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10,000 Years of Nostalgia

The antiquity of ‘The Progress Paradox’

Life gets better, but people feel worse. In seven short words that’s what Gregg Easterbrook’s book is about. The Progress Paradox (2003) is a revealing survey of modern discontents ranging widely in the social sciences and medicine, and it’s certainly interesting that ten times as many people may now suffer from depression as did half a century ago. But Easterbrook is broad rather than deep, and seems largely unaware that people have been complaining about progress, and looking nostalgically back at the past, for as long as there’s been a past to look back at. How depressed they felt when they did so is hard to say—as often as not they seem to have got into a towering rage—but the progress paradox has been with us for thousands of years.

Primitivist fantasy: as old as civilization itself

One of its most striking sentimental manifestations is a widespread admiration for the tribal world. Anyone who thinks this began with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century is deeply mistaken. We mentioned Lucretius in this connection last month, citing A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas’s Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, but this book also makes plain that there were numerous other thinkers from 2000 years ago who admired the simple life. And none of them liked stuff.

In fact, they all believed that less stuff was better than more. Socrates said that man’s basic requirements were few and easily satisfied, and Epicurus agreed. Diogenes once talked a prosperous Athenian into turning his agricultural land into sheep pastures—pastoralism has always had a special appeal with its visions of rustic tranquillity—and persuaded him to throw his money into the sea. Plato’s Republic dwelt fondly on the idyllic picture of an earlier communal society, while any number of Greek thinkers were convinced that the savage Scythian tribes, somewhere beyond Thrace along the shores of the Black Sea, exemplified primitive virtue in contrast to degenerate Athens.

Reaching back a bit further we find that as early as 700 BC the Greek poet Hesiod felt humanity’s heroic days were past and that he lived in an era of lamentable decline. In the Golden Age (which Hesiod says was long before his own time) men were naturally peaceable, and for that reason there was no war. Nor was there any foreign trade or travel to confuse us with luxuries: everyone stayed home happily knitting their own sweaters, and no-one fussed about Paris or Pierre Cardin. Among other attractive features of the Golden Age, the people were vegetarians, made everything out of wood, and because they were naturally good their communal society was free of conflict and required no lawyers.

Notice that from the Golden Age all the way down through a series of inferior ages (Silver, Bronze, and Iron) this is a story of degeneration. Not a story of progress, but of regress. It is virtually certain that Hesiod did not live like a savage: he used a spoon and slept in a bed. But paradoxically—as Easterbrook might say—he hated progress. And notice also what is admired above and beyond all these particularities: the social and economic virtues described are only to be found in an imagined community where xenophobia and group hostilities had been vanquished and universal love prevails. In all these idealistic visions communal order was an implied prerequisite: some tight-knit form of collectivity was thought to be inseparable from the social virtues portrayed.

One last thing should be mentioned in this connection. In Scientific American Discovering Archaeology for Jan/Feb 2000 evidence was presented from 8,500 years ago of a cult in Cyprus that, somewhat incredibly, wanted to turn the clock back. According to the author, there were people at that time who found the decadence of Anatolian life intolerable, so they sailed across the sea to Cyprus, and gave up pottery, individualism, and sex. It must be added, however, regarding this intriguing article, that extrapolating from stones and bones to what people may have thought or believed eight and a half thousand years ago is a less than exact science.

But from these many examples one is forced to conclude that romantic primitivism has been with us for a very long time. In round figures, it looks as if people have been gazing nostalgically backward for nearly ten thousand years. And that is highly significant. Because the last ten thousand years is exactly the epoch in which civilization itself emerged; and what it suggests is that idealizing earlier and more primitive ways of life is a fixed mental tendency, a psychological constant if you will, inseparable from the rise of civilization itself.

From xenophobia to xenophilia

For anyone who doesn’t have them, it is obvious that the most important features of civilization are soap and toilet paper. These are the items that distinguish civilized from precivilized life, and distinguish barbarism from the dark abyss of unwashed and unwiped prehistory.

Yet today, surprisingly, many nice, clean, sweet-smelling middle class folk have somehow persuaded themselves that the tribal world, where there is no soap, no toilet paper, no shampoo, no deodorant and certainly no tampons, represents a better way of life than their own. No doubt if you pressed them about this after a good dinner they might concede that the pre-civilized world lacks amenity; but that it is morally superior and altogether more virtuous they feel in their bones to be true. And the deep reason for feeling this way about early human society is always the same: it is more communal, more collectivist, more committed to the solidarity of the group.

The reason for this persistent attraction to the tribal lies, I believe, somewhere in the complicated moral evolution of humanity—in the historical passage and shift in moral judgement from xenophobia to xenophilia. To grasp this it is necessary to be clear about these contrasting attitudes and psychological types. A xenophobe is one who holds that the humanly foreign, the Other, the culturally unseen and unknown—perhaps some vaguely reported and misunderstood tribe across the sea—is really a bit sus, and definitely not what we want at home in our living room. A xenophile on the other hand holds that the foreign, the remote, the exotically Other, precisely because it is only vaguely apprehended, and just because it radically differs from ourselves, is something wholesome and admirable that should be warmly embraced.

Of course in evolutionary terms xenophobia is probably as old as the hills—it is certainly as old as the apes. Go back a million years or so and one finds that xenophobia was the primordial attitude regulating the association of bands of violent prehumans, or low-browed protohumans, virtually everywhere you looked. Xenophobia taught that while the inhabitants of your own country were generally okay, the inhabitants of the adjacent territory were a disgraceful and unmanageable bunch who were always trying to invade your land, seize your wife and children, burn down your house, laugh at your gods, and defile all you held sacred.

The primaeval xenophobic attitude was once illustrated in a cartoon showing two English rustics, about 1890, leaning on a farm gate when a toff from London walks by.

First Rustic: “Who’s him?”
Second Rustic: “Dunno”
First Rustic: “Chuck a brick at him.”

Given a spontaneous tendency on the part of rustics to toss bricks at passing strangers, xenophobia is clearly a social problem, and quite possibly a moral problem, and it is clear that civil society cannot allow it to flourish unrestrained. At the same time it is hard to see it as an intellectual problem. There is nothing at all puzzling about it, nothing mysterious to be explained, nothing that some anxious academic commission should be asked to look into. It is obviously an expression of the same unaccommodating instincts we share with countless other animals, including chimpanzees, and goes far back into the primate past.

But the modern phenomenon of anti-civilizational xenophilia is an intellectual problem. The adoration of cultures other than our own, the worship of gods other than those we were brought up with, a devotion to all religions other than the one our parents believed—what A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas call in their book the “revolt of the civilized against civilization” with its admiration for pre-civilized social forms and a love of the exotic, the strange, and the outré—this is indeed a genuine puzzle. It is by no means obvious how it arose. What is clear at the outset, however, is that it involves an inversion of much that is natural, normal, and universal in social life.

Moral rules: from Freud to Mary Midgley

Freud’s psychology may be of help here. First and most simply, he tells how the calm exterior of every man and woman conceals a tumult of instinctual desires and drives. Second, in order for the human animal to live peaceably with his fellows these instincts must be tamed, diverted, redirected—sublimated is the usual term—and made compatible with peaceful collective life. Human cultures invent moral rules to do this, the male impulse to aggression being subject to a variety of restraints on bad behaviour.

Then with the rise of civilization it becomes subject to such difficult rules as ‘Love thy Neighbour’, and the even more counterintuitive ‘Love thy Enemy’. Third, although conscience as an internal system of control is erected on the basis of these rules, those bad old violent and aggressive drives just won’t go away. They cannot and will not be eradicated. They are overlaid by the artificial rules of the super-ego, but though overlaid they won’t lie down. In the darkest subterranean levels of the human psyche they persist, producing anxiety, guilt, and neurotic symptoms up on the surface.

Now my argument is that romantic primitivism, which we have seen is a recurrent feature of western civilization for about 3,000 years, and possibly much longer, is part of a guilt complex involving moral rules idealizing the communal way of life. This idealization is deeply inscribed in conscience; and guilt arises because of the claims of this communal social conscience on the one hand, and the opposing need in civilized societies to assert oneself individualistically against the communal, against the collective, against the claustrophobia of the tribe, against the tyranny of the human herd.

Freud’s relevant statements appear in a number of places. In Totem and Taboo, for example, he states as an axiom that “where there is a prohibition, there must be an underlying desire.” This of course makes sense. Why prohibit something we have no wish to do anyway? The only reason for having a speed limit is that we want to go faster. The only reason for having a rule like “Love thy enemy” is that we want to xenophobically beat the enemy to a pulp and would like to do so.

This is the instinct which the moral norms of civilization arise to counterract: the wish to aggress, to fight, to kill. We began by saying that the normal relation of tribe to tribe is territorially xenophobic—fearful, hostile, and ready to strike and destroy: “Chuck a brick at him.” By way of reinforcing this proposition consider what Mary Midgley has to say in her book Beast and Man:

War and vengeance are primitive human institutions, not late perversions; most cosmogonies postulate strife in Heaven, and bloodshed is taken for granted as much in the Book of Judges as in the Iliad or the Sagas. There may be nonaggressive societies, as anthropologists assure us, but they are white blackbirds and perhaps not so white as they are painted.

It seems possible that man shows more savagery to his own kind than most other mammal species… Abimelech, the son of Gideon, murdered, on one stone, all his brothers, to the number of three score and ten (Judges 11:5). An animal that did anything remotely similar would (surely rightly) be labelled ‘dangerous’.  (pp28–29)

War before civilization

It is frequently claimed either that war did not exist before civilization, or that it was relatively trivial with little loss of life, or that it was ritualised and involved no serious levels of death or injury, or that when conflict has been recorded between tribal societies it grew solely out of their clash with civilization itself. There is alas nothing to support these views. We are here presenting speculative moral psychology: we don’t have much space for empirical evidence. But on the subject of precivilized tribal warfare you should know there’s a lot of evidence around, especially in two recent books which show the folly of trying retrospectively to pacify the human past.

One of them is Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization (Oxford, 1996). The other is Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles: the Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, 2003. Keeley tells us that whether comparison is made between the frequency of war in primitive and civilized society, the scale of massacres, the proportion of those of the general population actively involved, the toll of dead and injured, in each case the surprising thing—and it certainly surprises me—is that the tribal world looks both more bloody and more deadly. As to frequency: Keeley notes that the early Roman Republic initiated a war or was attacked only about once every twenty years, while the average modern nation-state between 1800 and 1945 went to war about once in a generation.

Compare this with pre-state, preliterate, precivilized tribal societies: 65% were at war continuously, while 55% were at war every year. As to massacres: at the site of Crow Creek in South Dakota, in what seems to be the year 1325 according to archaeological dating, more than 500 men, women, and children were slaughtered, scalped, and mutilated, and all this well before anything remotely resembling civilization was available locally—and long before Columbus. Regarding the toll of dead and injured, Keeley writes that “the proportion of war casualties in primitive societies almost always exceeds that suffered by even the most bellicose or war-torn modern states.”

Traditional Australian Aboriginal life is presented as blandly pacific, the standard image used over and over again by the Australian Broadcasting Commission showing a family group wading thoughtfully into a lily pond, with flowers between their teeth. But it wasn’t quite like that in the old days. The convict William Buckley, who escaped in 1803 and lived with Aborigines on the southern coast for thirty-two years, provides a rare glimpse, from the inside, of the level of conflict among his people. One day, he writes, “we were unexpectedly intruded upon by a very numerous tribe, about three hundred. Their appearance coming across the plain, occasioned great alarm… On the hostile tribe coming near, I saw they were all men… In a very short time the fight began. Men were fighting furiously, and indiscriminately, covered with blood, two of them later were killed in this affair”.

He goes on to say that the battle ended with three killed, and then describes the counterattack that his people staged the following night: “ finding most of them asleep, laying about in groups, our party rushed upon them, killing three on the spot, and wounding several others. The enemy fled, leaving their war implements in the hands of their assailants and their wounded to be beaten to death by boomerangs.”

In pre-civilized war the beating, stabbing, or spearing to death of the wounded was routine. It may be appropriate here to mention that in accounts of the battle of Culloden, near Inverness in 1746, writers often wax indignant about the “atrocities” which followed the fighting. It is said that about 1,200 Highlanders of the Macdonald and Cameron clans lay dead or dying, and (in one author’s words) “what happened next was completely foreign to the rules of war…” Apparently the Duke of Cumberland “ordered his soldiers to spare no one, not even the wounded lying in the fields and woods. Hundreds of the fallen were shot or stabbed where they lay. Some were even buried alive. And so on.

But this is how it has always been in tribal fighting. A 12-year-old girl who was taken captive by the Yanomamo in South America in the 1930s recalled later of one fight she witnessed, “then the men began to kill the children; little ones, bigger ones, they killed many of them. They tried to run away, but they caught them, and threw them on the ground, and stuck them with bows which went through their bodies and rooted them to the ground. Taking the smallest by the feet, they beat them against the trees and rocks. The children’s eyes trembled. They killed so many.”

The social contract

Returning again to our wider moral speculations, it would seem that if this is how bad things were for the last million years or so, then there would seem to be a strong case for strong authority to stop it. And what Freud himself says is close to contract theory in more ways than one. For example, Freud writes that “Man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes the programme of civilization.” In Civilization and Its Discontents he tells us, “I adopt the standpoint that the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man . . .  (and) constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.”

The fact that instinctual aggression is such a huge impediment must have been recognised quite early on, many thousands of years back. Once this happened, and reasonableness and the values of rationality attained critical mass, then a deal was done. “Human life in common”, he writes, “is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of this community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’ (and) this control represents the decisive step of civilization”.

It’s a pretty picture. Reasonable chaps meet other reasonable chaps and agree to behave better. But the raw material of many men and women is not reasonable. It is deeply instinctual, driven by the sort of animal desires which regularly end up in the more sensational newspapers. Sublimation is an unending social process. The work of taming instinctual impulses must be undertaken again and again with every new recruit to the social order. In brief, each individual conscience must be newly built, newly constituted, and newly installed in each individual, year after year, generation after generation, because (in Freud’s words) without this “civilization is perpetually threatened with disintegration”.

Freud employs a vivid metaphor to describe the setting up of conscience as a mechanism of moral control. “Civilization”, he writes, “obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.”

What has been conquered is the instinctual city of dreadful night, the city of sinful homicidal wishes. What is set up like a garrison in the city is conscience, for without it collective life of a kind embracing millions of people living together could not take place. And that of course is what civilization is: not a family, not a hunting band, not a clan, and certainly not a tribe. It is a wholly new and unprecedented form of collective social life in which hundreds of millions somehow rub along together, largely anonymously.

Beyond Freud

We will soon have to go beyond Freud. But let us first agree with Freud in stressing just how extraordinarily important the civilizational blocking of aggressive drives has been. He himself believed that in the evolution of civilization nothing was more psychologically important than the suppression of powerful animal instincts, socially destructive instincts representing a constant “hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle.” And nothing showed how important was the spread of wider and wider forms of peaceful association than that amazing injunction—so totally counterintuitive, so downright bizarre—“love thy enemy”.

But at the same time something else went completely unnoticed by Freud. Who was not, of course, an economist. This being that modern civilization as a whole, is not and cannot be along old-style communal lines. Yes, indeed: we can agree that the suppression of individualistic aggressive drives is necessary for the wider form of human association we call civilization. There Freud got it right. But after this we have to say no. Wider forms of association, the form of human association Hayek called ‘the extended order’ involving hundreds of millions of people, cannot be based on the communal arrangements of older, more primitive social units, simply sustained by the moral rule that it is desirable to “love thy neighbor”.

There Freud got it wrong. This is of course the classical collectivist delusion. In fact, the lines on which peaceful, modern, spontaneously cooperative organization is built are broadly those of the free market—as indeed, from the 1930s on, people like Mises, Hayek, and Michael Polanyi tried patiently to explain—and these spontaneous forms of large-scale social order consist of vast self-regulating systems utterly different in their dynamics from tight little fraternally bonded communes.

So what have we here? A contradiction which splits many minds and many societies quite profoundly. It also produces loads of guilt among those who have deeply internalised the communal injunction “love thy neighbor as thyself”. From that guilt in turn comes a determination to uphold, to idealise, to promulgate as desirable and preach and promote the ancient communal ideal, come what may. But where can we find a living example of this ideal? The answer for many people is that we can now only find it in concrete form, incarnated so to speak, in those small-scale tribal societies that modern civilization has marginalised or actually swept away.

And the very fact that modernity has destroyed them deepens the feeling of guilt, and adds to the determination to overcompensate by honouring their memory, to atone for the sins of modernity by presenting them as worthy and admirable, to seek expiation by rehabilitating them as uniquely sympathetic cultural forms. And in everything we say about them, by morally transfiguring the primitive world so that all traces of violence and war have been tastefully air-brushed away. This, I suspect, is what underlies much romantic primitivism today.

(This essay originated as a talk for Blackheath Philosophy.)

Posted in Tribalism.