Innocence and Experience

Humankind; by Rutger Bregman; Little, Brown, and Co.; 480 pp., $30.00


Rutger Bregman’s latest book is about what he calls a “radical idea” that has “long been known to make rulers nervous” and whose apostles will weather “a storm of ridicule.” When we learn that Bregman’s thinking is in radical opposition to Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Burke, the Founding Fathers, Nietzsche, Freud, and many others, such opposition must surely be expected. 

It transpires his world-altering idea is very simple, to the point of bathos: “Most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” Those who are instinctively wary of world-altering ideas may laugh or recoil, but we should take this one seriously, because it cuts to the core of who we are.

To the author, almost all questions boil down to one basic dichotomy: Were the first hominids killer apes, or egalitarian pacifists? In other words, is humanity flawed, or are there just flawed societies?

For Bregman’s part, he insists we are not as bad as we believe we are, and by believing we are bad, we may be making ourselves so. 

A defining incident for him comes from 1966, when an Australian sailor rescued six Tongan boys from an island where they had been marooned for more than a year. The boys had coped with insularity...

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