Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ignorant Exultation of the Primitive Can Only Lead Us Back to the Stone Age

by David Deming

The late Joseph Campbell maintained that civilizations are not based on science, but on myth. "Aspiration," Campbell explained, "is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization." Our technological society has been built on Francis Bacon's myth of the New Atlantis. Bacon was the first person to unambiguously and explicitly advocate the practical application of scientific knowledge to human needs. "The true and lawful goal of the sciences," he explained, "is that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers." Writing in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon predicted lasers, genetic engineering, airplanes, and submarines.

Competing with Bacon's vision of a society based on science is the older and more persistent fable of the Noble Savage. The Noble Savage is not a person, but an idea. It is cultural primitivism, the belief of people living in complex and evolved societies that the simple and primitive life is better. The Noble Savage is the myth that man can live in harmony with nature, that technology is destructive, and that we would all be happier in a more primitive state.

Before Jesus Christ lived, the Noble Savage was known to the Hebrews as the Garden of Eden. The Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) called it the Golden Age. In the lost Golden Age, people lived in harmony with nature. There was no disease, pain, work, or conflict. Everyone lived in perfect peace. Insects didn't bite you. There were no extremes of temperature, and you could wander naked through the fields. If you happened to be hungry, all you had to do to satisfy your craving was reach up and pick a sumptuous ripe fruit off a nearby tree.

In all the ages of the world, otherwise intelligent and learned persons have swooned to cultural primitivism. In the sixteenth century, French writer Michel de Montaigne described native Americans as so morally pure they had no words in their languages for lying, treachery, avarice, and envy. Montaigne portrayed the primitive life as so idyllic that American Indians did not have to work but could spend the whole day dancing.

When captain James Cook and other European explorers first encountered the native people of Polynesia in the late eighteenth century, they romanticized the primitive and ignorant state as a happier one, free of cares and anxieties. It was better, one European wrote, to be simple-minded and ignorant. "We must admit," he explained, "that the child is happier than the man, and that we are losers by the perfection of our nature, the increase of our knowledge, and the enlargement of our views."

The quintessential exposition of the Noble Savage myth is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book Discourse on Inequality (1755). Rousseau argued that what appeared to be human progress was in fact decay. The best condition for human beings to live in was the "pure state of nature" in which savages existed. When men lived as hunters and gatherers, they were "free, healthy, honest and happy." The downfall of man occurred when people started to live in cities, acquire private property, and practice agriculture and metallurgy. The acquisition of private property resulted in inequality, aroused the vice of envy, and led to perpetual conflict and unceasing warfare. According to Rousseau, civilization itself was the scourge of humanity. Rousseau went so far as to make the astonishing claim that the source of all human misery was what he termed our "faculty of improvement," or the use of our minds to improve the human condition.

Rousseau sent a copy of his book to Voltaire. In a letter acknowledging receipt of the work, Voltaire made a pithy and devastating criticism. "I have received, monsieur, your new book against the human race. I thank you for it...no one has ever employed so much intellect in the attempt to prove us beasts. A desire seizes us to walk on four paws when we read your work. Nevertheless, as it is more than sixty years since I lost the habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it."

Read the rest here.


  1. Absolutely brilliant.

    I have to declare myself guilty of following the myth of the happy savage subconsciously. This was an amazing read, made me think and helped get those stupid thoughs out of my brain.

  2. Voltaire was a smart man. Now, I'm trying to eat primally, but would I want to live that way? No.

  3. Great post RW. Hope more people will read it.

    Dale Fitz

  4. Civilizations are built on religion and ethos, whatever Campbell wants to call them. The West in large part was built on Christianity and the Protestant Reformation.

    And while technology is tremendously practical, it is not teleology. Still previous to Bacon, Christianity called men to work and have dominion over the creation, i.e. it was not only possible, it was lawful, yea, even necessary.

    Compare that mindset to primitive savages who work haphazardly because they are afraid the gods are angry at them. Likewise they are scared to investigate nature to closely for fear of enraging the gods.

    What we are watching now in part in the West is the destruction of the ethos and mentality that built it. While Deming realizes that environmentalism/ a return to the noble savage and pristine wilderness is impossible, he seems to substitute for it, another idol, evolutionary anthropology.

    But regardless of how deep the Enlightenment superstition of the perfectibility of man is ingrained in the mentality of modern man, it doesn't work and neither technology or the lack thereof or even the insights - if one can call them that - of evolutionary anthropology will solve the real problem, which is sin. True, modern man thinks the same a medieval and barbaric relic, but after the first Adam fell into sin in the garden of Eden and all men after him, only the second Adam, Christ can subdue it.

  5. Recently I've began to wonder whether there are right or wrong answers. It's all very relative.

    Those of us who grew up in the western culture are taught that things are either true or false (that's the so called two fold system). It's one or the another. We got this from the ancient Greeks (our system of logic comes from Aristotle). At times it doesn't seem to be working really well for us, as our way of thinking is limited to this 'true or false' system. Sometimes I think the Hindu system of logic is better. There are four different types of statements in their system of logic. Things can be 1) true, 2) false, 3) true and false, 4) neither true nor false.

    So I don't completely agree with the statement that we cannot live without technology. That we would be doomed if we would try to life in harmony with nature. That's only the case for the clueless westerners (like myself a few years back). Our idea of good life is a faster car, bigger house and this new 64GB 4G Turbo S X smartphone. In other words, if you think the purpose of life is to buy a new car every 2 years or so, and eat burgers while watching Family Guy.. then yeah - you'd be screwed if we'd try to life in harmony with nature.

    But there are other people out there. Spiritual people. Take Buddhists, for instance. There are hundreds of thousands (if not more) of Buddhist monks out there who live a very primitive life. And they are absolutely happy. If you've ever traveled east and met some of those people... let's just say you'd be amazed. They are all about love, peace, non-violence, compassion & co. Personally I think I would be way happier in a world full of Buddhists.

    I've thought a lot about life and living. What's the point of all this once I'm on my deathbed? Do I really want to worry about unemployment figures, Crude Oil price and what-not for the next decades? After all, who gives a $#%¤ in a long run? Do I want to spend my entire life watching prices go up and down in my monitors, worrying about investments, trades or inflation? Do I want to throw away my youth by making money, so I could die in a huge house and a bank account full of money? Do I want to throw away my youth so I could enjoy myself in my 40's, 50's or 60's (when my body is already turning and there are one illness after another)? Most likely I will never get to enjoy life. Do you think Warren Buffett is happy? Do you think Whitney Houston was happy? Do you think Rupert Murdoch is happy? Or do you think some clueless and I-don't-care Joe sleeping somewhere in the Bahamas is happy? Who can wake up whenever he wants and do only things he likes? Not having to worry about anything?

    I guess all I wanted to say was that it's all very relative. :-)

  6. "All of this would be of academic interest only, were it not the case that the modern environmental movement and many of our public policies are based implicitly on the myth of the Noble Savage."

    I would challenge that assumption. I went to a liberal private university in California and we demolished the notion of the noble savage in cultural anthropology, history, and political science.

  7. You're the exception, Ben. Not everybody is drinking the kool-aid, but lots are, particularly those who haven't had the advantage of a genuine education, much less a private one.

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