On First Looking into The Dawn of Everything[1]

I confess I had not heard of the hero of David Wengrow and the late and much missed David Graeber’s bestseller, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It is a safe bet that he is about to become rather famous.

Kandiaronk was a 17th century Huron or Wendat chief, who appears in the memoirs of an impoverished French aristocrat, Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan, Baron de Lahontan.  He probably visited France and Lahontan translates him into a character in a dialogue, Adario.  Rameau turned this into an opera, and the anti-clerical rationalist legislation from the New World left a long and deep impact.[2]

Kandiaronk / Adario’s critique of Christianity and French society is usually taken as an entirely fictitious example of the noble savage trope.[3]  Indeed in the earlier part of the last century, it was a matter of doubt in the western tradition as to whether the whole account of his voyages was fabricated, a scepticism less common now.  Graeber and Wengrow ask what follows if we accept that Kandiaronk’s account of his own society and their rational approach to wealth, law and deliberation was in fact accurately transcribed by Lahontan?

So one consequence is a retelling of the Enlightenment.  In this story, the world outside Europe, is not the exotic construct through which Europe reconfigured itself, but is actually the source of Enlightenment thought.  It is not that thinking about the other allows the Enlightenment to happen; rather, the Other is the source.[4] 

Much is made to ride on this because if the so-called primitive turns out to have been actually a great deal more politically and philosophically sophisticated, perhaps we need to rethink our categories.  For Graeber and Wengrow a number of critical conclusions follow, amongst them:

  • At no stage should we assume that human society – and that includes all human society[5] – was incapable of thought, imagination and reason.
  • There is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of human history
  • We should therefore take more seriously the possibility for humans to make different choices.

What follows is not a review of this remarkable book, a task for which I have no competence.  Instead I want to worry about the use of sources, suggest that this weakness is not fatal, but perhaps has a subtle awkward consequence, and to try to situate better what are called heroic societies, and especially, the one that interests me most, archaic Rome.

It is true that our assumption that Adario is simply a cipher for Lahontan’s views, and can be discounted as evidence, is potentially dismissive.  But it is not to be underestimated how powerful the paradigms were in which Lahontan wrote.  Moreover, if Kandiaronk did know as much of the western world as is suggested, why should he not have absorbed some of its ways of thinking, at least sufficiently to be able to turn that reasoning against them?  What is more troubling is that this literalist reading of Lahontan’s account of Adario is neither a good nor a strong framing of the wider argument, and risks undermining one of the core arguments of the book, that human societies are much more diverse and unlike each other than we tend to think.  Kandiaronk is made to respond with effectively western logic to a western problem, the role of Christianity.  Jesuits of the time claimed the native Americans could make nothing of Christian doctrine.  For them this was a sign of their ignorance; it would be equally possible, and perhaps more legitimate, to regard it as sophisticated bewilderment at patent nonsense; believing Lahontan on Kandiaronk may do a disservice to the admirable strangeness of Huron thought.  We will come back to the consequence of incommensurable world views.

Although Graeber and Wengrow were clearly taken with their framing, it seems to me to do little heavy lifting.  The action is somewhere else – even the account of the Huron does not really depend much on Lahontan.  So whether or not it stands is not fatal to the rest.

What might be more difficult is the argument which I suspect will be levelled at the book, that it tilts against elderly windmills.[6]  Evolutionist thinking, the kind which produced a ladder of human societal development from band to tribe to chief to state, is very much the target of the book.  Graeber and Wengrow argue that even if this is now outdated, the notion that once one was on the ladder, the direction was largely inescapable, still holds.  Their version of history allows human societies to get off the ladder time and again, and not just because of disaster.  Sometimes, it seems, societies spent a very long time not getting on that ladder, or not even recognising its existence.  And when they did make choices, the outcomes were often very different.  Thus, although Graeber and Wengrow identify control of violence, control of information and individual charisma as three axes of domination (I would prefer power), different societies combined these differently.[7]

But before we all congratulate ourselves on being cleverer than The Dawn of Everything makes us out to be, I would argue that Graeber and Wengrow are absolutely right to detect that the declaration that we don’t think this way is firstly partial (quite a lot of scholarship on the Mediterranean still does) and secondly skin deep.  It is very difficult to read most scholarship on archaic Italy and not bump up against the awkward fact that there is a deeply ingrained teleology and one which struggles more with the archaeological reality than it admits. 

Here I think we hit a tricky problem.  For The Dawn of Everything, there is a range of societies which display a number of kinds of flexibility.  Their formal existence may be transient – order and hierarchy may be seasonal, and then lapse.  They may be large and extended but actually relatively non-hierarchical.  They may have very different ways of expressing value.  The upshot is that there is no such thing as “the state”; and there is a good question as to whether the states we come across are really comparable.  The question not quite raised is whether and how comparison is helpful – what is at stake by forcing different communities across wide spans of space and time to be set against each other along certain baseline expectations – specialization of markets, intensity of production, existence of slavery or not – when those societies thought of themselves in entirely different ways, and when even adjacent societies may have developed through what Graeber and Wengrow call schismogenesis, a conscious and far-reaching process of differentiation? For Graeber and Wengrow comparison reveals difference, even of the fundamental values of society; too often, though, it is used to flatten distinctions in the search for common denominators. At least one consequence of this book should be to make that approach less appealing.

Most of the book therefore uses the diversity of society to challenge the idea that we only had one way forward.  That is where the problem of the Enlightenment project comes in by asking the question of how we got stuck, if life was either better before, or heading towards perfection, and if on either reading we aren’t in a good place now.  The two obvious answers are that actually this is a super time to be alive, much better than the alternatives and so we are not stuck, or that this is a terrible time, but we aren’t as stuck as we think.[8]

On either reading, the question arises as to when we became stuck, or were persuaded we were and that we could not change.

I may have missed it but I am not sure that Graeber and Wengrow quite answer this question, though there is a grumpy section on Roman law.  There is an interesting minor thread which runs through which notes that bureaucracy is more pronounced in small scale so-called heroic societies – like Mycenaean palaces.  Moreover, power in terms of violence rapidly dwindles over space, and heroes are nothing if not charismatic, though the fascination may be rather twisted.  And reading the Roman law argument again from this standpoint is interesting.

What Graeber and Wengrow argue is that one way of seeing indigenous American society was as caring for those inside, but dominating to those outside.  Roman law, driven by the notion of ownership of res mancipi, land, houses, slaves and four footed beasts of burden, brought the notion of domination into the household, thus breaching the distinction between equality of care of those inside and brutality to those outside.

I want to make three observations here.  First, the concentration on ownership as a critical vector of social development is correct.  Elsewhere, Graeber and Wengrow focus on the relationship between the sacred and ownership, and much Roman religious practice is indeed, as Yan Thomas pointed out, a matter of property law.  Second, I find the work effected by this comparison between care and domination both unpersuasive and troubling; I am just not sure I can follow it to a helpful conclusion.  The part of the equation that refers to equal care within society seems to be optimistic as a description of most societies and possibly even the Wendat (it rests on Jesuit descriptions in part), and the outcome of a comparison of in-groups and out-groups is unappealing.  But third, and here is my main interest, I think it pushes the issue of the shift back to the foundation of Roman law, which again is effectively in the archaic period – the first Roman law code is from the fifth century BC and by definition encodes what was already in practice.

Graber and Wengrow nicely call the archaic a ‘chronological slap in the face.’  But for the Mediterranean area, they slide a bit between archaic and heroic.  And from this comes an interesting challenge.

What is liberating about this book is the way it repeatedly opens up interpretation and challenges any notion of fixity.  But the insidious thought that the origins of all that went wrong lies in the archaic definitions of Roman law makes precisely the literalist error that I worry applies equally to the account of Kandiaronk.  The very little we know of ‘heroic’ society has to be read against the grain of much later texts and demands to be subjected to exactly the same radical questioning that Graeber and Wengrow apply to everywhere else.

Once one does this, then Rome starts to look odd – or rather, our traditional notion of Rome looks odd.  Rome can be and often is seen as a society which evolves from clan to state.  Along the way it has kings.  But those kings leave barely anything that looks like a palace, and what they do leave is completely overshadowed by works of civic benefit; a paved piazza, temples, a storm drain, walls.  The clans are assumed to be old, original almost, but it’s equally possible that they are the products of and responses to political change.[9]  Rome has no real tradition of heroization. And the kings are stranger kings – almost all outsiders, and most are killed.[10]   For now let’s leave aside the impact this had on how modern ethnography understood kingship; the fact is that Roman authors in the Republic construct a model of power which is circumscribed, socially beneficial and highly rational until, with the last king Tarquin the Proud, it isn’t, which is when it is discarded.  Rome then survived without any palace right through to the middle of the first century AD and the construction of the absurdly overblown and shortlived Neronian experiment.  It is really only in the late first century AD that Rome develops a highly demarcated stable central bureaucratic space on the Palatine.  Prior to that, insofar as Rome had a central space, it was in the complex interplay of a temple and an assembly space (Capitol and forum), power subjected to the gods and to the people. 

It is welcome to have a universal history that isn’t obsessed with Greece and Rome.  But a next step in the argument may be to dismantle more effectively the intellectual history which created the evolutionary model itself.  One pillar is a classical teleology, but it is one which can be shown not to work in its own case.  Nicholas Purcell characterised cities as political and social philosophy in action and yet they are often not very Aristotelian.  The myth was already at odds with reality; the multiplicity of forms and models, even across a congested landscape, is as evident as the consistency which emerged from using the same sorts of materials and living in similar ecological niches.

Romans may have constructed a myth of Rome evolving from primitivism but just as Lahontan’s Adario / Kandiaronk may be a highly sophisticated but unreliable narrator, so we have to reckon with the Romans being similarly unreliable narrators of themselves.  Once one starts to unpick Rome’s story of its origins, what may emerge is stranger and more exciting.  In  particular, there opens up a story of much more fluidity and of the sorts of movement in and out of forms of power (seasonality, differentiations of power inside and outside the city, complex negotiations of care and sovereignty, debate and heterarchy, and the deep and profound significance of the sacred) which allow us to read archaic Rome against the grain of the texts, and posit the texts as doing a particularly kind of foundational work which may ultimately have been a form of entrapment.   The elaboration of a model of kingship which never existed proved useful for others who wanted to be kings.

And if we push this to its ultimate expression, we might wish to argue that the Enlightenment and subsequent thought used Rome, and Greece too but in different ways, as a foil which expressed their own conservative tendencies – tendencies which included a notion of the exaltation of care for the ingroup (notoriously expressed by Saul, later Paul of Tarsus, declaring civis Romanus sum to avoid arrest) and justified rapacious conquest of the outgroup.  This became far more pronounced with the creation of Roman history and law as a discipline in the 19th century.  The prison we are living in would therefore be of very recent manufacture.

So Graeber and Wengrow have given us a new history and it is brilliant, necessary and liberating.  No part of our history licenses the belief that we cannot be free of history.  My suggestions are that if we do not trap ourselves into literal reading of texts, but investigate a little more carefully the dire consequences of the dominant intersection between Darwinian biology and models of social evolution specifically in the study of Greece and Rome, we may find that the mythic structures that have been trapping us are even more implausible and even more modern. 

Armed with this knowledge, and with the stimulus of this fascinating and challenging book, we may be able to write both a better history of the Mediterranean and one which adds to the impetus to believe in human freedom, and our capacity to change our world for the better. 

[1] D. Graeber, D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, London, 2021.  The title of this blog obviously hints at Keats, whose reference to the heroic world of ancient Greece and the conquest of the New World are both pertinent to the book.

[2] The impact of the dialogues can be traced through Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire and countless other depictions of the noble savage.  Lahontan himself tells us he travelled with a copy of Lucian, and the supposition, without much demonstration, is that he borrowed Lucian’s figure of the noble and wise ‘barbarian’ Scythian prince Anacharsis as a model.  This is no doubt partially correct, on any reading, but notably in advance of the ore famous treatment by Barthélémy.

[3] D. A. Harvey, The French Enlightenment and Its Others: The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of the Human Sciences, London 2012 is singled out.

[4] Actually, some of this is foreshadowed and rather better contextualized for a slightly different set of accounts by J. Osterhammel, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia, Princeton 2018; https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/unfabling-the-east/

[5] Graber and Wengrow work hard to recover female agency and wisdom for prehistory.

[6] Conversely one of the book’s many admirably enjoyable features is the thoughtful rescue (without undue rehabilitation) of figures such as Hocart, Clastres, Gimbutas, Canetti, Steiner. The figure who lurks most productively I suspect is Lévi-Strauss, but that will require another essay.

[7] For a book that struggles with taxonomy, this is an odd choice, which seems instigated by the desire to arrive at the modern notions of sovereignty, bureaucracy and competitive politics.  Even a book which wants to resist genealogical thinking struggles to break free; the consequence is a lapse into a more reductive comparative analysis than operates elsewhere.

[8] The first is the predominant mode of global history from Diamond to Morris to Pinker and so on; the second is the conclusion of this book and much of Graeber’s work, summarised by his now famous line “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

[9] It is a nice coincidence that Morgan, whose account of ancient society inspired Engels and underlies a good deal of the teleology Graeber and Wengrow seek to overthrow, was a student of the Iroquois and almost certainly read them through the lens of Roman law, this creating a picture of archaic society which was in fact merely a reflection of contentious Roman speculation about themselves.

[10] Terminology and observations taken from D. Graeber and M. Sahlins, On Kings, Chicago, 2017.

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