave history as specific context for practices foisted in the Western Hemisphere: HOW CAN IT BE, WHY IS IT THE CASE that the advent of African enslavement and Transatlantic transport is NEVER viewed even in part as a case of simple "military conquest"? Slavery was often a completely natural consequence of military conquest for all regions and times prior to 1500 CE, as far as I've managed to discern.

All true and worthy of discussion, but you might as well be talking to yourself in a dark closet. Americans, and possibly others, are largely ignorant of the great themes of history and are coddled by pseudo-intellectuals who are pretty darn sure that they have escaped the bonds of that history as well as those of philosophy and religion and tradition.

They now lord it over us (haha) as if they bear the truth on tablets (haha again).

At the moment these "influencers" are busy poring over fellow citizens' Twitter histories, searching for 2010 heresies that do not conform to 2019 dogma (haha yet again). In one sign of progress, revelations of heresy do not result in burnings at the stake but instead ritual denunciations administered by the newest seat-holders in formerly serious news outlets.

Savanarola (haha, and sorry again but I cannot help it) would be proud.

Who were the ancient slaves? Romans were everywhere, including roaming nations that are under severe deprivation, starvation. What is it called when you take them out, of and circumstance for a lifetime contract? For Rome, 2000 years go, the word became slavery. For American Europeans in 1650 the word was indentured almost for life. What about refugees camps where work is required and they are kept in fenced areas? We call that a refugee camp, 100 years from now they might call is indentured servitude, and eventually call it slavery.

What happens in ancient Rome where a civil employment contract across the sea is basically a life time employment? It is not like they maintained regular unemployment markets back then.
Then it gets racists and becomes worse than it was originally. I colonial america we started with racially unbiased support for endentured servitude, it was practice by Europeans amongst themselves. Then it specialized into racist agriculture slavery for 50 years. But so did farm work in California for many years, it was all hispanic servitude. Was that bad? Underpaid, but they did specialize, and they were good at farm management. Hardly call it slavery, but more of a labor rights issue.

Without getting into other points, this is simply factually wrong: "Some of those enhanced capacities were used to do great evil, such as to capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale. The extermination of many indigenous groups could be added to that ledger too. Therefore we should beware of greater capacities, because even when they bring significant good, they also can carry great evils." For example, at the height of Roman empire about 50% of its population (60 out of 120 million) were slaves (per Gibbons). The extermination of indigenous groups routinely occurred throughout history (e.g. indians by spanish, vandals by byzantium).

The Pinker comment does not seem objectionable -- unless it is picked apart as if it were intended as some weighty observation. The Tyler "enhanced capacities" argument is less than clear and does not strike me as an improvement.

Well, we can just blame it on the United States like academe does with everything else.

Pinker's angry essay on "Why I Was Actually Right All Along" closes it's first section with the assertion that

"EN is not a work of intellectual history, and it’s pointless to quibble with the word because the ideals were not endorsed in the same way by every last writer of the era. Words mean what people take them to mean, and “Enlightenment” is conventionally understood to refer to the ideal of using reason and science to advance human welfare—as when it was invoked, for example, in speeches by Barack Obama and Emanuel Macron in 2017"

Aka, "If everyone else is spinning a simplified intellectual history of the Enlightenment and using the word to mean whatever they wish to dream up, so can I! And it's not like I'm taking seriously a real intellectual history of the movement whose name I invoke".

Followed up an immediate volte-face and attempt to make an intellectual historical case for what he claims the "ideals" of The Enlightenment caused in the world (e.g. "It was only with the Enlightenment that anyone thought to challenge the very idea that Europeans had a right to colonize the rest of the world").

Like, Pinker, make a decision, man. Either you're not doing an intellectual history and defense of the Enlightenment, or you are. Doing a sort of shitty, low-rent pop-intellectual history of the Enlightenment, which historians will fairly laugh out of town, and then sort of Frankensteining it to a bunch of graphs that show that, yes, economic growth does do good stuff... not a good strategy.

2018 is not a "We'll let it go because its heart seems to be in the right place" kind of era, and your self proclaimed intellectual elitism and arrogance doesn't encourage us to judge you by generous criteria.

Those attacking Pinker, including our host Tyler, have lost their way.

Pinker's arguments are clear and factual. The state of life for the vast preponderance of people on earth has improved markedly since the enlightenment. The vast preponderance of that improvement was due to those thinkers in the enlightenment[1]. This in no way should be controversial. Pinker is entirely right, his critics entirely wrong.

[1] And those two tinkered in workshops, who created the millions of innovations which make our live what they are today.

Agreed. But praise for the enlightenment implies the culture it created is superior to others. Not liked by the multiculturalists. Also not liked by some religious conservatives. And full praise for anything upsets the intellectuals who want to show how sophisticated and complex their thoughts are. Like a philosopher who thinks he needs to write 1000 pages to prove 1+1=2 with maximum brilliance-signaling to the rare few who applaud that kind of thing.

+1 but with regret. Honest intellectuals (and religious believers) test ideas by how well they stand when applied in the giant petri dish that is our culture? How else are we to judge our beliefs against our actions and their effects?

Sorry for being sloppy. There should be a period, not a question mark, after the word culture.

Maybe, but I suspect mood affiliation on the part of Pinker's critics, also, in the
Vein of "we cannot have a positive mood toward any European movement or schools of thought originating between 1400-1800 because that would detract from our critiques of colonialism and capitalism."

"The Virginia slavery debate occurred in the House of Delegates during its 1831–1832 session and was prompted by a slave insurrection in August 1831 led by Nat Turner. In the months that followed, about forty petitions, signed by more than 2,000 Virginians, urged the General Assembly to engage the problems associated with slavery. Some petitions called for outright emancipation, others for colonization. Many focused on removing from the state free blacks, who were widely seen as a nefarious influence. The House established a select committee, and when the debate finally spilled over into the full body, in mid-January 1832, it focused on two resolutions. One, made by William O. Goode, called for the rejection of all petitions calling for emancipation. Another, made by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, asked the committee to prepare an emancipation plan to go before the state's voters. By taking up these questions, the House, in effect, considered whether to free Virginia's slaves. After vigorous debate, members declined to pass such a law, deciding instead that they "should await a more definite development of public opinion." In fact, pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist opinion hardened in Virginia in the years that followed, buttressed by arguments previewed in the House..."

It was after this debate that racism became important to the slaveholders. Their arguments became pseudo-scientific defenses of slavery based upon the scientific inferiority of the slaves. The paradox is, as noted above, that slavery, which came fairly close to be abolished in Virginia, became even more popular and rigid.

See a book I've recommended before Root, Erik S. Sons of the Fathers: The Virginia Slavery Debates of 1831–1832. Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books, 2010.

I would note also that so many of the most radical abolitionists, including in Britain, were Christians.

Well, OK, so were most of the really tall people. And the short ones too.

The enlightenment made slavery obsolete thanks to technological improvements

Tyler, I don't disagree with your points, but remember, this is Steven's response to criticizm. While his response may lack nuance, it's fair as a rebuttal to a critique that is also unnuanced, such as blaming the enlightenment for slavery. I'm sure if you published a critique of enlightenment now, with your characteristic thoughtfulness, Steven's responses would be much more nuanced.

Slavery was an attempt to exploit the natural resources of hot wet areas in the New World that could grow cash crops on large estates. The hotter and wetter it was the more slavery, measured in both quantity and brutality. Much like genetic high IQ is a technology of immense value, Africans relative immunity to tropical diseases was a genetic gift of great value. As mere labor, even at slave rates, they don't seem competitive merely as workers. They weren't much of a boon to the south outside lining the pockets of a few planter aristocrats. Absent their disease resistance, I don't think the African Slave Trade would have existed.

As the industrial revolution increased the returns to IQ the value of exploiting these agricultural resources waned until people weren't willing to pay the costs involved in proping up slavery when it was no longer of much economic value.

Tyler's take may be more nuanced, but as pointed out by other commentators it is actually not obviously more accurate, since large-scale slavery had been practiced before. It is also a partial switch of subject, in talking of early modern Europe generally, rather than the Enlightenment specifically.

Also, Pinker is totally right that it is ludicrous to blame the Enlightenment for slavery. It is worth pointing that out, since there are indeed those who do precisely that. Essentially Tyler's complaints here amount to that he would wish Pinker would discuss something else, not that he can find fault in what was actually written.

Exactly, Tyler is expressing his own "mood affiliation".

The Christian influence on this were very deep pre-enlightenment. Slavery was mostly abolished in Christendom prior to the Muslim invasions. When Aquinas denounced slavery he was writing on an already settled topic. It was really the Spanish that, after fighting the Muslims for 700 years, took on their bad habits, like large-scale slavery. The Church argued against slavery but was already too weak to enforce its writ. The 19th century Christian revulsion towards slavery was a return to long held Christian doctrine.
Note even St. Paul, though acknowledging that a slave owner had legal rights, thought it would be better morally for him to free his runaway christian slave. St. Paul is also clear that masters will be judged by their treatment of slaves. That sets up a situation where its very difficult to be a Christian and a slave-owner.
Christianty gets the lion's share of the credit for diminishing slavery.. As Christianity shrinks, slavery will return .

Perhaps we can now move on to discussing ways in which current actual slaves can be freed? Technically, in Niger, slavery is illegal, yet somehow approximately 8% of the population are still estimated to be slaves.

That seems like a more useful problem to be solving related to slavery, if anyone has any ideas/influence.

Pinker's critics from both left and right tend to credit Europeans/Westerners/whites with way too much agency relative to non-(Europeans/Westerners/whites.) This is certainly true of African slavery, where the Europeans largely inserted themselves into an enormous ongoing business.

First, slavery was a widespread and ancient indigenous African institution, slaves being the main or only form of revenue-producing private property recognized under African laws, unlike Europe, where land played this role. So, when the Portuguese first reached Ghana in 1471 they found a brisk, well-established trade in slaves and other valuable commodities among the African states of the region.

Second, in addition to the indigenous or intra-African slave trade there was a vast export of African slaves out of the region through the Islamic slave trade, with routes running over the Sahara, across the Red Sea, and from the coast of East Africa. Paul Lovejoy in his survey of African slavery estimates that some 24 million African slaves were exported out of the region between 800 CE and 1900 CE, with close to half accounted for by the Islamic slave trade.

Third, African elites - African kings, aristocrats, warlords, state officials and merchants - were also central players in the Atlantic slave trade of the 17th through 19th centuries. African elites almost completely controlled the supply-side of the business, capturing, transporting and selling the slaves to Western buyers at coastal slave-marts. The only partial exception was Angola, where the Portuguese themselves became slave-hunters, although even here they continued to buy large numbers of slaves from African kingdoms and warlords further inland, in southern Congo, eastern Angola, and Northern Zambia.

If you're looking for exceptional agency among Europeans, it would be, as Pinker suggests, in the abolition of slavery. The story of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade by Britain and others in the early 19th century is well known. Less well known but perhaps just as significant is the suppression of the indigenous and the Islamic slave trades in the wake of the European colonization of Africa in the late 19th century. For example, after Britain proclaimed the abolition of slavery on the Gold Coast in 1874, following the third Anglo-Asante War, thousands of slaves fled from their African masters to the British protectorate and the Christian missions, many becoming highly motivated soldiers in the British colonial army. There was an enormous flight of slaves from their African and Arab masters in the Islamic Sahelian belt in the 1890s and early 1990s, after the French colonization of this area. Paul Lovejoy calls it one of the most significant slave revolts in history.

I write about this in more detail in my essay "'My Folks Sell Me and Yo' Folks Buy Me' - Kanye West, 'Barracoon' and Some History of African Slavery," here:

Jovita steel

The abolition of slavery is obviously an imperialist, Eurocentric idea that others were forced to accept at gunpoint. Slavery will flourish again in many places around the world (openly, not just covertly like at the moment) as the power of Europeans and their descendants wanes in the world.

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