By virtue of natality and the ability to act, each new individual poses a threat to civilization. The child carries barbarism with him or her. – Einer Overenget
Perhaps we would not view babes as self-centered creatures of desire were we not already committed egoists ourselves. – Marshall Sahlins
How do we resolve this apparent conflict, and the legacy of enculturation to the requirements of modern civilization?
As early as fifth century Greece, the intellectual groundwork had already been laid and battle-lines drawn so that preSocratic philosophers could make the final cut, separating physis (nature) from nomos (convention or culture). Then, in Plato, we find the metaphysical articulation and de-construction of a hierarchically-organized tripartite human soul, where the rational part – well trained by culture and civic convention, and with the aid of its higher spiritual part – rules over the lower, natural, concupiscent part, the baser and insatiable animal desires. In short, hypotheses were already being floated to justify the very model of hierarchical civil society, its dominion over and management of the body-politic, the unwashed masses.
Throughout the ancient world, well into medieval times, and right up to the present day, civil society has been viewed as both a necessary and a coercive corrective to the hypothesized inherent egoism, self-interest, and concupiscence of human nature, mankind’s allegedly brutish instincts. While Freud made this a cornerstone of his early twentieth century work in The Future of an Illusion, Marshall Sahlins confirms that the concept of “Original Sin pretty much sealed the deal in Christendom for centuries to come.” (The Western Illusion of Human Nature) As Elaine Pagels argued in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Augustine “offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better and for worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and a major influence on their psychological and political thinking.” Thus, in the pre-Socratic philosophers and early Church Fathers lay some of the theoretical groundwork for political philosophers in the West thereafter, including Enlightenment philosophes like Thomas Hobbes and J.J. Rousseau, themselves relying upon concepts already in the noosphere from the time of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War.
Even in his more romantic view of pre-civilized humanity, Rousseau himself presumes this nature/culture divide, arguing in The Social Contract that the principal function of civil government is the sublimation of the natural man in order to recreate him or her with a new nature.
[The Legislator must] so to speak change human nature, transform each individual, who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which that individual as it were gets his life and his being; weaken man’s constitution to strengthen it; substitute a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence which we all have received from nature. He must, in a word, take man’s own forces away from him in order to give him forces which are foreign to him and which he cannot use without the help of others. The more the natural forces are dead and annihilated the greater and more lasting the acquired ones…
This new civil order, as Rousseau suggests, is anything but natural; rather, it is pure artifice, a politic construction of new forces allowing citizens to work and live together safely within a well-defined universe. But, lost beneath the neatness of such civil contrivance and convention, life’s fundamentally arbitrary and unstructured wildness receded from view while still lurking just under the surface, challenging civilization’s very ability to establish, maintain, and control its well-ordered cosmos.
Yet, as colorful as these philosophical reflections must seem, we need to shift our focus momentarily to explore such characterizations in terms of more recent assessments of the transition from pre-civilized bands and pre-urban tribal communities, to our more stratified and institutionalized urban settings. In Recovery of the West, Marvin Bram characterizes the two hundred thousand year period of human pre-history – before the birth of modern civilized States – as the “kinship era” after its basic form of social organization. As he defines it:
Kinship means that what urban peoples call political, social, economic, and cultural arrangements are made not by specialists or professionals, usually strangers to most persons, but by the elders of clans, well known to all clans persons.
The “post-kinship era” on the other hand — characterized by the emergence of cities and the concomitant hierarchical systems of management and control — touts precisely those specialists, professionals, and impersonal institutions that we currently find in abundance in the modern State today. Embracing kindred observations by Alexis de Tocqueville in his commentary on nineteenth-century Democracy in America, Bram concludes,
[In a ‘post-kinship’ era] the nuclear family by itself cannot resist the impingements of modern political and economic institutions: the father, mother, and their children must be surrounded by some intermediate, protective body of persons in order to be safe from unacceptable levels of control. In fact, those modern political and economic institutions could not have been created in the first place unless the original protective body of persons, the clan, was broken into its constituent and susceptible parts, its nuclear families. The first emergence of civilization in the Middle East, and all subsequent civilized nations, were constructed on the break-up of their pre-urban clans.
The breaking-up of these pre-urban clans was not merely a materially or socially relevant event, but represented deeply psychological and existential transformations as well, affecting the collective sense of self and world even more dramatically than we today realize.
In any event, such assessments betray the roots of our modern conceptual bifurcation of nature and culture, and the subsequent reification of human nature as barbaric, egoistic and in need of control by now formalized institutional bodies. The hierarchy of the State – along with its legislators, priests, and princes – were and are believed to be a necessary antidote to the evil and barbarism that haunts the savage soul of humankind.
However, such conceptions and arrangements were not always indicative of human community. In pre-civilized (as well as extant primitive) kinship-based social groupings, the very notion of “self” – defined as an isolated ego inside a bag of skin, the virtual center of individual thought and action – simply did not exist. That concept, in all probability, was not fully articulated until the birth of cities, literacy, and accompanying written codes of social control. In fact, for most kinship-based cultures, the self (or person) is only meaningfully constituted in relation to and in the context of its relations with other persons and within the natural environment. Again from Marshall Sahlins:
Ethnographic reports speak of ‘the transpersonal self’ (Native Americans), of the self as a ‘locus of shared social relations or shared biographies’(Caroline Islands), of persons as ‘the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them’ (New Guinea Highlands). Referring broadly to the African concept of ‘the individual,’ Roger Bastide writes: ‘He does not exist except to the extent he is outside and different from himself.’ Clearly, the self in these societies is not synonymous with the bounded, unitary and autonomous individual as we know him… Rather the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being…
The self, in such a view, is not some lonely, internalized entity confronting and struggling against a foreign world, or competing with other egos there. Rather, such a self exists only as an instantiation of the Other, as an integral part of the Other.
In kin relationships, others become predicates of one’s own existence, and vice versa… It is the integration of certain relationships, hence the participation of certain others in one’s own being. As members of one another, kinsmen live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths… [I]n kinship, as in relations to the cosmos in general, alterity [the Other] is a condition of the possibility of being.
There is a sense here of what Lucien Levy-Bruhl has called a participation mystique, an ontological connection or participation of the self in the Other and in the universe at large, where human and non-human natures pre-reflectively collide, co-mingle, and inter-animate one another in the constitution of meaning, both socially and existentially. Here it is difficult to talk about nature vs. culture, for the two are simply manifestations of the same power of being – what the indigenous Melanesians might call mana, or the Sioux, wakanda.
If, in hunter-gatherer kinship-based bands, individuals participate one another, each and all together participating nature, why wouldn’t sharing and gifting be at the very heart of community, representing the primal and common mode of exchange among themselves and within their environment at large? In fact, that is precisely what we find as a defining characteristic of the earliest of pre-Neolithic economies. As Morton Fried clearly states in his classic work, The Evolution of Political Society, “The paramount invention that led to human society was sharing because it underlay the division of labor that probably increased early human productivity above the level of competitive species in the same ecological niches.” And Elman Service confirms in Primitive Social Organization, an Evolutionary Perspective, “The more primitive the society… the greater the emphasis on sharing, and the more scarce or needed the items the greater the sociability engendered.” As Ingold notes, it is more important “that food ‘go around’ rather than that it should ‘last out’. Whatever food is available is distributed so that everyone has a share…” (The Perception of the Environment).
So, where does this leave us when confronting the modern problems of thuggery, theft, avarice, and cupidity; the problematic of an evil human nature and the asserted need for external domination, institutional management, and hierarchical control? If primal (pre-civilized) social relations were characterized by sharing, and sharing itself was based upon a felt intertwining, being-with, or participating-the-Other, then we can be sure that such societies were in fact organized in an egalitarian fashion, without any obvious social ranking or economic stratification, save perhaps, for the prestige that came with exceptional gifting. Fried confirms this:
[We find that] of almost equal importance [with sharing] was the concomitant reduction in the significance of individual dominance in a hierarchical arrangement within the community. In part, the structural possibility for such a hierarchy was undermined by the demands of sharing. [Even] cooperative labor parties, whether for hunting or gathering, [took] place with very little apparent leadership…
So, is purely self-regarding behavior naturally human? Is there an evil human nature lurking just beneath our refined civilized exterior? Or, are thuggery, self-interest, and greed merely symptoms of this modern, civilized culture and it relentless emphasis upon the individual — on competition, hyper-specialization, management and control, both of nature and our fellow man? As Sahlins concludes:
Natural self-interest? For the greater part of humankind, self interest as we know it is unnatural in the normative sense: it is considered madness, witchcraft or some such grounds for ostracism, execution, or at least therapy. Rather than expressing a pre-social human nature, such avarice is generally taken for a loss of humanity. It puts in abeyance the mutual relationships of being that define a human existence. Yet if the self, the body, experience, pleasure, pain, agency and intentionality, even death itself, are transpersonal relationships in so many societies, and in all likelihood through so many eons of human [pre]history, it follows that the native Western concept of man’s self-regarding animal nature is an illusion of world-anthropological proportions.
Where does this take us in terms of our modern love affair with individuality, personal agency, and self-aggrandizement? And where, then, does this leave us in our discussion from last week’s post? How do we properly understand or assess the unique habits and institutional arrangements of the Western-style, ego-driven politics of business — of capitalism, of competition, of enterprise and entrepreneurship, of progress and growth? I proposed in the last discussion that such behaviors and economic arrangements should be viewed as psychopathic. My primary interlocutor on that post, Ralph Meima, responded with some degree of alarm.
But to call all entrepreneurs – social or otherwise – “psychopaths” is to throw out the baby with the bathwater, in my opinion. A psychopath is someone who is mentally ill, exhibiting abnormal, dangerous, violent behavior. What entrepreneurs do in modern society is quite “normal”. Few people consider their behavior insane… But it’s the society that’s crazy, not the entrepreneurs. They aren’t psychopaths. They are well-adjusted.
Well now, I could not have stated it better myself. Our society is indeed “crazy” based upon the rather long prehistory of our hominid ancestors, and for that very reason anyone considered “well-adjusted” or “normal” within this society must be considered quite diseased as well. Indeed, the culture we have created/inherited propagates the disease among its members; that is what cultures do, they do not inoculate, but rather inculcate their populations. Furthermore, it is customary for the psychopath to “fit-in” rather nicely with his society, enabling him to manipulate his compatriots more effectively. Finally, it is in the nature of psychopathy to hold fast to one’s delusions — to save the appearances, if you will — of the world one inhabits. That is what business as usual has come to mean in this wayward society, as it grasps wildly at eleventh-hour solutions, holding fast to its delusions. As long as we believe we can manage, engineer, or otherwise manipulate our way to saving even a mock-up version of this culture, we remain unabashedly and voluntarily its inmates. Like ancient astronomers looking up at the night sky with its heavens turning ’round the earth, we too search for those hypotheses that will save the appearances of the world we now see before us, if only temporarily.