Can things only get better?

The "ape bumfodder" of one man (Philip Larkin) is another man's treasure – Susan Irvine makes the case for the relevance of Old English literature in the modern world (and leaves us with a beautiful reading of "The Husband's Message", a poem told from the perspective of a wooden staff...); the Whiggish idea of constant societal improvement has, as its most high-profile advocate, Steven Pinker, whose 'The Better Angels of our Nature' caused a stir in 2011. Now he's back with 'Enlightenment Now', another data-heavy work of optimism – David Wootton weighs up the evidence

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