Will Durant: Savagery and Civilization

According to Will Durant (see previous post), the state came into being initially as a means of conquest and control. His definition of politics is hardly idealized.

Man is not willingly a political animal. The human male associates with his fellows less by desire than by habit, imitation, and the compulsion of circumstance; he does not so much love society as he fears solitude…. Even today he resents [the state], classes death with taxes, and yearns for that government which governs least.

Such a view is a refreshing alternative to the usual “socializing” propaganda we are inundated with. Durant explains that while communistic economic arrangements abounded among hunter gatherer groups, this was displaced by the property-owning institutions of agricultural society. Settlement also led to slavery. Yet with typical irony Durant points out that slavery, while not ideal, was an improvement over cannibalism and extermination. He also explains that higher forms of society require urban growth.

Culture suggest agriculture, but civilization suggests the city. In one aspect civilization is the habit of civility; and civility is the refinement which townsmen, who made the world, thought possible only in the civitas or city.

Greater cultural complexity leads to political centralization and the advent of more intricate codified legal systems. Western writers have extolled the simplicity of life in primitive cultures. But they tell only half the story. Where one finds no system of criminal justice one is left with the law of vendetta which can be unjust (favoring the stronger or more brutal) and which can drag on for generations. Durant elaborates:

In general the individual has fewer “rights” in natural society than under civilization…. The primitive individual moves always within a web of regulations incredibly stringent and detailed; a thousand tabus restrict his action, a thousand terrors limit his will. The natives of New Zealand were apparently without laws, but in actual fact rigid custom ruled every aspect of their lives…. Only with the coming of private property, which gave him economic authority, and of the state, which gave him a legal status and defined rights, did the individual begin to stand out as a distinct reality.

The fact is that the best societies seek a balance of pre-political customs and governmental intervention. On the one hand, a law-biding population must have rooted morals and traditions if it is not to be dominated by a nanny state. On the other hand, mere custom is not enough to ensure good behavior. There has to be some threat of equitable and objective justice. The one reinforces the other.

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