Plus Ça Change

Who is primitive? Or, “a primitive,” to make it more personal. And who is best qualified to judge this and form the hierarchy of progressive men?

That we are all primitives, and that none of us are qualified with this sort of expertise, might be a good place to start. Looking around, we may see examples of moral elevation – people with “charisma” who might be thought most advanced. Perhaps they are standing for election.

But how do we judge? Especially foreigners, who constitute the great majority of the world’s people. Few of us speak more than one language, or are seriously acquainted with many foreign places. Advances in technology – “progress” as it continues to be thought of or referred to – does not really change this background condition. Some few have traveled, but mostly for light entertainment, on holiday or whatever.

When it comes to familiarity with other times, as well as places, the situation is more pronounced. Remarkably learned men are our only plausible “time travelers,” and they are few. And some of them may be quite unfamiliar with their own times.

That we are all parochial, insular, provincial, including especially those who belong to the “jet set” that imagines itself to be cosmopolitan, is, very simply, fact. We were made that way, by God, to be primitives; to be “just starting out” on the human adventure, with all our immortality ahead.

Human immortality, which I believe to be likewise “fact,” and “in our nature,” is so fundamental to our identity that it is taken for granted, and hardly considered – except perhaps in the proximity of death, when the paradox implicit in it may stand out; or may not, because few of us are thoughtful.

Or perhaps there is no paradox, gentle reader might say. He might think the fundamental fact is that we die, and like any other animal, leave nothing but a corpse, to decay or be otherwise disposed of by the living. I wouldn’t think that the majority of The Catholic Thing‘s gentle readers would fall into this category, but what people say they believe, and what they ACTUALLY believe, is hardly possible for somebody, who is not everybody, to guess.

This is one of the limits on tyranny – it is the freedom of thought not everyone makes use of. I count faithful Catholics among the “freethinkers,” whether under tyranny or not; along with any others who have, at least occasionally, formed their own opinions. We all have the capacity to be free, whether or not we use it; and, not using it, we all have the capacity to be enslaved by tyrants.

Unfortunately, in my daily life as a pedestrian in one of North America’s biggest cities, I suffer from the disappointment of looking into faces. The spark of life and “originality” I seldom see, except in the smaller children.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau could be quoted, here. “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” At the risk of being mistaken for some sort of liberal, I would observe that this is true.

Children, everywhere, when they have escaped abortion or the horrors of disease, appear relatively sharp. One may judge this by looking into their eyes, or note how those eyes are shining. But after a little time, I think in the majority, the lights die out, turning back on for fewer and fewer occasions.

It is our settled, “civilized” life that is (according to me) our tyrant in this case, or the conspicuous source of our manner as slaves. This is not quite so true of “primitive” peoples, I think.

I had the honor to travel once with a very poor (and dispossessed) extended family, riding third-class in an open railway carriage. I counted eleven children, and a radiantly happy pregnant mother, plus her younger sister, and other adult hangers-on. It was a short journey, in geographic miles, but long – it took more than twenty-four hours, from upcountry Bengal to upcountry Bihar, in “cattle car” slow motion.

Why? Why did I stay aboard, when it might have been faster to walk? I was young myself (age seventeen), and already a habitual anthropologist. (“All Americans are anthropologists, east of Istanbul,” a French hippy once explained to me.)

And I was swept by fascination for these (internal) refugees, who were teaching me things I could not learn in any other way.

Let me confess that I did not speak Bihari, nor even Bengali (for shame), but given the intense proximity, one communicates. This family’s extraordinary happiness and generosity amazed me. I was even passed a baby to shelter on my lap, and casually given a share in the family’s tiny supply of chapati.

That was how I learned my place in the world, and that very poor people – “primitives” – have a place in it, too. That was where I learned that Paul Ehrlich’s writing about the “population bomb,” and the works of other “population control” luminaries, was evil; that every child is a blessing.

It was also where I learned that everything else Western and Westernized intellectuals were teaching was wrong.

For instance, there aren’t such beings as primitives in the world. Nor is there such a thing as intellectual progress, or historical advance.

Reading Mary Douglas, “once upon a time” – a real anthropologist, and one of my heroines – I came to terms with the central myth of our modernity. We think that man “evolved” from primitive darkness, but that with shining improvements in reasoning and technology we moved ahead. We think the modern man unshackled himself from primitive superstitions; that he earned his secularity.

Professor Douglas showed that secularity was extremely ancient. The great variety of beliefs, from atheism to religious sincerity, is represented in the customs of various “primitive” tribes. Nothing new.

We moderns know of little beyond our immediate environment. Our advance is only to an arrogance that our distant ancestors could not sustain.


*Image: Dance bonnet and scalplock of an Omaha Indian by Frank Rinehart, 1899 [Wellcome Collection, London, England]

You may also enjoy:

Second Vatican Council’s Of Human Dignity

Joseph R. Wood’s Dignity and Distance

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: