Monday, April 23, 2012

So Much For The Noble Savage

I went to grade school at the height of the American romance with the Indian. They were being transformed in our textbooks from ruthless savages to noble and pure people who lived an honorable life in harmony with nature and were cut down in heaps by the merciless onslaught of the rapacious European. Even while I bought in to the concept, the way it was slathered on in greasy heaps was nauseating at the time.

Edward Gibbon, in his classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, beats the idea of the noble savage to a pulp in his descriptions of the Germans, ca 100 AD.
The Germans, in the age of Tacitus, were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses but very little his fellow-laborer, the ox, in the exercise of his mental faculties. The same, and even a greater, difference will be found between nations than between individuals; and we may safely pronounce, that without some species of writing, no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life. 
Eddy has set the ball up on the tee.  Now he smacks it right over the fence, smashing the windshield of the public school history teacher's Prius with this killer pair of declaratives.
Of these arts, the ancient Germans were wretchedly destitute. They passed their lives in a state of ignorance and poverty, which it has pleased some declaimers to dignify with the appellation of virtuous simplicity. 
Ouch. That's gonna leave a mark. I love old school history books. It's just straight up history with no political correctness.

They could have built the aqueducts. They just chose not to.


tim eisele said...

I forget who it was by, but I once read a bit that went something like this:

"Civilized people always hold barbarians in great respect as courageous and noble warriors, exemplifying the martial virtues. Until they decide that they want the barbarians' land. Then the civilized people form up their armies in their soul-crushing conformist ranks, march out, and kill the barbarians off without much difficulty."

K T Cat said...

Reading your comment, I was reminded of a conversation I had on Facebook about opening the borders (or having no borders at all) where I could have, but did not end with this:

"You'd love us to import all the people from Tijuana, but you're not willing to move there."

The savages are noble until they're your neighbors. Then they're just savages.

Doo Doo Econ said...

I read this post on android app and did not see who authored it until clicking through to the webpage. Congratulations on writing a gem of thruthiness!

You even managed to avoid the obvious occupy references.

tom said...

I have a grade-school geography book from 1876. The "peoples of the world" pages are hysterical, but it's probably illegal to quote them any more...

Anonymous said...

I sat through some presentation not too long ago, telling us how clever the Miwoks were to use some root for a brush. I was thinking that about the same time, Europeans were carving ivory, or shaping silver (which had been mined and smelted) into quite fancy brush handles, and then placing boar bristles (from the pigs that had been domesticated for centuries) in the handles for brushes. Call me un-PC, but the Miwok don't seem so clever in comparison.