Many moons ago, I was a student in a tutorial on Late Anglo-Saxon England – a growth area in historical research at the time. (Hard to believe that there are growth areas even in such staid professions, but there you have it.) Our tutor passed around a number of grisly-looking weapons of war for our inspection. I asked whether we knew for certain that this historical period was quite as full of people hewing off each other’s limbs as we had been led to believe. I was told that, of course, there was a huge amount of warfare in society at the time, and that was the end of the discussion.
All these years on, I’m still asking myself the same question. Just because the archaeological record is full of weaponry does not necessarily mean that the people who buried their leaders in military garb were necessarily intensely warlike. What survives in the ground is certainly not the whole story.
Now, a new book has come along which makes me think I might have been working along the right lines. In The Pursuit of Kindness, a meticulously researched labour of love twenty years in the making, prompted by a near-death experience on the part of the author, Éamonn Toland argues that, far from human society being marked by survival of the fittest – bluntly put, the idea that you had better cut my head off with an axe before I cut off yours with a sword – kindness was in fact the dominant force in the development of society. Cooperation and peaceful coexistence was a better guarantee of success than conflict; the ties between early kin-groups, through marriage and religious ritual, provided much-needed stability, and the chance of thriving, in a world which presented perils at every turn.
This subject takes on a greater importance in our own era. We have been led to believe that the natural world is our enemy, to be tamed and, if necessary, brutally cut down to size. And yet we are now learning – fairly late in the day, it has to be said – that if we are to survive at all on this planet, we must change the way we operate, and work together with, rather than against, the natural world, of which, ultimately, despite technological prowess which would have been virtually inconceivable to our ancestors, we form a part.
It hardly needs to be said that humans have done terrible things to each other – in the twentieth no less than in any other century – and Éamonn gives full play to the depths of depravity to which, as a species, we have sunk with depressing regularity. Nonetheless, we can, indeed must, get back to our better natures. The Pursuit of Kindness, as archaeologist Francis Pryor points out, tells us why and shows us how. We are delighted to be publishing this book; we believe it will prompt debate and change many minds, among the general public as much as keen university students of history.
The Pursuit of Kindness by Éamonn Toland is published by Liberties Press on 27 May. https://libertiespress.com/product/the-pursuit-of-kindness/