Poetry Changed the World: Injury and the Ethics of Reading
Originally posted on WANDERLUST:
What is the ethical power of literature? Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?
All these questions, at first, hinge on another: can anything diminish injury? In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that, over 50 centuries, many forms of violence have subsided.1 Among the epochs he singles out for special scrutiny is a hundred-year period bridging the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during which an array of brutal acts—executing accused witches, imprisoning debtors, torturing animals, torturing humans, inflicting the death penalty, enslaving fellow human beings—suddenly abated, even if they did not disappear.
Attempting to account for “the sweeping change in everyday sensibilities” toward “the suffering in other living things” and for the protective laws that emerged during the Humanitarian Revolution, Pinker argues that the legal reforms were in some degree a product of increasing…
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