Savage Virtues

“…we know of every civil nation, that it was once savage, and how was it reclaimed but by a precept and admonition?”—Samuel Johnson, Adventurer, No. 137

When confronted with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s celebrated tributes to primitiveness and simplicity (uttered from the comfort of the nobleman’s salon), Johnson astutely detected the cant behind such ideological posturing. Affected and insincere discourses about society, he said, “arise from no just principles of speech.” Yet the Noble Savage is still with us.

A book on New Zealand that I checked out for our children provides some egregious examples. The author tells us that the native Maori “were skillful engineers.” Above the text is a photo of a Maori shack that is propped up like Eeyore’s lean-to. One would say of the Romans that they were skillful engineers, or the ancient Egyptians or Chinese. But not the Maori, who planted a few huts surrounded by totem poles. “It was a highly developed culture Europeans found,” the author asserts, “when they discovered the land.” This is just bad writing. The Maori never advanced beyond wooden weapons and tools.

Enemies taken in battle by the Maori often became “a good dinner for the captors.” Then came the Europeans who upset this idyll. The first whites to arrive in any numbers were sealers and whalers in the late 18th century. We are informed that they were “unsavory characters” who “took what they wanted by force and disregarded the local customs.” To put this in perspective, a thousand years earlier the Maori migrated from Polynesia to New Zealand, where they discovered an indigenous people called the Moriori. “The Maori quickly laid claim to the land by waging war. They eliminated their enemies by killing and eating them….” But at least they were not unsavory about it.

Clearly, primitive peoples have their virtues and civilized nations have their vices. Such nuances of multi-cultural studies were taken into account by the Roman writer Tacitus (56-117) in his classic study of the Germanic tribes. There were many ways in which the barbarians contrasted well with civilized people, who seemed debilitated by luxury and vice. Yet Tacitus was a discerning author. Modern pedants, however, fail to consider all aspects of primitive cultures—their crudeness and cruelty as well as their strict rituals and taboos. Thus, in the case of the Germans, Tacitus mentions that they would hang traitors and deserters, while “cowards, shirkers and sodomites” were drowned in “the slimy mud of a bog.” Hardly a prelapsarian utopia by liberal standards.

Intellectual martinets are not interested in truth. One is reminded of Margaret Mead’s praise for the “sexual freedom” of the Samoans, which she simply made up. But putting aside Rousseau or Mead, we do every people a disservice when we fail to cultivate them morally and intellectually. Civilization undeniably increases one’s capacity for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But it assumes individual responsibility. Personal dignity is not granted on the basis of political or ethnic membership (Western or otherwise). Says Seneca, “We are born for it, but not with it…. until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.”

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