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The European Idea of Progress Supersedes the Axial Age, Part III

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The Mask of Agamemnon

4,700 words

Part 3 of 4 (Part 2 here [2], Part 4 here [3])

Rituals in simple mythic cultures

According to Bellah, humans express their highest values and cultural practices in those activities we define as “play” and “ritual,” because these activities are performed when humans are in a “relaxed” state away from evolutionary pressures. During these relaxed times, humans have the opportunity to be guided by motivations and goals freed from the everyday jealousies and divisions that characterized life in the Darwinian struggle for existence. It is not hard to understand why Bellah would identify play as a “relaxed field” of activity. According to the standard dictionary definition, the word “play” means activity “engaged in for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose, especially by children.”

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Kalapalo tribe in Brazil: Ritual Dances

But why would he identify ritual practices as a form of “relaxation,” considering that rituals are performed with the utmost seriousness, involving communication with the gods? According to the dictionary definition, “rituals are a feature of all known human societies,” a “repeated set of actions,” “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place,” as “prescribed by the traditions of a community.” Rituals involve practices believed to bring community members closer to their gods; they can be defined as prescribed acts for the purpose of communicating or receiving the support of gods through mimetic movements, repeated phrases, and music. In the case of Bellah, he draws attention to the egalitarian aspects found in the rituals practiced by foraging and simple horticultural societies: the solidarity, the communal feasting, and the transgression of social divisions; the way all members of the tribe would come together in a state of communistic celebration irrespective of ranking; and other daily rules that permeated the struggle for survival.

From his argument that play among humans occurs during the long period of parenting, once the biological needs of children are satisfied [5], Bellah goes on to argue that ritual “is the primordial form of serious play in human evolutionary history” (p. 92), and is the first cultural instance where the sense of moral equality is exhibited among humans. Human ritual is heavily mimetic and non-verbal, with origins in non-human animals, in the ritualization observed in sexual or aggressive situations. However, animals are episodic creatures who give acute attention only to the here and now, though they are informed by memories of past events. The ritualistic behavior we find among animals is genetically fixed. The ritual that concerns Bellah is “characterized precisely by a lack of genetic fixation, by the relatively free form and creativity that are features of mammalian play” (p. 93). Ritualistic “celebrations” can be said to be found among chimpanzees upon the arrival of bountiful supplies of food in which biological hierarchies are temporarily relaxed and relations of “tolerance and reciprocity” find play. But these celebrations are “evoked” by the arrival of plentiful food, and are not deliberate. Bellah wonders whether ritualistic celebrations became “deliberate” forms of serious play among hominids living in groups that were too large in size, and where the maintenance of order through dominance hierarchies and kinship alone may have been too difficult. Serious play in the form of rituals might have been a new development among hominids serving to provide extra solidarity, as well as to fortify in-group cohesion and outgroup hostility through the playful features of less hierarchical ritualistic celebrations.

What concerns Bellah, however, are mimetic ritualistic actions among humans in mythic cultures. While rituals precede myths, they play an indispensable role in mythic cultures. As examples of ritual practices in primitive cultures, he chooses the Kalapalo in central Brazil, the Australian Aborigines, and the Navajo tribes in North America. I will bring out only a few observations about the Kalapalo. They were horticulturalists who deliberately organized many ritual events between May and September. This society was organized along kinship lines, divided into households and lineages, naturally preoccupied with the struggle for survival, “with all the jealousies and conflicts that that implies” (p. 141). They had mythical stories about the “earliest humans,” “the Dawn People,” from which they believed they were descended. These people could appear in dreams or in unusual circumstances in human form, but sometimes in animal form. Encounters with these people require protective rituals – otherwise, the Kalapalo would encounter dangers. The focus of ritual life was the reproduction of the world of these powerful beings through mimetic movements, elaborate body painting, masks, and other performative actions, along with music as a means of communicating with these powerful beings.

Kalapalo rituals were endeavors in which everyone in the tribe would participate, involving collective activities where people would experience a sense of communal solidarity and identify as “Kalapalo,” temporarily “freed” from their membership in particular lineages. The basic value of Kalapalo life, to which the word ifutisu refers, and which means generosity, modesty, and equanimity, was extended to every member of the community regardless of lineage. During ritual, the Kalapalo produced their culture in a state of relaxation and moral equality away from natural selective pressures and hierarchical orders: in musical performances, dances, elaborate body painting, flower decoration, and masks.

These ideas don’t come across in clear-cut terms in what is otherwise a very erudite exposition. It takes a few close readings (of extended parts of his book) to draw out his argument that the “serious play” found in ritual performances was the primeval soil out of which humans developed concepts of equality, justice, and notions of a “common humanity” – in a state of temporal relaxation from Darwinian pressures.

Obviously the Kalapalo did not develop any notions of a common humanity, but instead used their rituals – as Bellah reluctantly recognizes – to reinforce in-group solidarity against out-groups. I should add that Bellah never explains (within the framework of his developmental progressive narrative) why primitive peoples were less developed mentally than the Axial Age peoples he so dearly praises for cultivating truly “universal values.” Here he just drops a line about the lack of “inquiry and dissent” (p. 153) in early mythic cultures, from which point he immediately warns against “Westerners” who “think of mythic explanation as irrational, failing to note the subtle and complex uses to which [mythic] narrative thinking can be put . . . [T]his condescending attitude toward mythic explanation is typical of the theoretic mind” (p. 142).

He also warns white students that, “far from being being ‘primitive,’ Aboriginal culture is in some ways superior to our own” (p. 156). He brings up the “devastating incursions of European colonization” against this culture (p. 154), and says of the Navajo community member that he “is not like an Anglo individualist, seeking his own interest first of all. Rather the ideal [member of this community] is one who reciprocates blessings and takes responsibility for others” (p. 171). This kind of judgement makes it all the more difficult to understand the ways in which Axial Age cultures (of which Western culture, by his own criteria, is a product) stood intellectually above prior cultures. We will see below that a major problem with Bellah’s notion of development is that it hinges heavily on the development of egalitarianism, and less so on the development of a theoretic culture.

Bellah sometimes sounds like a 12-year-old who believes that the simple sharing of resources within a small community constitutes the highest act of human achievement.

Rituals in early chiefdoms

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It would seem that once we move past the primitive egalitarian (hunting and gathering, and simple horticultural) societies we just examined into the complex chiefdoms that came next in development, we are dealing with increasingly less attractive cultures – increasingly hierarchical and despotic societies, without the universal-theoretic ideals of the Axial Age civilizations. This movement towards social differentiation in power is already evident in simple chiefdoms, sometimes known as “Big Man” cultures. Bellah uses the example of Tikopia, a Polynesian society, to show that even though the chief “had few prerogatives of wealth and power (p. 189), the chief was now exclusively in charge of offering sacrifices to the powerful beings; the rituals “were no longer enacted collectively; the people no longer became one with the powerful beings through music and dance” (p. 186).

The Tikopia chief was the only rightful intermediary between the people and the gods. He was not seen as a divine figure, but “he was indeed a sacred object; he was not touched by others; one bowed or knelled in his presence; one never turned one’s back on him.” The chief and other lineage heads were “obsessed by a thirst for prestige and power, and a hunger for land, and ready to resort to violence to secure their ends” (p. 189). Yet for all this rising social divisions, Bellah still senses in Tikopia rituals an egalitarian atmosphere. The entire community participated in the ritual process – the singing, dancing, and feasting. The chief would redistribute a proportion of the goods he produced in his larger lands; and there was a “democratic” aspect to the required acclamation of the chief by the people.

In this context, Bellah acknowledges that “the disposition to dominate . . . is probably a part of our biological heritage.” What he wants to bring out, however, is the ways in which an egalitarian ethic was manifested during those cultural practices and times when the daily struggles of life were suspended. He believes that “the disposition to nurture,” the parental care emerging among mammals which was extended in years with the coming of the genus Homo, found expression in Tikopia chiefs “caring for their people, not only by channeling the benevolence of the gods, but also by organizing the great ritual that were inevitably redistributive” (p. 191).

High-income academics obsessed with their earnings love appealing to the redistributive ethic of primitive peoples, including early chiefdoms, as models to encourage white students to intensify racial equality measures in Western societies. In The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, I recounted how sociobiology was expelled from the social sciences in order to block students from learning that egalitarianism does not coexist easily with the biological disposition of humans to dominate, including the disposition of academics to dominate the thoughts of their students.

This emphasis on the egalitarian inclinations of primitive peoples, however, has made it very difficult for academics to explain the rise of ranked chiefdoms. Their answers have invariably highlighted some external material factor – population pressures, climate change, or functional requirements – while leaving out the role of aggressive, competitive traits. I explained in Uniqueness that the intensification of production by “big men” was not simply a result of material forces compelling otherwise egalitarian humans to turn inegalitarian, or a “safety net” against seasonal fluctuations. The redistribution of goods by chiefs was an act of dominance, driven by highly energetic men seeking the immaterial prestige that came along with being the main provider, the deference that came with being a provider, and the manly respect that came from the heads of competing lineages.

The higher “unsocial sociability” of Indo-European man

There is truth to Camille Paglia’s observation that “if civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.” The “mothering” side of life is important and necessarily essential to building strong bonds, as well as caring for one’s family and ethnic in-group. But we can’t look into the feminine side of life to explain the energy required to make history, even if longer parental caring was an important development connected to the relaxation of Darwinian pressures, the rise of a field of play with its attendant cultural innovations. Bellah is obsessed with egalitarianism and identifies development with this ideal, at times equating Merlin’s concept of a theoretic culture with the development of “critical” ideas against the inequalities of power structures.

In Uniqueness, I emphasized instead the “unsocial sociability” of humans, a term coined by Kant, encapsulating a well-established – if now forgotten – argument in the Western canon about how “self-interest, ambition, and vainglory” have been the driving forces of progress. Looking at the wide span of history, Kant concluded [7] that without the vain desire for honor and status, humans would have never developed beyond a primitive Arcadian existence of self-sufficiency and egalitarian passivity. There can be no high culture without conflict, aggression, and pride. There is a biological basis for this behavior, selected by nature for its enhancement of the survival of tribal groups. But the primordial identity of Western civilization cannot be accounted solely in materialistic terms, notwithstanding the importance of Darwinian pressures and the significant role the material lifestyle of Indo-Europeans played (their horse-riding, nomadic way of life, and vital diet of daily products and meat, in contrast to the heavy grain diet of the Near Eastern cultures).

The “unsocial sociability” of humans, which is primarily a male attribute [8], assumed a more intense expression among the Indo-European speakers who stormed out of the Pontic steppes starting in the fourth millennium as a result of their uniquely aristocratic lifestyle, which afforded individual warriors the opportunity to strive for pure prestige through the performance of heroic acts in a state of freedom from their appetitive instincts. This competitive aristocratic culture, which is already visible in their early chiefdom stages, continued among Europeans as their societies evolved into complex hierarchical chiefdoms. Leaders in complex European chiefdoms were “first among equals” rather than increasingly despotic, as was the case in non-European chiefdoms, where there was no true aristocracy but rather a ruling class slavishly bowing to a paramount chief increasingly claiming a divine status for himself.

Rituals in late chiefdoms

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Human sacrifice in Hawaiian chiefdom

But before elaborating on how the aristocratic culture of Europeans created a masculine field of play, let’s see what Bellah has to say about the “relaxed fields of play” that emerged in complex chiefdoms. He focuses on Hawaiian chiefdoms in which “hierarchy was greatly intensified” and chiefs ruled by divine right. The “arbitrary power and the oppression of the common people over whom he ruled represent a remarkable breakdown of tribal egalitarianism . . . a particularly harsh form of despotism” (p. 208). The chief was surrounded by a court consisting of relatives, officials, and bodyguards; the ruler and his court were a world unto themselves, outside the sight of the commoners and in full control of religious ceremonies. “The rituals took place in walled temples where the general populace could not enter” (p. 571). Sacrifices – including human sacrifices – were undertaken to augment the power and prestige of the paramount chiefs. Moreover, the paramount had the power to tax and conscript for military service for his own objectives, and not for the sake of redistributing resources to the people.

Having made these observations, Bellah goes on to locate certain egalitarian motifs in Hawaiian rituals characterized by a relaxation of the Darwinian disposition to dominate. He describes a yearly festival that lasted for months in which war and human sacrifices were forbidden. He notes a “Carnival-like status reversal,” or “status leveling,” occurring throughout society during these months. One of the high points, after much feasting, dancing, and drinking was a ritual bathing in which both nobles and commoners would bath in the ocean in an orgy of sexual relations. Bellah identifies these practices as examples in which hierarchical rules and the instinct to dominate were temporarily suspended.

The aristocratic egalitarianism of Indo-European chiefdoms

Bellah’s account wrongly assumes that the development of hierarchical chiefdoms with increasingly despotic rulers was a general tendency in the evolution of societies across the world. Like every other academic, he makes no distinctions between the ruling classes of Indo-European cultures and non-European cultures. In Marxist fashion, he identifies all “aristocracies” as mere exploiters of commoners. In contrast, I use the term “aristocratic” to refer only to the ethos of “being-for self” or self-assertiveness and defiance which characterized the ruling class at the top of Indo-European chiefdoms. From this perspective, there were no aristocracies outside the Indo-European world. This term should be used exclusively for aristocratic men who view their leaders as first among equals, too proud to prostrate in front of anyone, and too dignified to behave slavishly in front of their gods. Indo-European gods were elegant and human-like sky gods in the sight of which nobles were not in a state of fear and submission, but in a state of confidence, elevated by their gods, strengthened in their courage and their actions.

I hope in the future to contrast the dark, secret cult-like nature – and sometimes gross and debasing – gods of non-European chiefdoms with the beauty and grace of Indo-European gods. I will suggest now that there were two basic types of chiefdoms emerging in the world: the “group-oriented” chiefdoms of the non-white world and the “individualizing” chiefdoms of the Indo-European world. In the former, there was greater emphasis on centralizing-collective activities aimed at integrating the population in the performance of irrigation agriculture and the building of temples and monumental architecture at the behest of paramount chiefs increasingly taking on a divine character. In the latter, there was greater emphasis on the personal status and prestige of ruling aristocracies, and less on communal and public construction. The aristocratic chief, with his retinue of warriors, was the focus of economic activity, and the units of production were not communistic estates but individual farmsteads. Individualizing chiefdoms were dominated by “wealth finance” or “prestige goods economies,” whereas collective chiefdoms were dominated by “staple finance and tributary systems.” Staple chiefdoms were regulated by “vertical relations of production and exchange” in the sense that authorities chiefly obtained their sources of income by extracting staple goods from the commoners to finance public works, pay the personnel attached to the chief, and trade with other chiefdoms. Prestige chiefdoms were characterized by “horizontal relations” whereby aristocrats obtained their income by controlling exchange networks, supplies of prestige goods, and decentralized units of rain-fed farming communities.

The rise of complex chiefdoms in Europe staring in about 1500 BC was linked to an “ideological and military complex of aristocratic warriors” in control of long-distance elite exchange in prestige goods that spread from the Mycenaean area through Central Europe and Scandinavia. The agrarian system of these chiefdoms was based on husbandry of free-grazing herds and rotating fields in an open landscape. Prestige goods were used as political currency to reward followers and enhance one’s status. The ethos of individual heroism was the engine behind the prestige goods economy, since the status of the chiefs was individually associated with the pursuit of prestige in warfare. The acquisition of prestige objects was not the means to acquire status. Rather, the possession of luxurious weapons and personal items symbolized that one had achieved high status in warfare.

The aristocratic ethos of companionship and equality is the most important trait of individualizing chiefdoms. Despite increased hierarchization, individual warriors were able to attract a retinue of followers through sheer personal initiative. The chiefs sought to attract followers and win the loyalty of lesser aristocratic warriors by giving gifts. The formation of voluntary war bands held together by oaths, camaraderie, and a common self-interest was a characteristic of these chiefdoms. One’s status and rank as a noble were still openly determined by one’s heroic deeds and by the number of followers and clients one could afford. Despite the principle of loyalty and companionship, there was always competition for power, and endless personal rivalries. This was not a rigidified structure in which men lost their individuality and vitality, as was the case in staple chiefdoms. It was free and open, and therefore prone to constant disruptions of violence.

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Sun chariot from Bronze Age Denmark

Citizen warrior states and republican governments have emerged only out of prior individualizing chiefdoms. In group-oriented chiefdoms, authority became increasingly concentrated in the hands of one supreme chief from whom wealth and power were seen to flow vertically to the majority at the bottom as well as to the few “aristocrats” under the subservience of the supreme despotic chief. While paramount chiefs faced competition from upstarts seeking to upstage him, and while status enhancement through the performance of deeds was still a factor in social mobility, the opportunity to achieve renown and prestige was increasingly difficult and rare as non-white chiefdoms became centralized. It is only among the individualizing chiefdoms of Indo-Europeans that one finds true tales of personal heroism in such poems, sagas, and myths as Beowulf, Lebor na hUidre, the Njáls  Saga, the Gísla Saga, and the Nibelungenlied. These were tales of an aristocratic culture, of the meetings, games, and feasting of chieftains, clients, and warriors. The culture of Indo-Europeans was tightly connected to these stories, recounted by poets, singers, and musicians. None of the staple chiefdoms produced any heroic epic literature.

Bellah completely ignores the unique cultural expressions of aristocratic societies, preferring to write about the egalitarian rituals and carnival-like orgies of non-European chiefdoms. We can say, however, that the field of relaxation from Darwinian pressures achieved within Indo-European chiefdoms took on the form of a “struggle to the death for pure prestige” over and against the most powerful biological drives humans have for self-preservation and comfort. To be an aristocrat, one had to demonstrate one’s capacity to be free by struggling for immaterial ends without submitting to the basest instincts. It is not that they acted against selective pressures, but that they created a cultural field of action that was self-chosen by them, rather than being a function of adaptive pressures only.

European males were the first beings in history to exhibit awareness of themselves as beings capable of acting according to self-chosen immaterial aims beyond the mere pressures of biology and the commands of gods.

Archaic civilizations

This aristocratic spirit continued in the more advanced archaic civilizations of Europe, such as Mycenae, during the second millennium. The political structure of Mycenaean Greece was one of autonomous feudal warlords surrounded by aristocratic retainers under the nominal overlordship of the city of Mycenae. For Bellah, however, Mycenae was just another archaic civilization, to which he pays no particular attention other than to identify it (erroneously) as “Eastern.” He focuses on the archaic civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and Shang/Western Zhou China. Unfortunately, through this chapter (and the following long chapters on the Axial civilizations), Bellah ceases to write explicitly about the ways in which these civilizations exhibited egalitarian cultural practices within a “relaxed field” of play and ritual. The whole discussion about play and rituals suddenly ceases. Only later, in the book’s conclusion, he tries to connect cultural developments in archaic and Axial times to the concept of “relaxed fields.” Suffice to say now that the main drift of his argument is that in archaic and Axial civilizations, the trend towards inequality, divination of rulers, and subjection of the commoners intensifies. So what happens to the development of an egalitarian field of play? His thesis is that the Axial Age sees the birth of a universal egalitarian ethic based on second order thinking. This ethic, articulated by prophets and philosophers, is the form in which humans escaped the Darwinian struggle for existence during the Axial Age.

Archaic civilizations were characterized by monumental architecture, wide networks of trade, some form of writing, cities, intensive agriculture, a centralized bureaucracy, and rulers with an exalted status reaching divinity (or close to it). Bellah emphasizes in particular how kinship by itself was no longer the basic principle governing the relationship between the state and the commoners. Religion now coexisted with an exalted and distant form of kinship. Kin relations obviously still played a role in the close-knit families out of which the ruling officials emerged, and within the extended families prevalent everywhere, but “something new in the religious realm appears in archaic societies: gods and the worship of gods,” with kings having a singular relation to the gods, or were frequently considered to be gods themselves (p. 212). Obligations and prohibitions had little to do with universal ideals of morality. The orders of Mesopotamian kings came about “without discussion, without protest, without criticism, in a perfect and fatalistic submission” (p. 223). The Pharaoh in Egypt was seen as the incarnation of god, with his commandments accepted accordingly.

The invention of writing in these archaic civilizations should not be equated with a “literacy revolution.” In Mesopotamia, writing was used mostly for administrative purposes and the enactment of bureaucratic orders; repetitions of myths or hymns were the norm in the literary texts. These civilizations “remained largely oral cultures throughout their history” (p. 226). In Egypt, too, texts were limited to administrative matters and temple rituals. The Middle Kingdom period (2040-1650 BC) sees some “wisdom” texts, hymns, and tales in which fathers imparted moral advice to their sons, as well as royal inscriptions about order, justice, and truth, but their language was restricted to the finite interests and customs of Egypt without aiming at the construction of universal principles for humans as such. In the Coffin Text from the Middle Kingdom, there is an emphasis on equality and an incipient concept that all humans are alike which may be identified as “proto-Axial,” but the religious community was still dependent on kinship ties and the idea of a common humanity was not really crystallized. The notion that there was a deep unity between God and King precluded the idea of a God standing above the King, with independently enacted moral commandments having a universal import.

In the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC), writing that seems to involve “conscious reflection” on religion emerges, but there was no theoretic discourse in ancient Egypt; the thinking remained mythical, though it was bordering on theoretical reflection, according to Bellah. The centrality of the King in “every dimension of religious practice” (performance of cult, construction and maintenance of temples, responsibility for maintenance of the cosmic order) precluded any real discourse, as would happen in Axial times, when a group of itinerant intellectuals would carry a persistent assault on the culture of ritual and myth while searching for more universal answers about the meaning of life and the best forms of government.

The state in Shang China was essentially an extension of the ruler’s court, in unison with lineages from members of the court. While it had bureaucratic attributes, such as a variety of appointed civil and military officers under the King, such positions were mere extensions of the King’s patrimonial rule. In fact, lineage was so pervasive in Shang China that ancestor worship was the central practice of religion, leaving a “permanent legacy for all later Chinese culture.” It was difficult to create solidarity among all classes and regions, because even though archaic societies were territorially extensive and included millions of unrelated inhabitants, the rulers were a close-knit group connected by kinship ties without universal values connecting them to the people. No moral philosophy or texts were put forward from which to criticize unjust rulers based on notions about a universal God, a Mandate of Heaven, or the best form of government for humans as such.

What about archaic Mycenaean civilization? Bellah brings this civilization into his discussion when he deals with Axial Greece, as we will see in Part Four, insisting it was “Eastern.” I believe that Homer’s poems reflect the central aristocratic values of the Mycenaean age. While the leader was now a king rather than a chief of a tribal society, he did not have despotic powers, but ruled together with feudal warlords who were identified as the “companions” of the King. The Iliad captures this aristocratic relationship when it has Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, surrounded by free, prideful men who are always deliberating and debating their actions rather than subserviently following the commands of an autocratic King. King Agamemnon was no Pharaoh ruling by divine right. Most of the Iliad consists of speeches by aristocrats arguing over strategy, and debating the King’s proposals over the conduct of war. There is no literature from the East – not the Epic of Gilgamesh, as I explained at length in Uniqueness – portraying a world of aristocratic freedom. The ruler depicted in Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk or Erech, a city of Mesopotamia, appears as a typical despot, and not a very admirable “heroic” figure, but rather as an insolent character yearning and weeping for everlasting life, in contrast to the heroes of the Iliad, who rejected a long life without memorable deeds for a short life with immortal deeds.

This article was reproduced from the Council of European Canadians [11] Website.