Monday, January 31, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Tribal Society & City State Politics


Modern Historians are supposed to look at societies other than their own free from bias and prejudice. However, historians have so far been prejudiced and assumed that aboriginal/tribal societies are innately inferior. This is due to the profound differences of social customs and because the tribes people could not stick up for themselves against the modern historian. Romanticism also played a part in sustaining the assumption that tribes people are simple children and savages, unintelligent and lacking individuality. The rise of the theory of evolution convinced many that tribes people are pre-logical and pre-individualistic because they have not reached required stages of social development, and this view has gained academic and scientific credibility.

Because of this, the most pressing need in history, sociology, psychology and other fields is to examine and question this prejudice, particularly the convictions that tribal people have a dead level of intelligence, that the individual is always submerged in the group, and that there are no thinkers or philosophers. This book particularly examines the role of intellectuals in the earliest societies.

Every human group has members who are different in their individuality and who examine life and its problems with what we can call philosophy. Languages of tribal peoples are sometimes more complex than our own and their vocabularies are sometimes just as large. Their vocabularies have words with the same abstract connotations as our own, but in spite of this there are many theorists who do not believe tribal people to be capable of abstract thought. They point out the concrete nature of words and expressions while ignoring that our own modern languages use similar concrete terms to express abstract thought.

The complexity of a society has little to do with the existence of philosophy or individual thought. Indeed, complex civilizations can often stifle or even prohibit philosophizing and the asking of deep and abstract questions.

Often, academics has held to the view that the ancient Greeks and their cultural descendents have a special kind of mentality that allowed and still allows them to think individually, critically, and philosophically, but it is not clear what the nature of this special mentality is. The best way to critically examine and correct this error is to provide examples of tribal people indulging in philosophical speculation.

Aristotle and the Greeks are called special for thinking systematically, even though all cultures transmit their thought in whole, unified systems.

Philosophical speculation flourishes most in times of crisis and change, as it did in the greatest periods of Greek and Chinese philosophy.

Throughout this book it is assumed that tribal people have the same distribution of intelligence and ability as do modern societies. This has grown from a hypothesis to a conviction through the direct experience of tribal societies by the author. The object of the book is to describe tribal society from the viewpoint of the intellectuals and thinkers of the tribe.

The intellectual often looks down on the practices of the ordinary people, but the ordinary person also looks with amusement on the distance between the real and practical world and the behavior of the scholar. It is, however, the scholar who writes the history books and so it is this perspective that we often encounter when reading about the past of this and other civilizations.

When looking at isolated practices of “magic” ritual, such as the Winnebago Native American shooting an arrow at a trail to ensure good deer hunting, it is often forgotten that this act does not guarantee success and is interwoven with many practical behaviors. If one asks the tribal individual if magic alone will bring home a deer or grow crops, they are quite amused at the lack of understanding.

Tribal people are in direct contact with their reality, while modern people are removed from many aspects of their own lives. Magic was not a world apart from physical reality, but interwoven with it such that practical and physical situations were recognized while interpreted in traditional ways. One does not ask for rain from a cloudless sky, nor seek protection for actions that are impractical or dangerously stupid. The traditional systems of thought are an aid for dealing with physical and practical reality, not a substitute for reality.

Tribal people, like advanced modern people, do and do not understand reality and the forces behind it, so they work in accord with systems that sometimes do and sometimes do not work so that generally the society and individual will be well and overcome obstacles.

Individuals have relative freedom and individuality in tribal societies. It is possible that we view the tribal individual as an automata, with no freedom or individuality, because modern life saturated with technologies has turned human individuals into automata.

It is a mistake to believe that tribal people do not have variation in ritual and belief but modern people do. There is always variations in ritual and belief amongst any people, and modern life has in fact standardized beliefs more than they ever have been.

When one draws the community together and asks about the reasons behind an aspect of culture, one will find not only variation but contradictions and arguments. This is as true of tribal beliefs as it is of modern academics and science. A community is always an agreement and disagreement of beliefs and perspectives.

All societies, tribal or modern, believe that there are immutable and permanent truths, but there is no complete agreement as to what these truths are or how they are structured or caused. Even if there is a great deal of consensus, this does not prevent radical variation in belief among individuals and minority groups. If this variation is sometimes concealed, this is due to fear of ridicule or rejection by the majority. Individuality that contrasts with the beliefs or behavior of the majority is in danger of being labeled a mistake or deviancy. It is always safer to either conform to the majority or remain silent.

Individual members of any society have to balance and integrate their individuality with society.

Sometimes it is even asserted that tribal people are so varied in belief that they cannot form coherent systems. It is often asserted that the Greeks and Europeans are “systematic thinkers” relative to others, but also that they are also free and various in thinking relative to others.

With the development of writing, a welcome oasis given the dynamic and ever-changing world, beliefs and systems of thought were able to be highly standardized. The written word was deified and identified with the unchanging way of the cosmos.


Sumer is the birthplace of the written word, one of the earliest city state societies. Sumer was a city state at the mouth of the Tigris Euphrates which was then taken over and incorporated into Babylon, which then was taken over by Assyria, which was then taken over by Persia. These were multicultural societies in which citizenship did not belong exclusively to one ethnicity. The primary way that cultures were dominated was, as it is today, not with war but with trade. War typically means efforts to dominate through economic means have failed.
Sumer had some of the first schools, textbooks (in science and the liberal arts), medical texts, tax reduction, wisdom proverbs, and laments. One excellent proverb is, “You go and carry off the enemy’s land, the enemy comes and carries off your land”. My favorite Sumerian lament is recorded about 3000 BCE, in which an elderly Sumerian complains that teenagers are running around and breaking laws and having sex, concluding that the world will certainly end soon.

Very important for this class, in Sumer we find the first democratic bicameral congress. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first recorded myths in human history, we read that Gilgamesh wants to go to war so he appeals to the elders of the senate. The elders do not want war because they have fragile investments in the situation, so Gilgamesh appeals to the larger and lower house and they enthusiastically accept his proposal. Gilgamesh, the king, must seek approval from the community as a whole and needs the house to override the smaller but higher senate.

MYTH TODAY by Roland Barthes

Barthes, a French thinker and literary critic, argues that any speech can be mythologized and through any medium. He uses the example of roses being given as a gesture of passion to illustrate his concept of a sign, and then describes how signs can serve myths which then become larger signs that signify other things.

At the barbershop one day, he is upset by the cover of Paris-Match (a magazine much like Newsweek & Time in America). On the cover is a young African boy in French military dress saluting. Barthes writes that the boy is clearly being depicted saluting the French flag, and the cover is meant to signify that France is a great empire in which all are equal and love the empire. Barthes writes that this boy is being made to serve his colonialist oppressors and that the image is a sign that serves a modern myth: France stands for freedom. It is a game of hide and seek with meaning. It is an open association or coherence that does not demand what it means but highly suggests what it means. In doing this, it is a deformation and distortion of the realities of French colonial Africa. It is a gesture that is deliberately misleading, alienating the meaning from the situation. It is an alibi for French colonialism.

Consider that, coupled with Radin, we may wonder whether we live in times of less or greater mythology considering the forms of media and the dislocation of modern society.