Friday, August 24, 2012

Primitives versus Savages, according to Maistre

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  May 23, 2009 ]

Edmund Burke is the traditionalist conservative who is favored by American traditionalist conservatives, mostly due to the efforts of Russell Kirk.  Less well-known, but possibly more influential, was the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre.  Writing in reaction against the French Revolution, as did Burke, he offers some interesting correctives to the concepts of Rousseau among others.
In Robert Nisbet's "Foreword" to The Works of Joseph de Maistre (Schocken Books, 1971), Nisbet presents an outline of the thought of Maistre.  Maistre conflates the concept of a Golden Age, a pagan heritage, with the Christian notion of a prelapsarian Paradise.  Primitives, according to Maistre, are the denizens of the world before the Flood, before the fall of man.  Savages, however, are a late development, coming into existence only after the Fall.
Maistre corrects the notion of Rousseau which identifies the savages of the modern world with the primitives of the Golden Age.  Montaigne does the same in his famous essay on the cannibals of the West Indies, an essay against which Shakespeare reacts in his last play "The Tempest."  There is nothing noble about the savage Caliban in Shakespeare's play.  Caliban schemes to murder Prospero, thinking that he will win "Freedom!" by getting "a new master."
According to Maistre, Rousseau "has continually taken the savage to be primitive man, whereas the savage is not and cannot be anything other than the descendant of a man detached from the great tree of civilization by some transgression, but of a kind that can no longer be repeated, as far as I can judge, for I doubt if new savages can be created. . . . It is this final degree of brutalization that Rousseau and his like call the state of nature."    

This reminds me of the popular Darwinian formula according to which man and apes are the descendants of a common ancestor.  Was this common ancestor more "advanced" than the apes of today, but less "advanced" than the man of today?  Are not the apes evidence of a great regression, or fall, from the state of this common ancestor to both apes and men?

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