Moderator: Christopher Lydon
War is Us. We bring with us, even to Montebello, William James’ pair of paradoxes. First, that war, the bane of the species, also chose us. “The survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring,” as James put it. “Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us.” And second, more pointedly for us who choose to reflect ruefully on war, “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect,” James wrote in his great speech at Stanford in 1906, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “The horror makes the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show.” Or is it so? A century after William James, his lineal descendant in “brain science” and Harvard celebrity Steven Pinker shocks himself with the conclusion: “today we are living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.” No matter that World Wars I and II, and Vietnam and Iraq, are part of that American century since James, Pinker writes: “Something in modernity and its cultural institutions have made us nobler.” In a closing, but far from concluding, conversation we will be attempting a tight fit of the conference’s contradictions, touching again on art and science in the service of peace and war, testing our broadest guesses about where history, too, is driving us. “History is a bucket of blood,” William James said. But if, as Pinker demurs, modern history is leading us out of the pit, it would be valuable, as he says, to have some better ideas: why? and how?