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American Savage

After 1492 America became the place upon which Europe cast its fears and hopes. Most notable, of course, is America as paradise inhabited by noble savages and deflowered by ignoble Spaniards. On his third voyage, Columbus stumbled upon the mouth of the Orinoco river. He was convinced, however, that he had found Paradise; that the world was shaped, not as a sphere but as the breast of a woman [this is his image]: at the top, Paradise; the copious Orinico, the lost entryway. De Bry, and his anti-Spanish propaganda, perpetuated this myth in images that idealized the native and cast them in classical poses. He and his sons based their depiction of pillaging Spaniards on Las Casas’ Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, among others. Las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, not only decried the atrocities of the Spaniards, he attempted to set up a utopian community in 1520 among the natives of what would much later become Venezuela.

Conversely, the natives were also cannibals given over to every base passion and practically unredeemable. They were without writing, culture, society, history, law, property, and all the things that distinguish civilization from savagery.

It is not uncommon to find the same person making both arguments about the Native Peoples of America at different times.

Hobbes’ famous dictum regarding humans in the natural state is actually the conclusion of a paragraph describing Warre:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invitation shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by the Sea, no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitatry, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
Chapter XIII: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery

He follows this paragraph saying that even though this “condition of warre” may not ever have been universally present, it is the state of natural man and can be most easily seen among “the savage people in many places of America, [where] except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on the naturall lust, have no governmental at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.” This, too, would be the state of Europe “were there no common Power to feare”—one of the drives that leads men into Society and rule under a “Soveraigne authority.”

Charles Darwin, almost 200 years later, uses very similar language to describe the state of the Fuegians. Though both authors agree as to the quality of savage life, they disagree as to the causes. For Hobbes, the natural state of humanity is something like selfishness;* Darwin, on the other hand, sees the American inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego as a debased version of the noble savage. The Fuegians are a simple-minded group of people who share all things: their equality, in fact, is what impedes their progress and keeps them from civilization. I copy here at length from his December 1832 journal entries: the first few quotes emphasize the life of the savage (without architecture, without love, without amenities, and culture of any kind), the last quote speaks to what keeps them from progress. For Darwin, their nomadic existence, as well, impedes them from possessing true culture; after all, culture, civilization rests upon the sedentary life of the agriculturist who owns and cultivates the earth, amasses wealth, and then cultivates the soul.

I could not have believed how wide was the difference, between a savage and civilized man. It is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement… These were the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld… These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, their gestures violent and without dignity. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world… Nor are they exempt from famine, and, as a consequence, cannibalism accompanied by parricide.

The tribes have no government or head, yet each is surrounded by other hostile ones, speaking different dialects; and the cause of their warfare would appear to be the means of subsistence… They cannot know the feeling of having a home, still less that of domestic affection; unless indeed the treatment of a master to a laborious slave can be considered as such. How little can the higher powers of the mind be brought into play! What is there for imagination to picture, for reason to compare, for judgement to decide upon?... Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals; for it is not been improved by experience.

The perfect equality among the individuals composing these tribes, must for a long time retard their civilization. As we see those animals, whose instinct compels them to live in society and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so it is with the races of mankind. Whether we look at it as a cause or a consequence, the more civilized always have the most artificial governments. For instance, the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders—who although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantages, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth is torn to shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest and still increase his authority.

*My next post, I promise, will be on Desire and Power in Hobbes… it is intimately tied to his description of the state of war and of humans in the natural state.



This quote by Darwin never fails to fascinate me… I mean, civilized persons have always defined what they possess as better than the paltry state of savages: symphony, architecture, beauty, epicurean delights, leisure, civility are all too be treasured more than intestinal worms, etc. And, a moral superiority has always been attached to civilized societies over uncivilized… they are like they are because of some sort of moral deficiency.

But, Darwin says that the possession and the acquiring of property is an impetus for civilization… that a leaving aside what he sees as their egalitarianism will initiate them on the road to civilization and progress… that progress is dependent on individuals becoming richer than others.

My placing Darwin next to Hobbes was more than just willy-nilly “oh they both write of Americans as savages and the state of natural man as dirty, wretched, poor, brutish”... but, as will be seen in this post that I keep postponing, Darwin’s idea is related to Hobbes’ notion of life as a constant acquiring of more.