I am reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, which will be an act of attrition occurring over a very long period of time as I attempt to digest it in tiny pieces between schoolwork—a veritable Sarlaccian1 undertaking. He has been attacked and defended for this book, and for his thesis that we are in a historical period of low violence in large part attributable to the Leviathan—the emergence of strong centralized states—but also to a change in the prevailing attitudes concerning the value of the lives of others. I've socked away some critiques from both camps and look forward to reading them when I'm finally finished, but for the moment, having read a number of articles summarizing his findings, I'm inclined to buy the general narrative; most societies seem to have undergone a civilizing process that has vastly decreased the rate of violence. Your risk of being executed or murdered today is a miniscule fraction of what it was at almost any prior point in history (think on grander scales than decades).2

Anyway, I have no desire to debate the merits of and injustices perpetrated by the Leviathan, for there are both. My purpose today is much more modest than all that.

"Burn her anyway!"

"Burn her anyway!"

Pinker's book thus far3 has laid out the groundwork for his thesis and gone into some descriptions of medieval and Reformation atrocities, along with a brief review of what we can infer about violence in prestate hunter/gatherer tribes. When he gets to the Reformation, though, the descriptions become outright grisly. Pinker pulls no punches illustrating, or letting historical accounts illustrate, the elaborate ways in which humans liked to torture other humans. I will spare you the images here, suffice it to say that the fates of hundreds of thousands of people—drawn and quartered, put on the rack, burned alive, subjected to all manners of unthinkable anguish—were fueled by what can only be called widespread, systemic sadism. That's an editorial comment from me, obviously, but these spectacles were not rare events; they were what stood in for entertainment in an era that didn't have Johnny Carson, to say nothing of the animal torture that was a central feature of many of the period's popular games.

To be sure, the Church had much to do with a great deal of this carnage. (Don't worry. Pinker follows up descriptions of heresy trials and the Inquisitions with accounts of secular torture that became institutionalized as states attempted to deter crime... or just get rid of people.) But he quotes three people in this section, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and a French scholar named Sebastien Castellio,4 whose words are notable either for their staggering hatred of people harboring different religious compunctions, in the first two cases, or for a modern-sounding skepticism of religious absolutes, in Castellio's case.5 I have cited the sources Pinker lists in his own bibliography.

Martin Luther on what's to be done with the Jews (1543):

First, . . . set fire to their synagogues or schools and . . . bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.... Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.... Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.... Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.... Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.... Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3[:19]). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. Let us emulate the common sense of other nations . . . [and] eject them forever from the country.6 7

John Calvin on the false prophets among us (1555):

Some say that because the crime consists only of words there is no cause for such severe punishment. But we muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouths and say what they please? . . . God makes it plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life.8

Sebastien Castellio on John Calvin on the false prophets among us (1554):

Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about manifest truth? . . . In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself. Calvin would have to invade France and all other nations, wipe out cities, put all the inhabitants to the sword, sparing neither sex nor age, not even babies and the beasts.9

Pinker notes that Calvin's convictions led him to advocate for the burning of Michael Servetus, a man with some reservations about the trinity, for heresy. Calvin got his wish in 1553. Castellio and many other Protestant thinkers criticized him emphatically.