"Why? Why do I need to know what so & so did x hundred years ago?!"If the answer they give you is only that it's for you to learn 'important and and useful cultural references', you might want to consider leaving. If their answer is 'to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past', you should probably go ahead and get up and start for the door. If their answer is 'to get an appreciation for diverse points of view', I suggest burning rubber to get out of there.
Not that those points, even the last one, aren't useful, and even necessary results of 'inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation' (the original Greek definition of History), they are, but they are not, in and of themselves, separately or combined, worth your wasting hours of your life every week to 'learn'. The purpose, the benefit, the value of studying history, aside from it being just plain interesting (and if yours isn't, then you are probably studying it from a... let me guess... 'textbook'? RUN!) is to gain a better understanding of yourself and your position in your life, and how to better your life, here and now. History enables you to identify and familiarize yourself with the tendencies that are common to men in society everywhere, meaning common not only to those of the past, present & future - but to that space between your own two ears as well,
History isn't for learning about dead people, but about the living, about yourself, so that you can understand something of, and develop the habit of reflecting upon, how people end up doing what they do - that is after all, what History is made of. If you aren't trying to put yourself in the minds of those you are reading about, if you aren't managing to, in some way, identify with the thinking of the slave holder as well as the slave, then you aren't learning any lessons worth the time you're spending on learning them.
Seriously. And if that isn't what you get out of history, or if it seems that those teaching it to you are intent on your not getting those valuables out of their lessons, then you should either figure out how to do it yourself, or get the heck out of there, or if that's not possible, at least do some serious daydreaming.
But I digress. Back to why we're here.
The first reason I'd given was a fairly tangible one: to begin to identify a 'societal baseline', a recognizable point which any sound claims of progress should be clearly moving your society away from, rather than back towards.
And again, what's past isn't the point of studying history, escaping it is - and that requires, as best as you are able, ignoring the differences between your world today, and theirs then, and even whether or not you even live in different times from that being studied. There is nothing preventing, and much to recommend, looking at your own world from an historical perspective.
History provides many examples of this baseline, and by inquiring into the history of societies as separated in time and space as those whose beginnings can be traced from Sumer, Babylon, ancient Egypt, to the modern primitive stone age tribes of the Amazon or New Guinea, as well as the haunts of modernity, they will provide you with plenty of examples of men descending to our sought after zero point on the progress meter. The hope I have here, is that by identifying our baseline Progress point – whether measuring against our past, present or future - we'll have a point to begin measuring real progress, and regress, from.
Without that, how can claims of progress have any real meaning?
Savages are every bit as savage in tweed jackets, as they are in grass skirts
I know of one example that is especially well suited to quickly tying together Cave Men, Philosophers, modernity and academics, and doing so quickly. In 1964, an anthropologist went looking to study a primitive, technologically undeveloped society, where he, shocker, found their society to be one that had not developed civilized behaviors. That anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, prior to his expedition, seemingly put little or no thought into the thoughts that went into (or never did) those behaviors he thought of as civilized, and so it took their absence to finally begin to make an impression upon him.
As noted by Professor Backflap (H/T Gagdad Bob):
"Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages is the remarkable memoir of a life dedicated to science—and a revealing account of the clash between science and political activism.He expected to find a Noble Savage? Really? In a place he thought of as not having a developed civilization, he expected to find one of the finest fruits of civilization? Would you?
When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela’s Amazon region in 1964 to study the Yanomamö Indians, he expected to find Rousseau’s “noble savage.” Instead he found a shockingly violent society. He spent years living among the Yanomamö, observing their often tyrannical headmen, learning to survive under primitive and dangerous conditions. When he published his observations, a firestorm of controversy swept through anthropology departments. Chagnon was vilified by other anthropologists, condemned by his professional association (which subsequently rescinded its reprimand), and ultimately forced to give up his fieldwork. Throughout his ordeal, he never wavered in his defense of science. In 2012 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences."
My first question on reading this was how much thought he could have given to the concepts of either nobility or savagery, much less the requirements of either?
My second question was, how prepared was he by his own education and study of History, for the reception his studies received back home in Academia?
Well if he studied the sort of 'History' in college, that was similar to the sort I mentioned in an earlier post, and coming from an anthropology department that was almost certainly the case, then the answer to both of my questions is: little or nothing at all.
[Hey kids, what is the value of an education that tells you so little about your fellow man or even about your own self? Same answer: little or nothing at all.]More evidence of this can be found in what it was that Chagnon considered to be such a noteworthy discovery: finding that in his observations of the stone age Yanomamö, and soon afterwards with the technologically advanced tribes of Academia, that,
“I discovered that maximizing political and personal security was the overwhelming driving force in human, social and cultural evolution. My observation is based not only on what we have thus far learned from political science and anthropological field reports, but also on a lifetime of experience living with native Amazonian tribesmen who chronically live in what Hobbes called in his major treatise, Leviathan (1651), a condition of war. He likened war to foul weather - not just a shower or two, but a persistent condition for extended periods of time, something chronic. The Yanomamo among whom I lived were constantly worried about attacks from their neighbors and constantly live in fear of this possibility.While it's good that he realized that Hobbes missed a few points and Rousseau was whacked, he shouldn't have needed to take such a long, dangerous expedition to discover what he could have, should have, learned from a basic study of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy & Tacitus in the comforts of a classroom under a teacher who already understood both them and the common errors students make, before ever having graduated from college. That he didn't, that should tell you something of the historical wasteland of wacademia, and that was from back before the storm of the 1960's broke upon us.
Neither Hobbes nor Rousseau ever saw people like Yanomamo tribesmen living in a "state of nature." Their philosophical positions about Man in a state of nature were derived entirely from speculation. It is therefore astonishing that some cultural anthropologists cling to the Nobel Savage view of human nature when ours is the profession that collected almost all of the empirical data on tribesmen and what social life was like under "pristine" or "Stone Age" conditions. Thus anthropologists should be the most likely people to arrive at a highly informed, empirically defensible view of human nature using the evidence from generations of anthropological research. ”
Not too surprisingly, at least for those who aren't delusional enough to expect to find a 'Noble Savage' in a society where the rulers rule because they're strong and others follow because they have to, the strong become the emblems of political security, and personal security depends upon your not being seen as threats to the strong. Savagery without nobility is going to be the norm in such a place.
But also note that his own tribe of anthropologists, although not only thoroughly exposed, in many cases first hand, to the evidence of savagery without nobility, they still refused to acknowledge the evidence of their own experience. Instead they abide by, unquestioningly, parroting, chanting, that which the tribe identifies its security with, and as 'the strong' always do, they say it is for 'the greater good'.
Translation: In the absence of any higher aspirations, maximizing political and personal security is the overwhelming driving force in human affairs.
Question: Where do those higher aspirations come from?
Both of Chagnon's tribes, in the Amazon and Academe, IMHO, demonstrated many of the essentials of the societal baseline we're looking for, and whatever the superficial appearances might be, if understood, then we can use it to identify a life which bears more than a passing resemblance to Hobbes' image of life living red in tooth and claw, and in one way or another, of being nasty, brutish and short.
However, the picture of 'living red in tooth and claw' which Hobbes painted (and Rousseau romanticized and painted over), makes it appear that such societies must be a place where people are wandering about in loin clothes or grass skirts in solitary brutishness, lone wolves hunting a kill in nature; but the fact is that the people of the baseline, more than any other, tend to congregate together with the like minded, as the good political animals they are, within the societies that have developed around them. The only real relevance Rousseau's idea of a 'Noble Savage' still has, is the near talismanic powers it assumes in the hands of the wacademic left. There it's useful primarily for defending the security of those political structures they've built within their academic departments, for utilizing their own hunter-gatherer approach to reaping govt grants of non-taxable income from our public colleges. And you'd better believe that they'll defend their tribal gains every bit as savagely - though without visible bloodshed - as the Yanomamö would.
At this point we should be getting a better picture of what the absence of progress looks like, but little yet about what makes Progress possible. Patience, we'll get there within a few more posts.
The lesson to take away from this post is NOT that undeveloped societies behave savagely, but that,
Just because a society develops more efficient technologies and stylized habits of dress, shelter and customs, that does not prevent them from behaving just as savagely as the Yanomamö; technology, social norms and a modern fashion sense, aren't key to what makes the difference between nobility and savagery, and if you do make the mistake of thinking that tweed jackets & mahogany libraries either make someone noble or rid one them of their savagery, then you too will be in for a surprise every bit as large as Chagnon's was, when he found the behaviors of the Yanomamö reflected in his fellows of Academe.
- Firstly, that savagery is normal - or at least easy - for human beings,
- Secondly, that it is not only natural, but deeply tempting for people seek to use, and to excuse, the use of power to maximize their political and personal security,
- Thirdly, that neither primitive mud huts, modern campuses nor royal palaces are reliable indicators of whether or not the people living within them are savages themselves.
- and Fourth, that there is something which some societies do develop, which lifts them above that baseline; What that is should be a constant question for anyone who doesn't wish to remain a savage
The other lesson to learn from this, is that that surprise Chagnon received, is the sort of surprise which is the very thing that a decent Education - which you should have had by High School, let alone by College - is supposed to inure you against.
His didn't. Has yours? Will the education your children are, or will likely receive, prepare them better than Chagnon's did? Does that education even recognize the Fourth point, let alone focus upon it? If your education installs illusions, rather than strives to rid you of them, you might want to question what value it really has.
We'll begin to take a closer look at what separates the appearances of, from the reality of, Progress, in the next post, tomorrow.