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Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

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In Defense of the Primitive

In my ever-continuing ramblings through the jungles of philosophy, I’ve strayed off the path I’d long ago begun hacking for myself (starting at the very beginning) and impatiently leapt ahead, into the 18th century and its changing, probing attitudes toward religion. Early into my exploration, I came upon Frank E. Manuel’s 1967 probing of the topic, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods.

Something was stirring back then in the 1700s—and it wasn’t just war over religion. It seems to me (and I’m only just beginning this exploration, so bear with me if I go wildly off-base here), this was the start of intellectual snobbery.

During this time, the secularists threw off the shackles of having to couch their criticisms of religion in the premises of being Christian themselves. Now they could openly mock and ridicule believers. They set themselves as being above such tomfoolery of using faith and myth in getting through the day. These so-called intellectuals decided that they would be the arbiters of what was civilized and what was primitive, and somewhere along the way, society gave their opinions credence and allowed themselves to be judged from the ivory towers.

In concluding his introduction, Manuel writes:

Present-day inquiries into the few remaining primitive societies have revealed the investigators more often than the savages. The contemporary who describes the primordial function of the myth in either a sociological or a psychic context often says more about his own attitude toward moral problems, toward progress, God and the devil, toward reason and the uses of the imagination than he does about the mind of aboriginal man.

This is a study of the eighteenth-century mind and sensibility, not an attempt to determine the nature of myth. The underlying questions raised by the Enlightenment are, however, enduring ones: Is there a unique primitive mentality differentiated from that of the rational, civilized man? If this is affirmed, what is the relationship between the man of reason and the man of the mythic world? Is he a respectworthy ancestor who will never visit the city of the future, or is he a monster ever threatening to return? Is he a contemporary, the human mob about us, poised to engulf the lone philosopher? Are there unique qualities in this mythic mind which the man of reason loses as the inevitable fate of growth and maturity, or should man rejoice in the imminent sloughing off of his prehistoric coils?

I’m not far enough into Manuel’s book to determine how he will answer his questions, though I suspect he will fall more in the civilized camp. I, on the other hand, find myself immediately, fervently on the side of the primitive. I take offense for him that someone should even call him a primitive and look down a nose at him.

It’s happening today, 45 years after Manuel wrote those words, this battle of the supposed civilized and primitive. And it shows that Manuel was wrong then he said that few primitive societies remain. According to today’s modern academic elite and the liberal political class, America itself is pockmarked with primitive societies: trailer parks, hunting lodges, KOA campgrounds, beer bars, community swimming pools, Boy Scout meetings—anywhere the low-brow, the anti-intellectual, the commonplace man (and woman) lives and takes leisure. These are the new American aboriginals. Ones who have resisted the civilizing call of their sneering betters.

To me, and to them, there’s little difference in the soul and nature of the primitive man versus the civilized snob. The primary difference is attitude. The primitive man doesn’t care what the civilized man does, as long as he’s left alone to do as he pleases. The civilized man can’t be content with his own life, but must remake primitive man in his image because he finds his primitive nature to be offensive.

It embarrasses the civilized man to have to share a continent with a primitive man. He’s afraid what some pompous civilized man somewhere else is going to think about his primitive neighbors. So by God, he’s going to do something about it. The problem is, his god is government.

Primitive and civilized men alike want to be good persons; they just have a different definition of what is good. Striving to be good doesn’t eliminate the baser instincts. It just becomes easier to resist them as we become more practiced at resistance.

That’s where civilized man does indeed have to fear that primitive man is ever threatening to return, is indeed the human mob surrounding his civilized citadel.

Every birth is a new primitive life. Every day, every minute, somewhere, the civilizing must begin all over again. All the snobbery and arrogance and ill consequences of “good intentions” must be reinstilled and reinforced. Just like manicuring the lawn of the gated men’s club, the work of civilization is fighting against the undeniable, the unstoppable.

And that gives all us primitives out here hope.

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