Of course, in reality the state’s sanctions may be the threat of physical punishment rather than a fine, but the principle is the same: it’s easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing. The two civilizing forces, then, reinforce each other, and Elias considered them to be part of a single process. The centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals, all fit into an organic whole. And to prosper within that whole, one had to cultivate faculties of empathy and self-control until they became, as he put it, second nature.

Indeed the “organic” analogy is not farfetched. The biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry have argued that an evolutionary dynamic similar to the Civilizing Process drove the major transitions in the history of life. These transitions were the successive emergence of genes, chromosomes, bacteria, cells with nuclei, organisms, sexually reproducing organisms, and animal societies In each transition, entities with the capacity to be either selfish or cooperative tended toward cooperation when they could be subsumed into a larger whole. They specialized, exchanged benefits, and developed safeguards to prevent one of them from exploiting the rest to the detriment of the whole. The journalist Robert Wright sketches a similar arc in his book Nonzero, an allusion to positive-sum games, and extends it to the history of human societies.

In the final chapter of this book I will take a closer look at overarching theories of the decline of violence. The theory of the Civilizing Process passed a stringent test for a scientific hypothesis: it made a surprising prediction that turned out to be true. Back in 1939 Elias had no access to the statistics of homicide; he worked from narrative histories and old books of etiquette. When Gurr, Eisner, Cockburn, and others surprised the world of criminology with their graphs showing a decline in killings, Elias had the only theory that anticipated it. But with everything else we have learned about violence in recent decades, how well does the theory fare? Elias himself was haunted by the not-socivilized behavior of his native Germany during World War II, and he labored to explain that “decivilizing process” within the framework of his theory. He discussed the fitful history of German unification and the resulting lack of trust in a legitimate central authority. He documented the persistence of a militaristic culture of honor among its elites, the breakdown of a state monopoly on violence with the rise of communist and fascist militias, and a resulting contraction of empathy for groups perceived to be outsiders, particularly the Jews. It would be a stretch to say that he rescued his theory with these analyses, but perhaps he shouldn’t have tried. The horrors of the Nazi era did not consist in an upsurge in feuding among warlords or of citizens stabbing each other over the dinner table, but in violence whose scale, nature, and causes are altogether different.