Ancient History & Civilisation


The nature of virtue and vice—Greed—Dishonesty—Violence—Homicide—Suicide—The socialization of the individual—Altruism—Hospitality—Manners—Tribal limits of morality—Primitive vs. modern morals—Religion and morals

Part of the function of parentage is the transmission of a moral code. For the child is more animal than human; it has humanity thrust upon it day by day as it receives the moral and mental heritage of the race. Biologically it is badly equipped for civilization, since its instincts provide only for traditional and basic situations, and include impulses more adapted to the jungle than to the town. Every vice was once a virtue, necessary in the struggle for existence; it became a vice only when it survived the conditions that made it indispensable; a vice, therefore, is not an advanced form of behavior, but usually an atavistic throwback to ancient and superseded ways. It is one purpose of a moral code to adjust the unchanged—or slowly changing—impulses of human nature to the changing needs and circumstances of social life.

Greed, acquisitiveness, dishonesty, cruelty and violence were for so many generations useful to animals and men that not all our laws, our education, our morals and our religions can quite stamp them out; some of them, doubtless, have a certain survival value even today. The animal gorges himself because he does not know when he may find food again; this uncertainty is the origin of greed. The Yakuts have been known to eat forty pounds of meat in one day; and similar stories, only less heroic, are told of the Eskimos and the natives of Australia.75 Economic security is too recent an achievement of civilization to have eliminated this natural greed; it still appears in the insatiable acquisitiveness whereby the fretful modern man or woman stores up gold, or other goods, that may in emergency be turned into food. Greed for drink is not as widespread as greed for food, for most human aggregations have centered around some water supply. Nevertheless, the drinking of intoxicants is almost universal; not so much because men are greedy as because they are cold and wish to be warmed, or unhappy and wish to forget—or simply because the water available to them is not fit to drink.

Dishonesty is not so ancient as greed, for hunger is older than property. The simplest “savages” seem to be the most honest.76 “Their word is sacred,” said Kolben of the Hottentots; they know “nothing of the corruptness and faithless arts of Europe.”77 As international communications improved, this naïve honesty disappeared; Europe has taught the gentle art to the Hottentots. In general, dishonesty rises with civilization, because under civilization the stakes of diplomacy are larger, there are more things to be stolen, and education makes men clever. When property develops among primitive men, lying and stealing come in its train.78

Crimes of violence are as old as greed; the struggle for food, land and mates has in every generation fed the earth with blood, and has offered a dark background for the fitful light of civilization. Primitive man was cruel because he had to be; life taught him that he must have an arm always ready to strike, and a heart apt for “natural killing.” The blackest page in anthropology is the story of primitive torture, and of the joy that many primitive men and women seem to have taken in the infliction of pain.79 Much of this cruelty was associated with war; within the tribe manners were less ferocious, and primitive men treated one another—and even their slaves—with a quite civilized kindliness.80 But since men had to kill vigorously in war, they learned to kill also in time of peace; for to many a primitive mind no argument is settled until one of the disputants is dead. Among many tribes murder, even of another member of the same clan, aroused far less horror than it used to do with us. The Fuegians punished a murderer merely by exiling him until his fellows had forgotten his crime. The Kaffirs considered a murderer unclean, and required that he should blacken his face with charcoal; but after a while, if he washed himself, rinsed his mouth, and dyed himself brown, he was received into society again. The savages of Futuna, like our own, looked upon a murderer as a hero.81 In several tribes no woman would marry a man who had not killed some one, in fair fight or foul; hence the practice of headhunting, which survives in the Philippines today. The Dyak who brought back most heads from such a man-hunt had the choice of all the girls in his village; these were eager for his favors, feeling that through him they might become the mothers of brave and potent men.*82

Where food is dear life is cheap. Eskimo sons must kill their parents when these have become so old as to be helpless and useless; failure to kill them in such cases would be considered a breach of filial duty.83 Even his own life seems cheap to primitive man, for he kills himself with a readiness rivaled only by the Japanese. If an offended person commits suicide, or mutilates himself, the offender must imitate him or become a pariah;84 so old is hara-kiri. Any reason may suffice for suicide: some Indian women of North America killed themselves because their men had assumed the privilege of scolding them; and a young Trobriand Islander committed suicide because his wife had smoked all his tobacco.85

To transmute greed into thrift, violence into argument, murder into litigation, and suicide into philosophy has been part of the task of civilization. It was a great advance when the strong consented to eat the weak by due process of law. No society can survive if it allows its members to behave toward one another in the same way in which it encourages them to behave as a group toward other groups; internal cooperation is the first law of external competition. The struggle for existence is not ended by mutual aid, it is incorporated, or transferred to the group. Other things equal, the ability to compete with rival groups will be proportionate to the ability of the individual members and families to combine with one another. Hence every society inculcates a moral code, and builds up in the heart of the individual, as its secret allies and aides, social dispositions that mitigate the natural war of life; it encourages—by calling them virtues—those qualities or habits in the individual which redound to the advantage of the group, and discourages contrary qualities by calling them vices. In this way the individual is in some outward measure socialized, and the animal becomes a citizen.

It was hardly more difficult to generate social sentiments in the soul of the “savage” than it is to raise them now in the heart of modern man. The struggle for life encouraged communalism, but the struggle for property intensifies individualism. Primitive man was perhaps readier than contemporary man to cooperate with his fellows; social solidarity came more easily to him since he had more perils and interests in common with his group, and less possessions to separate him from the rest.86 The natural man was violent and greedy; but he was also kindly and generous, ready to share even with strangers, and to make presents to his guests.87 Every schoolboy knows that primitive hospitality, in many tribes, went to the extent of offering to the traveler the wife or daughter of the host.88 To decline such an offer was a serious offense, not only to the host but to the woman; these are among the perils faced by missionaries. Often the later treatment of the guest was determined by the manner in which he had acquitted himself of these responsibilities.89 Uncivilized man appears to have felt proprietary, but not sexual, jealousy; it did not disturb him that his wife had “known” men before marrying him, or now slept with his guest; but as her owner, rather than her lover, he would have been incensed to find her cohabiting with another man without his consent. Some African husbands lent their wives to strangers for a consideration.90

The rules of courtesy were as complex in most simple peoples as in advanced nations.91 Each group had formal modes of salutation and farewell. Two individuals, on meeting, rubbed noses, or smelled each other, or gently bit each other;92 as we have seen, they never kissed. Some crude tribes were more polite than the modern average; the Dyak head-hunters, we are told, were “gentle and peaceful” in their home life, and the Indians of Central America considered the loud talking and brusque behavior of the white man as signs of poor breeding and a primitive culture.93

Almost all groups agree in holding other groups to be inferior to themselves. The American Indians looked upon themselves as the chosen people, specially created by the Great Spirit as an uplifting example for mankind. One Indian tribe called itself “The Only Men”; another called itself “Men of Men”; the Caribs said, “We alone are people.” The Eskimos believed that the Europeans had come to Greenland to learn manners and virtues.94 Consequently it seldom occurred to primitive man to extend to other tribes the moral restraints which he acknowledged in dealing with his own; he frankly conceived it to be the function of morals to give strength and coherence to his group against other groups. Commandments and tabus applied only to the people of his tribe; with others, except when they were his guests, he might go as far as he dared.95

Moral progress in history lies not so much in the improvement of the moral code as in the enlargement of the area within which it is applied. The morals of modern man are not unquestionably superior to those of primitive man, though the two groups of codes may differ considerably in content, practice and profession; but modern morals are, in normal times, extended—though with decreasing intensity—to a greater number of people than before.* As tribes were gathered up into those larger units called states, morality overflowed its tribal bounds; and as communication—or a common danger—united and assimilated states, morals seeped through frontiers, and some men began to apply their commandments to all Europeans, to all whites, at last to all men. Perhaps there have always been idealists who wished to love all men as their neighbors, and perhaps in every generation they have been futile voices crying in a wilderness of nationalism and war. But probably the number—even the relative number—of such men has increased. There are no morals in diplomacy, and la politique n’a pas d’entrailles; but there are morals in international trade, merely because such trade cannot go on without some degree of restraint, regulation, and confidence. Trade began in piracy; it culminates in morality.

Few societies have been content to rest their moral codes upon so frankly rational a basis as economic and political utility. For the individual is not endowed by nature with any disposition to subordinate his personal interests to those of the group, or to obey irksome regulations for which there are no visible means of enforcement. To provide, so to speak, an invisible watchman, to strengthen the social impulses against the individualistic by powerful hopes and fears, societies have not invented but made use of, religion. The ancient geographer Strabo expressed the most advanced views on this subject nineteen hundred years ago:

For in dealing with a crowd of women, at least, or with any promiscuous mob, a philosopher cannot influence them by reason or exhort them to reverence, piety and faith; nay, there is need of religious fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels. For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsuslances—arms of the gods—are myths, and so is the entire ancient theology. But the founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simple-minded. Now since this is the nature of mythology, and since it has come to have its place in the social and civil scheme of life as well as in the history of actual facts, the ancients clung to their system of education for children and applied it up to the age of maturity; and by means of poetry they believed that they could satisfactorily discipline every period of life. But now, after a long time, the writing of history and the present-day philosophy have come to the front. Philosophy, however, is for the few, whereas poetry is more useful to the people at large.96

Morals, then, are soon endowed with religious sanctions, because mystery and supernaturalism lend a weight which can never attach to things empirically known and genetically understood; men are more easily ruled by imagination than by science. But was this moral utility the source or origin of religion?

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