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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Who Is Free? Is It the Savage?


Is It the Savage?

Among the current phrases, we often meet with "wages-slavery," the "slavery of debt," "tenant-slaves," etc. In many cases there is, no doubt, in the use of this language, a conscious exaggeration, which is allowable for rhetorical effect; but it is easy to note the actual effect on uncritical people when such language comes to be taken literally. In fact, since, during the present century, all slavery has come to be considered detestable, and all freedom has come to be considered good, the terms "freedom" and "slavery" have become easy and current terms, which it is assumed that every one understands without trouble, so that they can be used as current coin of discussion. When it is assumed and admitted that each one of us ought to be free, that is commonly supposed to mean that no one of us ought to be under any disagreeable constraint in his activities or in the use of his time. If then we hold that civil and personal liberty are immeasurable blessings, and real moral necessities of mankind, it is necessary that we should carefully assure ourselves as to the true meaning of liberty, and should find out whether it is a delusion to suppose that mortals can ever be unconstrained; also whether anything is really gained by calling the wages system or the credit system "slavery."

First let us see whether the savage man is a free man. Questions about social organization have always been discussed by reference to the primitive man, or the man in the state of nature; and so they must be discussed. The only difference is that we may depend for our notions of the primitive man and his ways either on speculation or on positive investigation. The eighteenth-century plan was to reach a notion of the primitive man by abstracting one after another the attributes of the civilized man, until a sort of residuum was obtained. It was thought that that must be what the original man in the state of nature was. Rousseau, in his "Reasons for the Inequalities Among Men," took the American Indian as his type of the primitive man; he took the notion of the red man as European travelers had described him before the middle of the eighteenth century, and, having rounded off the notion with some poetical additions, he went on to make his deductions as to civilization. He reached the result that the causes of social inequality were wheat and iron. To his imagination, the red men lived in blissful and Arcadian simplicity, and it was the introduction of agriculture, and the use of tools, which destroyed all that and introduced emulation, selfishness, and consequent inequality.

Rousseau has gone out of fashion, but his method and his ideas are repeated under a new form by the latest social speculators. But the error was not in seeking to find the origin of civilization or to compare the course of its development with the point of its beginning. Our latest science has to continue that effort; the origin of civilization has all the interest to us which belongs to the germs or beginnings of all great movements which we want to study. The wider the range of development which we can study, the more correct the knowledge which we obtain of it; modern scholars have therefore devoted the most eager study to the facts of primitive society and the origin of civilization.

If, now, we use the information which we possess about the savage man to test the notion that he possessed natural liberty, we find that he was and is anything but free in the sense of being unrestrained. It might do for Rousseau to take the American Indian as a type of the primitive, or "original," or "natural" man, but we could not accept him as such. The Indian is far back in civilization when he is regarded from the stand-point of the civilized man; but if he is regarded with reference to the real and ultimate origin of society, he is very far on up the scale.

If, then, we take the notion of the Indian, or any man of lower civilization, as wandering freely and spending his time in blissful idleness, correct information shows that there are no facts to support it. A wandering savage wanders to get his living, and as a rule he finds it more than he can do; the exigencies of subsistence hold him as tightly as they hold a factory hand, and his success is far more uncertain. If he unites with others like himself in order, by organization, to increase his power, then he must submit to discipline of the most severe kind, enforced by penalties of the highest severity. Instead of being lawless he is under traditions and customs which admit of no relaxation whatever; he who tries to revolt against the tradition is thrust out into banishment or put to death. There is no such thing conceivable as private judgment or dissent. He who breaks a custom is an outlaw.

The noble savage may also wander out-of-doors, it is true, and within a certain range, within which he and his ancestors have bought, with their sufferings and blood, a knowledge of nature; but though he understands the forces of nature very well, outside of that certain range everything in nature is a terror to him. His mythology bears witness to this. The civilized man is light and careless, or even merry in the face of nature, because he understands her so well; when nature, however, puts on her terrors or her mysteries, we quickly lose our spirits and come to feel our insignificance. Men to whom nature is always terrible or mysterious never win freedom in dealing with her.

The struggle of man to win his existence from nature is one which he begins with no advantages at all, but utterly naked and empty-handed. He has everything to conquer. Evidently it is only by his achievements that he can emancipate himself from the difficulties of his situation. His position, instead of furnishing a notion of liberty, furnishes an ideal of non-liberty; and liberty, instead of being a status at the beginning of civilization, appears rather to be a description of the sense and significance of civilization itself; that is, civilization has given us a measure of emancipation from the unlimited constraint and oppression under which mankind began.

Disease and old age are the most pitiless hardships of life, the ones in the face of which liberty is the greatest mockery. Even against these civilization has given us a great enlargement, but the savage man is helpless against them; old age comes on very early for him, on account of all the other hardships of his condition. The killing of old people by their children among savage tribes seems to us inexpressibly shocking, but this custom means something very different from the selfishness of the young; it testifies to the fact that the first liberty of all, the liberty to exist, becomes an unendurable burden to the savage man when he becomes old.

Now, it is a remarkable fact that if we confine our attention to that conception of liberty which consists in wild unrestraint, the realization of it is not found on any of the lowest stages of civilization at all, but on one which is comparatively high, viz., the pastoral or nomadic stage; it is among the nomadic hordes of Central Asia or among the men of the Bedouin type that the wildest and most untamed form of personal liberty is to be found. Along with it, however, goes ferocity, the practise of plunder as a virtue, blood-thirstiness, and brutishness. Most remarkable of all, however, is the fact that slavery begins on this stage; it appears that men subjugated each other on the same stage on which they subjugated animals. If this observation is true (and although not completely established it has been accumulating evidence in its favor), then it is to be noted that the notion of wild, unrestrained, personal liberty found an approximate realization only when society was so differentiated that some could get this freedom because others had been reduced to servitude.

The notion that liberty was a primitive endowment of the race, which has been lost or stolen in the course of civilization, must be abandoned; study of primitive society shows that it is all false and unfounded. It is an exploded myth like the "state of nature" or the "social compact." We shall next see whether there can be liberty, in the sense of unconstraint, in civilization.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.