In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
From this point forward material directly from the book is in regular type while tangents this sends me on are Italicized in brackets.
This morning I started Chapter 2. It’s billed as Wicked Liberty: The indigenous critique and the myth of progress. I had high hopes that the David Duo would immediately launch into the long-promised indigenous critique, but it was not to be. We start the chapter instead with more on the Davids’ favorite strawman/punching bag Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
“How did this ambivalent story come about?” That is the story of our fall from pristine simplicity and innocence into the enslavement of civilization, which is how Dx2 presented Roousseau in Chapter 1.
“IN WHICH WE SHOW HOW CRITIQUES OF EUROCENTRISM CAN BACKFIRE…”
“In March 1754 the learned society known as the Academie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon announced a national essay competition on the question: ‘What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?'” According to Dx2 Rouseau’s famous essay from which his version of the State of Nature comes was submitted as an entry into this contest, so it wasn’t very original. How does this relate to the questions from Chapter 1? Who can remember?
Davidses describe the elaborate social order and ask where the idea came from that inequality would have an actual origin. They say in the Middle Ages these weren’t questions but the exploration and colonialism brought Europeans into contact with different sorts of systems that got them thinking.
“Enlightenment thinkers openly insisted they were getting their ideas from foreign sources.” Leibniz wanted autocracy which he claimed was based on China. According to D+D the assumption has been that Enlightenment thinkers were only pretending to get their ideas from somewhere else. (I’ll come back to this.)
“Many influential Enlightenment thinkers did in fact claim that some of their ideas on the subject were directly taken from Native American sources–even though, predictably, intellectual historians today insist this cannot really be the case.” The italics are mine. I put them to there to highlight what is for me the basic problem with this book. D+D are obsessed with the sins of intellectual historians, and would rather write about the sins of intellectual historians than tell the story of the Dawn of Everything. But most of us aren’t academics reading intellectual historians; we’ve chosen instead to read this five hundred page tome by D+D. So why do they insist on wasting most of the 30 pages so far in their irritating little turf wars? Get the hell over it, please. At least name the intellectual historians you hate so much and describe their appearances, habits, and departmental gossip, so that can be the story.
“Of course, such historians typically frame this position…” Blah blah blah.
“In recent years, a growing number of American scholars, most themselves of indigenous descent, have challenged these assumptions.” Of course Dx2 could have invited one of these nameless American scholars of indigenous descent to be a co-author. But didn’t.
“The first thing to emphasize is that ‘the origin of social inequality’ is not a problem which would have made sense to anyone in the Middle Ages.”
“…The terms ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ only began to enter common currency in the early seventeenth century, under the influence of natural law theory.” Yes! That’s actually an interesting point and I think true.
There are a couple paragraphs about conquistadors and the legal questions back in Spain about their activities.
[Dx2 don’t go into this but colonies in general create a lot of legal questions. Also revolutions and revolts even more so. (Like the English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution) If the king was threatening to put you to death for arguing about your taxes then you and your friends need to come up with a theory about why that’s wrong and perhaps even as a backup plan come up with a theory of how you all can justifiably put the king to death first. A lot of the arguments from Machiavelli to Hobbes that are presented as abstract philosophy in historical writings were in direct reaction to real-time events. Machiavelli worked for the Florentine republic when it was overthrown (despite his heroic efforts) and he was eventually arrested and tortured before being put under house arrest of sorts. It was only then he started writing books and many of his readers from Francis Bacon to Diderot felt that he wrote The Prince (for example) as a type of revenge, using the ploy of pretending to praise authoritarian monarchy in order to expose how it really works. So if you’re horrified reading The Prince it’s because he wanted you to be. Maybe Bacon and Diderot were wrong, but that was an interpretation that was commonplace and all Renaissance and Enlightenment writers read Machiavelli. Hobbes and Locke worked for nobles who were involved in the pro-republican side of the struggles culminating in the Glorious Revolution.]
“Each of these authors [Hobbes, Locke, Hugo Grotius] populated the State of Nature with what they took to be the simplest societies known in the Western Hemisphere, and thus concluded that the original state of humanity was one of freedom and equality…” This is true and an interesting point. For the last four-hundred years most theorists have assumed complex social orders grew out of simpler systems, but before that many thinkers assumed simple systems were a degeneration of complex ones. It’s a view with too few sane advocates to access easily now, but the closest I can think of is Jane Jacobs. In one of her books (Cities and the Wealth of Nations or The Economy of Cities maybe?) she describes field work she did in North Carolina. A few families had gone into an isolated area with all sorts of skills and abilities, but a generation or two later they were very primitive, poor, and miserable. Their skills were mostly lost. This led Jacobs to reflect throughout her career on how much comes from cities originally. Long and interesting discussion for another time, and a healthy antidote to the admiration for rural isolation that is so prevalent in the U.S.
“First of all, a qualification is in order.” They sure do love these ‘before we get started here’s what you should think’ phrases.
Brief mention/admission of folk egalitarianism in European festivals. Interesting aside of sorts about how authoritarian kingship produces a reflex egalitarianism among subjects. Similarly, all early Christians equal before the Lord. [They don’t got into it but, that was the basis for Hobbe’s absolutism in Leviathon, and if memory serves, that was an element of Dante’s political support for the German emperor instead of the pope in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflicts.]
Brief mention/admission of egalitarian ideas among the ancients. Muddled. [My aside: Aristotle assumed humans were literally town-ish animals which is what polikon zoon meant. It’s often translated as ‘political animals’ as if he meant we were schemers, but polikon is the adjectival form of polis, the Greek word for city or town. Plato seems to have assumed humans were in origin pastoralists. (Hard to say what Plato thought since he puts everything into dialogues.) Since cities in the Mediterranean were all supported by intense local agriculture the Aristotle/Plato split is reminiscent of the Cain/Abel split in Genesis, though the Hebrew composer of the those verses obviously favored the herder side. There were no hunter-gatherers in the Mediterranean or Near East so neither the Greeks nor the Hebrews could imagine them. Eden is clearly described as a garden, by the way, not a wilderness.]
Jesuit Relations of New France. This was one of the books by a Frenchman describing the inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. It feels like we’re getting closer to the beginning of the story. D2 mention that travel writings about overseas lands were common in Europe among both intellectuals and the middle classes. This was true in England as well. Stories about the English settlements went through multiple printings and were the subject of plays and pamphlets. Shakespeare’s The Tempest drew on writings about a Bermuda shipwreck.
“We will examine early missionary and travel accounts…” Great!
IN WHICH WE CONSIDER WHAT THE INHABITANTS OF NEW FRANCE MADE OF THEIR EUROPEAN INVADERS…
“Father Pierre Biard was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia.”
“Twenty years later Brother Gabriel Sagard, a Recollect Friar, wrote… of the Wendat nation.” According to Wikipedia Recollect Friars were a French branch of Franciscans.
Biard and Sagard quote native criticisms of the French that ruffled their feathers.
“Sagard was surprised and impressed by his hosts’ eloquence and powers of reasoned argument…” Reminds me of Homer’s quotes about skills in debate being as important as skills in war.
“Sagard’s account… became an influential bestseller.” Both Locke and Voltaire cited it.
[Makes me think of Montaigne’s ironic and perceptive essay “On the Cannibals” which the Davids should have read but seem not to have. Montaigne is not much read today but he was read by everyone in the 17th and 18th centuries.]
Wendat were horticultural villagers with political offices. The Mi’kmaq were egalitarian hunter-gatherers. The Wendat were not egalitarian since they had political offices, but the Ds emphasize that to European observers both are described as free.
[This brings to mind the contrast of the indigenous Powhatan and Monacan here in Virginia.]
“That indigenous Americans lived in generally free societies, and that Europeans did not, was never really a matter of debate in these exchanges: both sides agreed that this was the case. What they differed on was whether or not individual liberty was desirable.” [This is generally true. Even throughout the 18th century natives were described as haughty and free. Like European nobility.]
“This is one area in which… accounts pose a conceptual challenge to most readers today. Most of us simply take for granted that ‘Wesern’ observers, even seventeenth-century ones, are simply and earlier version of ourselves; unlike indigenous Americans, who represent an essentially alien, perhaps even unknowable Other. But in fact… the authors of these texts were nothing like us.”
Great paragraph. D2 go on to state that we are much more like indigenous Americans in our social egalitarianism and rebelliousness, our personal freedom, and disrespect for authority.
“Nowadays, it’s almost impossible for anyone living in a liberal democracy to say they are against freedom.” True. Even authoritarians like current SCOTUS couch their authoritarianism in a backwards claim to be advocating freedom.
Pages 40-44 are great stuff, and the reason to read DofE. It describes the Wendat (or at least the scandalized Jesuit account of the Wendat) and how their personal freedom scandalized the Jesuit. This notes in passing that the Europeans were seen as cruel, stupid, child-like slaves. But it needs to be said that the section title conveys a problem with this book that has to do with the nature of history and who is writing about whom. D2 want to present the Wendat critique of the French but they end up presenting only the French account of the Wendat critique of the French.
HOW EUROPEANS LEARNED FROM…
“In political terms, then, French and Americans were not arguing about equality but about freedom.”
“Father Lallemant… records the story… ‘From the beginning of the world to the coming of the French, the Savages have never known what it was so solemnly to forbid anything to their people, under any penalty, however slight.'”
[D2 go into this but it’s worthwhile to make the point differently because I’ve had difficulty explaining this to even educated people. Most foraging people have no political offices of any kind, and anyone can do anything they want. Most horticultural and pastoral people have political offices of sorts–headmen, councils of elders, war chiefs–and these have prestige and the power that comes with prestige but they do not have authority. So,if a Lakota war chief wants a portion of his warriors to attack a fort but then retreat to draw the cavalry out at which point other warriors hidden the woods would pounce from the flanks. He can’t order units to do these things. Instead he has to patiently explain the strategy and persuade the warriors that this is the course they should follow. He’ll meet resistance too. As a cavalryman’s future depends on following orders, a Lakota warrior’s future depends on showing both independence, so taking orders diminishes him, and bravery in battle, so withdrawing even in feigned retreat or hiding in the woods while others fight is anathema to his entire society. So while the Lakota war leader has to spend hours persuading, a U.S. or Canadian military leader can just bark out some orders that he knows will be followed. Similarly a headman can suggest a settlement to a dispute or a time for a feast, but he needs to use persuasive ability and personal reputation to convince everyone to go along. Anthropologists identify between these sorts of proto-offices and the authoritative offices of the states an intermediary organizational form called a chieftaincy or chiefdom. The Powhatans of Virginia were a chiefdom (called Tsenacomoco) and the chiefs could tax subject peoples in a sense and demand deference in public, but still could not control the personal behavior.]
“Equality here is a direct extension of freedom… It also has almost nothing in common with the more familiar notion of ‘equality before the law’, which is ultimately equality before the sovereign.”
D2 go on to describe the Enlightenment as the “apotheosis of… open and rational debate” and try to trace this to America. They mention the rhetorical skill often noticed by travelers (who learned the native languages). They mention that the Jesuits and others all admired the native skill with rhetoric.
Here they return to one of the recurring problems with this book: (1) they distrust the Enlightenment but (2) want to prove it came from America. Also (3) they criticize and distrust European writers for their biases but (4) depend on European writers since natives left no written history. But if (5) Europeans left some record of native genius and used it to create the Enlightenment then doesn’t #5 undermine #1-4?
I think we need to stop here and talk about rhetoric, written and spoken, and how it relates to Jesuits, Wendats, Greeks, and freedom.