Positive Reading List: 'Enlightenment Now'

This big book by Steven Pinker takes on big questions—and finds positive answers.

Posted in , May 3, 2018


Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is a huge book. It’s complex and far-reaching, written by cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker. It also happens to be Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ “new favorite book of all time.”  

Most of all, though, it’s a positive book. 

In it, Pinker examines no less ambitious a topic than the human condition in our time. At a time where headlines scream warnings that civilization is in decline, Pinker closely considers whether doom is indeed our lot—and he concludes that numerous positive social qualities, like knowledge, peace and happiness, are actually on the rise. 

He doesn’t present this conclusion through rose-colored glasses—or, worse, while wearing blinders to the myriad social ills that afflict the world. The book is intellectually rigorous and honest, methodically considering every angle before offering its conclusions. 

The strength of the book is its exploration of dualities—complementary or even opposite aspects of a given topic. For example, the happiness chapter, which was of utmost interest to our journey on our positive path, contained three such discussions.

First, Pinker explained that “happiness has two sides, an experiential or emotional side, and an evaluative or cognitive side.” The emotional side of happiness is your menu of feelings at a given moment; the cognitive side is how you feel your life is “these days” or “on the whole.” Understanding this duality, and how each side is measured differently, can help us interpret research on whether we are happy or unhappy as a society.

The second aspect of happiness Pinker explores is the difference between philosophy and social science. He reflects on Henry David Thoreau’s famous quotation in his 1854 book, Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How, Pinker asks, could a recluse living in the woods speak authoritatively about the “mass of men?” Readers need to understand that Thoreau was speaking from a philosophical perspective. Social science, by contrast, examines “the mass of men [and women]” from a far more evidence-based point of view. Both are important to integrate into any comprehensive understanding of happiness in the world.

Finally, Pinker wrestles with the duality of happiness and meaning or purpose. He writes, “People who lead happy but not necessarily meaningful lives have all their needs satisfied: they are healthy, have enough money, and feel good a lot of the time. People who lead meaningful lives may enjoy none of those boons.” Of course, there is also a sweet spot, where the challenge of pursuing a meaningful life leaves people feeling happy and fulfilled. 

Pinker’s rich book expands and educates readers, asking us to challenge the popular narrative that the world is falling apart, from a position of knowledge and understanding. His ultimate message is grounded in science and buoyed by philosophy. And his conclusion—that human progress is possible, real and headed in the right direction—is not cloying or condescending. His point, simply, is that the current moment in human history is cause for optimism.

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