Jan 2010

War & The Noble Savage

The latest book from my friend and fellow traveller, Gyrus, is subtitled “A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilized Peoples”. Over the past few years a debate has been raging… quietly raging, but raging nonetheless… regarding the nature of pre-civilized human society. In this slim but incisive volume, Gyrus summarises the debate and adds to it. Signficantly, in my view.

War and The Noble Savage

There is a tendency within our culture (perhaps within humanity, though anthropology suggests that it’s not universal, merely rather prevalent) to reduce everything to a kind of oppositional dualism. To polarise every debate. The baddies and the goodies. Yin and Yang. Male and female. Left and Right. I find this tendency rather unsatisfactory as it often (usually!) ends up simplifying issues to the point of uselessness.

The debate regarding pre-civilized cultures; specifically regarding the questions of whether they are/were more or less violent than civilized cultures and whether they are/were more or less ecologically conscientious than civilized cultures; has followed that general tendency and become polarised. On the one hand there’s the view — generally attributed to Rousseau — that pre-civilized peoples were “Noble Savages”. On the other hand there’s the view expressed by Hobbes that primitive life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

These two positions (both of which appear to have started life as thought-experiments, rather than deeply held convictions) have led to various kinds of caricature. The post-Hobbesians paint a ridiculous Dances With Wolves-esque idyllic utopia — minus the inter-tribal warfare scenes — picture of the other side, and insist they are guilty of nostalgia and wishful thinking. This is of course compounded by New Age primitivists with their Back to Nature rhetoric. On the other hand, the post-Hobbesians are themselves painted as deluded apologists for progress; desperately trying to portray the past as hellish even as civilisation destroys the future.

Where Gyrus, characteristically, succeeds is by refusing to be taken in by the propaganda of either established camps and instead casting a genuinely critical eye over the claims of both. In doing so, I believe he likely comes as close to the truth of the matter as we’re going to get — given the difficulties involved in establishing facts when discussing prehistoric societies and/or modern indigenous societies prior to our contact with them.

War & The Noble Savage is accessible, educational and well-written enough to be described as entertaining. It serves as a fine rebuttal to the recent tendency to view the past through a Hobbesian lens while never succumbing to the seduction of nostalgia or primitivism. I’m pretty much going to insist that my few regular readers (and the rest of you too!) buy it (think of it as returning the favour for the excellent service I’ve been providing here for several years, ahem). It’s privately published and costs a paltry four pounds (including P&P… people outside the UK add a quid for postage). Even if this isn’t a subject that traditionally you’d be interested in (though you’ll be surprised at how relevant it is to all manner of other areas of debate), you should still buy it in order to support the kind of independent research and publishing that the author, and others, undertake.

Overall, War & The Noble Savage is an important contribution to an important debate. For those interested in an introduction to the subject (while you’re waiting for the book to be delievered) Gyrus has given some talks on this subject, one of which was recently turned into a Slidecast which you can listen to on his website for free.

Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews