Thursday, October 25, 2007
I got annoyed by a off-handed remark somebody made on the radio today--something about the simple, uncorrupted lives of the members of some Indonesian tribe. A little of that goes a long way with me.
It led me to do some casual research on Tacitus--perhaps the first European to indulge in the "noble savage" myth. (To my delight, the first entry to pop up on Google was something written by my friend John Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at UC Santa Cruz. One of the consolations of middle age is that one has had the time to collect a large number of interesting friends. John is one of those in my collection.) In 1997, he wrote:
"What we now call 'political correctness' may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.
Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, 'more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command.' Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that 'the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany.'
Nor was sexism one of their vices, for they had a high regard for the opinions of women and treated them with the utmost respect: 'They do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies.' In fact, these Germanic tribes, though primitive, exhibited high moral character, a point Tacitus stresses repeatedly, with remarks such as 'They live uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitements of banquets' or "No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to date' to seduce and be seduced' or 'Clandestine love letters are unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is extremely rare.' Tacitus' Germans were also brave, honest ... and just about anything else one could wish.
Tacitus sums up his idyllic picture by saying that 'good morality is more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere.' That is, of course, because the Germans were a naturally good people who did not need laws to keep their behavior in check. If Tacitus had been speaking about a tribe that had vanished without a trace, we might simply regret that we had never encountered such a splendid and admirable people. Unfortunately, we actually know a great deal more about those Germans than Tacitus did, and they do not seem so admirable in other recorded accounts. Moreover, Tacitus never actually traveled among them. What is going on here?
That vague word elsewhere in Tacitus' summary, suggesting as it does an unspecified place where people must be governed by laws to keep their depravity in check, gives the game away. It refers, of course, to Tacitus' own society, to the first world of the time: imperial Rome. What Tacitus really has on his mind is less the virtue of Germans than the corruptness of civilized Rome--its sexual depravity, greed, and obsession with rank and conquest.
We are surely familiar with this situation in our own time. A sophisticated man of letters, disillusioned and even embittered by the flaws, inconsistencies, and retrogressions of a great civilization, deludes himself that a world of primitive innocence and natural goodness exists in peoples who are untouched by the advances of that civilization. So intense are his hostile feelings toward his own society that he is unable to see the one he compares it to with any degree of realism: whatever its actual qualities, it is endowed with all of the human values that he misses in his own. Consequently, he sees his own culture not as an improvement on brutish natural human behavior but as a departure from a state of natural goodness. This recurring Western fantasy runs from Tacitus' idealized Germans all the way to such twentieth-century versions as Margaret Mead's sentimentalized Samoans and ultimately to one of the most far-reaching outbreaks of this illusion--the political correctness of our own day.
Anyone reasonably knowledgeable about the history of Western culture knows that some of these episodes were major factors in the historical development of Europe. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau's adulation of the Noble Savage and the nineteenth-century German Romantics' glorification of the German Volk had serious repercussions. Karl Marx was perhaps in a similar frame of mind when he imagined the end point of his transformation of society to be the withering away of the state. He must have fantasized, just as Tacitus did, that morality could substitute for good laws.
John Searle recently defended Western thought against the criticisms of the politically correct by pointing out that it is uniquely self-critical. But an even stronger point can be made: political correctness itself is a thoroughly Western phenomenon. From earliest times, Western society has been prone to recurring fits of this self-doubt. Those who are seized by this mood may imagine that they are taking an anti-Western stance, but that is all part of the same pattern of self-delusion.
Tacitus was using these imagined noble Germans as a standard against which to judge the Romans, but that was as far as he went; his concern was simply with the particular historical situation he was in. Rousseau went further, however. Instead of being content to think that eighteenth-century French society and its institutions were corrupt and corrupting, and to imagine another people that was morally superior because their natural goodness had remained intact, Rousseau generalized: man in his natural state was naturally good, and all corruptness sprang from society and its institutions. His Noble Savage was not just a particular group of Germanic tribesmen but simply man in his naturally good state before the degradation brought by the institutions of society--any society.
Rousseau had gone beyond Tacitus' local irritation to formulate a general theory of society and human nature, one heavily pessimistic about the former and blithely optimistic about the latter. Tacitus' quarrel was with Roman society, but Rousseau's was with civilization itself, which, he said, had ruined the human race. For Rousseau, the first person who enclosed a piece of land and said 'this is mine' started civil society; and, he tells us, if only someone had objected to that first step, 'what crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors' he would have saved the human race.
Whether because of the direct influence of Rousseau or through the spontaneous eruption of the politically correct impulse, this dark view of civilization has been revisited often since Rousseau wrote. Yet history has been most unkind to these illusions. Tacitus wanted to see in the Germans the answer to everything that bothered him about his own society, just as the campus radicals of our own time are tempted to see in the contemporary Third World an absence of rank consciousness and hierarchy, of capitalism and greed, of the strong coercing the weak, and of men lording it over women and treating them as playthings. Alas, Tacitus did not live to see his noble Germans run amok in the centuries that followed. One tribe, the Vandals, instituted a legendary reign of terror that gave us the word vandalism. We can be sure their victims did not see the sweetness and natural goodness Tacitus attributed to them. The Goths and the Vikings, too, committed more than their share of rape and plunder, and we can be confident that when the Visigoths sacked Rome in A.D. 410, the female inhabitants of the city did not experience the respect for women that Tacitus had described.
Had the Germanic tribes changed in the intervening years? They had not. Tacitus recorded a curious detail in his account of one tribe that might have revealed the truth of the situation, if only he had been receptive to the bad news it contained. He tells us of a tribe called the Suiones, who lived beyond the mainland and built ships in a peculiar way: 'The shape of their ships differs from the normal in having a prow at each end, so that they are always facing the right way to put in to shore. The rowlocks ... can be reversed, as circumstances require, for rowing in either direction.' The word Suiones is, of course, our modern word Swedes, and those ships were already recognizable as Viking raiding ships. There was nothing peculiar about them if one understood the purpose of their design. They were built for what Gwyn Jones calls the 'quick-in quick-out Viking raids.' In remarking that they always face the right way to put in to shore Tacitus misses the point, which is that they always face the right way for putting out to sea. Just as a bank robber will leave a car idling outside the bank, the Vikings had a ship waiting that did not have to be turned around to get under way. This Germanic tribe was already not what Tacitus imagined it to be."