The Rational Savage
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by David Graeber and David Wengrow is a highly recommendable read. Even though the authors arrive at the opposite conclusion than I, i.e. that egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands are a myth whereas I think egalitarianism is “baked into” hunter-gatherers in contrast to food-producing farmers and herders, who are more “status-conscious”. For some reason, the authors hold liberty in extremely high value but do think much less of egalitarianism. To me those are but two sides of the same coin. The authors conclude that we are all Hobbesian (competitive) in our nature, but behave like egalitarian Rousseuians when it comes to politics. This may reflect our current Western cultures but is by no means representative of history at all.
In any case, there is plenty of food for thought in the book. Even though the authors want to do away with the myth of the “Noble Savage”, they present a very rational savage in chapter three. It’s a tale of how indigenous Americans — confronted with strange foreigners — gradually developed their own, surprisingly consistent critique of European institutions, but that these critiques came to be taken very seriously in Europe itself. And it’s a critique that does not pale in comparison with the most critical rationals in history, from Sokrates to Critical Theory and Noam Chomsky.
Here is the story: an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce (aka Lahontan), Baron de la Hontan was posted to Canada and became fluent in Native American languages and befriended Native Americans, among them an unusually brilliant Wendat statesman named Kandiaronk who was generally considered a courageous warrior, brilliant orator and unusually skilful politician. Lahontan published a book about his conversations with this remarkable Native American: Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled (1703). He wrote of Kandiaronk, who had been to Europe:
Those Native Americans who had been in France were continually teasing us with the faults and disorders they observed in our towns, as being occasioned by money. There’s no point in trying to remonstrate with them about how useful the distinction of property is for the support of society: they make a joke of anything you say on that account. In short, they neither quarrel nor fight, nor slander one another; they scoff at arts and sciences, and laugh at the difference of ranks which is observed with us. They brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to one man [the king] who possesses all the power, and is bound by no law but his own will.
Contrary to what people at the time believed of “savages” (i.e. foragers) Kandiaronk showed remarkable rationality. The authors claim that his rationality and arguments threatened the foundations of European society. Kandiaronk, as is typical for rationals, was a sceptic, in particular in religious matters:
For myself, I’ve always held that, if it were possible that God had lowered his standards sufficiently to come down to earth, he would have done it in full view of everyone, descending in triumph, with pomp and majesty, and most publicly…He would have gone from nation to nation performing mighty miracles, thus giving everyone the same laws. Then we would all have had exactly the same religion, uniformly spread and equally known throughout the four corners of the world, proving to our descendants, from then till ten thousand years into the future, the truth of this religion. Instead, there are five or six hundred religions, each distinct from the other, of which according to you, the religion of the French, alone, is any good, sainted, or true.
Lahontan replies that people need religion and punishment so that they are motivated (externally) to do good and avoid doing bad. However, Kandiaronk does not see the need for such external motivation:
For my own part, I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human, what species of creature, must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to do good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment?…
You have observed that we lack judges. What is the reason for that? Well, we never bring lawsuits against one another. And why do we never bring lawsuits? Well, because we made a decision neither to accept or make use of money. And why do we refuse to allow money into our communities? The reason is this: we are determined not to have laws — because, since the world was a world, our ancestors have been able to live contentedly without them.
Kandiaronk’s verdict of European society is quite devastating:
I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity, — of all the world’s worst behaviour. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false, and all because of money. In the light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as to look at silver?
Whereas Lahontan seems to agree with a Hobbesian view of humankind, Kandiaronk seems to have a Rousseauian view. In fact, it is the other way round. Rousseau and the Enlightenment philosophers were hugely influenced by the Native American critique of European society.
A lot of Europeans couldn’t but agree with him and admire the “savages”:
As Father Lallemant, whose correspondence provided an initial model for The Jesuit Relations, noted of the Wendat in 1644: I do not believe that there is any people on earth freer than they, and less able to allow the subjection of their wills to any power whatever — so much so that Fathers here have no control over their children, or Captains over their subjects, or the Laws of the country over any of them, except in so far as each is pleased to submit to them. There is no punishment which is inflicted on the guilty, and no criminal who is not sure that his life and property are in no danger…
Personal liberty vs obedience authority is the main thread in the discussion. I have argued (like many before me) that the need for authority came with farming. Even though it’s exactly this “myth” that the authors want to dispel, Kandiaronk’s story actually cements this “myth”.
Steven Pinker argues in his book Rationality (2021) that social progress (equality for women, abortion of slavery, etc.) has been achieved through rationality. In fact the very same rationality of universal freedom that Kandiaronk uses. If we look at the differences between foragers and farmers we find opposing values:
In foragers, we can see Haidt’s values of care/liberty/fairness and in farmers the values of authority/sanctity/ingroup. In Haidt, it’s all about liberals vs conservatives but we can see here that the evolutionary basis of liberalism and conservatism lie in foraging and farming.
We can see this antagonism throughout history. Jesus was a hunter-gatherer type who followed the same rationality: his father was forgiving rather than punitive, his religion was inclusive rather than exclusive (we are the chosen people) and was against all kinds of inegalitarianism, including against women and children. The god the New Testament is a completely different god from the Old Testament, a god for everyone, even for sinners and prostitutes and basically undermines the whole purpose of the old one.
David Graeber and David Wengrow have not convinced me of the myth of the egalitarian forager. However, they have provided me with beautiful examples of how foragers can be rational and I definitely recommend their book.
Check out my book to learn more about people with hunter-gatherer mindsets
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on December 30, 2021.