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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Primitivism is a name for a cluster of ideas arising
from meditations on the course of human history and
the value of human institutions and accomplishments.
It is found in two forms, chronological and cultural,
each of which may exist as “soft” or “hard” primitiv-


Chronological primitivism maintains that the earliest
stage of human history was the best, that the earliest
period of national, religious, artistic, or in fact any
strand of history was better than the periods that have
followed, that childhood is better than maturity. In
short, it argues that to discover the best stage of any
historical series one must return to its origin. Primitive
man, for instance, was better than civilized man, prim-
itive Christianity was better than later developments
of Christianity, the arts of savages and children are
better than those of educated men and adults.

Cultural primitivism maintains that whatever addi-
tions have been made to what is called the “natural”
condition of mankind have been deleterious. Unfortu-
nately the meanings of the natural are so multiple that
cultural primitivists vary widely in what they consider
to be the state of nature. They are often chronological
primitivists as well, but this is not inevitable. One may
believe that a complete absence of civilized institutions
is a blessing and yet think that primitive man was as
much beset by them as modern man. Or one may think


that man as he first appeared on earth was gifted with
all that man requires to live well and yet not to believe
that such requirements are sufficient for modern man.
Logically one may be both a chronological and a cul-
tural primitivist, a chronological but not a cultural
primitivist, a cultural but not a chronological primitiv-
ist, or neither one nor the other.

Hard primitivism is the doctrine that man is happiest
when he is not burdened with arts and sciences, lives
with the fewest possible needs, is satisfied with the
simplest of lives. A cave suffices for a house, acorns
for food, the skins of wild beasts for clothing, a heap
of dried leaves for a bed. The hard primitivist is likely
to hold up the animals as exemplars; for they ask, he
will say, for no more than Mother Nature has given
them at birth. When the hard primitivist is also a
chronological primitivist, he will maintain that at the
earliest period of human history man lived as the ani-
mals do, without luxuries. But he is not forced to be
a chronological primitivist; he may simply believe that
men are overburdened with unnecessary desires and
that they should “return to Nature” or to the “simple

Soft primitivism maintains that the best life is the
life without toil, the sort of life that was sometimes
depicted as characteristic of the islands of the South
Seas where the climate is gentle, the earth sponta-
neously productive, the animals friendly, the sea full
of fish easily caught. Soft primitivism often accompa-
nies chronological primitivism, as it did in the legend
of the Golden Age or in one version of life before the


1. Chronological Primitivism in Classical Antiq-
Chronological primitivism in occidental culture
is found in two forms, that of classical antiquity and
that of Christianity. In classical antiquity this doctrine
was first expressed in the legend of the Ages. Our
earliest version of this legend is that given by Hesiod
in his Works and Days. In this version, which is proba-
bly a fusion of two different myths, there are five ages,
beginning with the Golden Age—or the “Golden Race”
as Hesiod himself puts it—proceeding through the
Silver, the Bronze, the Age of Heroes, and our own,
the Iron Age. The insertion of the Age of Heroes breaks
the series of progressive degeneration, for the Heroes
are demigods who, instead of dying, are translated to
the Islands of the Blessed. But the other ages indicate
a steady worsening of mankind. In the Golden Age
Kronos is king, life is free from work and is merry,
the earth produces its fruits spontaneously, and there
is neither war nor violence. Thus the lot of mankind
is easy and morals are good.

The men of the Silver Age are not descendants of
their historical predecessors, but a fresh creation. Why
the Golden Age disappeared is not told us by Hesiod
but the Silver Race has a very protracted infancy,
though it does not fit them for a vigorous maturity.
On the contrary, they are mentally retarded, violent,
irreligious, and are destroyed by Zeus because of their
impiety. Nothing is said of the economic condition of
these men; the emphasis is on their physiological and
moral deterioration. People of this race are wiped out
because of their wickedness.

The Bronze Race is also a new creation. Hesiod's
text is not clear about how its members compare in
qualities with the Silver Race, but in themselves they
are strong and terrible. Their strength, which would
seem to be an improvement on the debility of the Silver
Race, is not praised by Hesiod, and indeed his dislike
of them comes out when he says that they ended in
mass suicide and not through any action of Zeus. The
Heroes are obviously superior to both the Bronze and
the Silver Races. They are the men who fought in the
Trojan War and figured in the great mythical cycles.
In spite of their superiority to their predecessors, they
too fell victim to war. Their life in the Islands of the
Blessed, however, is free from sorrow and, like the
Golden Race, they enjoy fruits plentifully produced
from the earth. Whether Earth produces these fruits
spontaneously or not is not clearly stated, but it is likely
that the Islands of the Blessed reproduced the land of
the Golden Race.

Our own race, that of Iron, is the worst. It is a period
of greater and greater degeneration and our race will
disappear when it is “born with greying temples.” It
is characterized by intrafamily quarreling, unfilial be-
havior, violence, war, disregard for moral qualities,
high regard for insolence. “Right will be might and
modesty will no longer exist,” is Hesiod's prophecy.
The two goddesses Shame (aidos) and Indignation
(nemesis) will leave the earth in disgust and evil will
prevail. At that point we shall disappear. Thus the
cause of the race's destruction is its own wickedness
coupled with physical degeneration.

The elements of this myth are greatly mixed. The
use of the four metals to name the ages would seem
to be an indication that one factor in the story is the
theme of steady deterioration, perhaps inherent in
human nature. But the fact that the gods destroyed
the first two races and created new ones to take their
places breaks the series; and the first race, that of gold,
did nothing to merit destruction. The first age, more-
over, is that governed by Kronos and the later are all
governed by Zeus, so that one of the elements of the
myth may be the dethronement of Kronos by his son
and the theme of two ages only, as it appears in some


of the later writers. But the castration and dethrone-
ment of Kronos by his son does not seem to fit in with
the other theme of progressive deterioration. Nor does
it seem fitting that a god as bloodthirsty as Zeus is in
castrating his father should have been powerful at so
blessed a time. But Hesiod is not remarkable for con-
sistency. The interpolation of the Age of Heroes is
another discordant note. It is actually better than the
Silver Age, if not the Golden, and a special creation
of Zeus. But since the poet was not an admirer of
warlike men, it is strange to find these extraordinarily
brave warriors praised and given terrestrial immortal-
ity with some of the pleasures of the Golden Age.
Subsequent writers omit this period of history, pre-
sumably to smooth out the inconsistencies. Again, there
is no reason why this period should have been followed
by the worst of ages. Hesiod seems simply to have
transferred his dislike for his contemporaries to his
myth of historical development.

Hesiod's story must have lingered on in the minds
of seventh-, sixth-, and fifth-century writers, for we find
echoes of it in the Alcmaeonid as well as in Theognis.
But, as far as is detectable now, these writers emphasize
the moral deterioration of mankind rather than the
physiological. So Aratus, a third-century didactic poet,
in his Phaenomena (lines 96-136), removes most of the
inconsistencies of Hesiod by reducing the number of
ages to three and telling a story of increasing wicked-
ness. He also inserts a blood relationship between the
races. Each is a descendant of the preceding one and
none are fresh creations. Why the generations should
have deteriorated morally is not explained, but that
they did is stated dogmatically. There are, however,
hints of innovations which Aratus probably thought
were causes of “injustice.” There was, for instance, no
international trade in the Golden Age: ships “did not
carry men's livelihood from afar.” Men lived a simple
agricultural life. The goddess Justice dwelt among men.
But when the Silver Race appeared, she mingled sel-
dom and no longer with great eagerness, “longing for
the manners of the ancient people.” She did her best
to keep men in her path, but they were wayward and
soon there appeared the Bronze Race which, for
Aratus, is the worst. Its people were the first to forge
swords and to eat meat, and Justice was so disgusted
that she went off to heaven where she appears in the
skies as the constellation Virgo. The factors of vegetar-
ianism and pacifism had come into the myth earlier
in the works of Empedocles, the Sicilian philosopher
(fl. ca. 444 B.C.), who does not write a story of four
ages but of two, that of Love and that of Strife, each
of whom in turn governs history. In the reign of Love
(Cypris) all warfare ceases and there is no sacrifice of
animals, for men think slaughter and the eating of flesh
an abomination. But this is a cyclical account of history
and the reign of Love occurs indefinitely, cycle after
cycle. It is worth pointing out in passing that the steady
emphasis by all writers on the vegetarianism of primi-
tive man is characteristic of ancient primitivists and
reappears as late as Pope's Essay on Man (III, 147-60).

The poem of Aratus, which as a whole was about
astronomy and not about history, had considerable
popularity in ancient times. Achilles Tatius is said to
have written an introduction to it as well as a com-
mentary, and another commentary was written by
Hipparchus. There were three known Latin transla-
tions: one by Cicero in his De natura deorum (II, 41),
one ascribed to Germanicus Caesar, and one to Festus
Avienus. Such works were really astrological. There
were also parodies of the Golden Age, “when Kronos
was king,” in the Greek comic poets, the burden of
which was the legendary soft primitivism of the period.
Life was described as in the legend of the Land of
Cockaigne, in which rivers of porridge flowed through
the land and roast hams and fish, pigs' ribs already
roasted stood ready to be eaten. Clearly there were
Greeks who were as skeptical of such legends as they
were of the whole Greek mythology.

In Latin literature as it has come down to us, the
ages were usually reduced to two, that of Saturn and
that of Jupiter. In Tibullus, for instance (Elegies II, iii,
35-46, 63-74) the Golden Age, as in Empedocles, was
the Age of Love, whereas the Iron Age was that of
pillage. Pillage is the source of war, navies, large es-
tates, and luxury. But in the Age of Gold, love was
free; “there was no guardian, no gate to shut out
grieving lovers.” This was presumably enough to his
way of thinking to recommend a return to it. Now
in the Iron Age there are strife, slaughter, foreign trade,
and private property: the fields are hemmed in to feed
countless flocks. But there is a faint hint of hard primi-
tivism when Tibullus wishes that the vineyards which
keep girls in the country might disappear and “the
acorn and water would be our food prisco more ['in
the ancient manner'].” Our primitive ancestors made
love openly in shady nooks; there was none of the
artificiality of modern times.

The more obvious continuator of the Hesiodic-
Aratean tradition in Latin literature was Ovid, who
in his Metamorphoses (I, 76-215) outlines the story. In
Ovid, however, our own race is descended from none
of those named by Hesiod; it is the progeny of the
stones thrown behind their backs by Deucalion and
Pyrrha. Ovid's Golden Age is free of almost all the
institutions which characterize his own time. Men were
faithful and righteous by nature and thus had no need
for laws. There were no punishments for evil deeds
since there were no evil deeds. Again, shipping had


not been invented and towns were without walls. There
was no need of armies to guard them. And Earth, as
in Hesiod, “untouched by the hoe and unwounded by
the ploughshare,” gave food freely to her children.
Striking a note of hard primitivism, Ovid points out
that the first men were satisfied with wild fruits and
berries along with acorns. “Spring was eternal and the
placid Zephyrs with warm breezes lightly touched the
flowers, born without seeds... rivers of milk and rivers
of nectar flowed, and yellow honey dripped from the
green oaks.” Here then we have what might be called
“juristic primitivism,” pacifism, the absence of foreign
trade and travel, technological primitivism, and vege-
tarianism together with echoes of soft primitivism,
primeval innocence in the Land of Cockaigne.

But, according to Ovid, this was not to endure.
Jupiter took over the throne from his father Saturn
and the Silver Race appeared. The year was divided
into four seasons, men began to live in houses, agricul-
ture was instituted, and “bullocks groaned under the
weight of the yoke.” Then came the Bronze Race, more
savage than its predecessor and more belligerent, “yet
not utterly wicked.” Like Aratus Ovid omits the Age
of Heroes. The utterly wicked are men of the Iron Age.
Shame, truth, and faith all fled. Deceit, trickery, and
treachery took their place. Shipping was invented and
also property. Agriculture wounded Mother Earth and,
worse than that, mining was started; mining which by
bringing up gold, “more noxious than iron,” paved the
way for war. Men lived by plunder and no one was
safe from either stranger or kinsman. Men lost their
sense of duty (pietas) and the Virgin Astraea, Justice,
left the earth. There followed the War of the Giants
and finally a Deluge wiped the evil race from off the
face of the earth. Nor does Ovid, like some other poets,
suggest that the Golden Age may return in some future
near or remote.

It was no doubt Ovid who kept the Hesiodic legend
alive in medieval Europe, for the Greek poets were
largely lost. It was Ovid who transmitted the notion
that in primitive times land was owned in common.
The emphasis moreover is upon two ages, not four or
five: the Age of Saturn and that of Jupiter.

In fact the Age of Saturn became synonymous with
the ancient past. And there are intimations that Jupiter
gave us a better age than his father had been able to
provide. But that side of the story belongs to a history
of the idea of progress. Now Saturn was originally a
Latin god and it is difficult, if possible, to reconcile
some of his traits with those of Kronos, though the two
were fused. Like Kronos he ruled the world before
Jupiter or Zeus did and his reign was noted for its
blessings: leisure, peace, abundant food, absence of
private property, evil passions, and sometimes of slaves.
But nevertheless he was a bloodthirsty god who swal-
lowed his children and castrated his father. By turning
him into a culture-hero and eliminating the super-
natural elements in the myths, it was possible to think
of him as a primitive king who had taught his subjects
how to live in communities, gave them laws, no longer
a curse, and brought them out of primeval barbarism.
But this version, which is not purely primitivistic, we
owe to Vergil (Aeneid VIII, 314-27). Before Vergil's
Age of Saturn there existed a race of men born of tree
trunks and hard oak, who were utterly uncivilized, had
no agriculture or wealth, and lived by hunting and
gathering food. This race is not praised by Vergil nor
does he show any sympathy for cultural primitivism
in this place. His contemporary, Tibullus, however,
thinks of the Saturnians as the most primitive of peo-
ples and he describes their life in glowing terms and
generally as soft. In line with the tradition we have
already mentioned, he describes them as knowing
nothing of shipping, foreign trade, agriculture, private
property. “The oaks themselves gave honey and ewes
offered their udders full of milk to untroubled men”
(Elegies I, iii, 35-52). These men were pacific and
friendly. But now, under Jupiter, their descendants
have become belligerent, murderous, laying out “a
thousand roads to sudden death.”

There is a second version of primitive life in Ovid
where he tells of Pythagoras (Metamorphoses XV,
75-142). Here the philosopher is represented as ex-
horting men to give up their animal diet and to live
on fruits and berries, milk, and wild honey. This was
what the Golden Race had done. They treated the
animals, moreover, as fellow farmers (vestros colonos).
These accounts of primitive times could be duplicated
by passages in other works of Ovid (Amores III, viii,
35-56) and even of Lucian (Saturnian Letters I, 20).
But quotation from such passages one by one would
be otiose.

It is more important to turn to Juvenal (Satire XIII,
28-59), where a fierce attack on contemporary society
is made in favor of early times. Our own age, he says,
is so base that there is no metal base enough to name
it. One is called a simpleton when one demands that
oaths be held sacred; our crimes are nameless. But
under Saturn men lived without arts and luxuries and
there was no need of instruments of torture to make
men tell the truth. A heap of acorns was sufficient for
food. Juvenal does not hesitate to represent primeval
life as close to that of the animals. In his sixth Satire
(1-24) he points out that an icy cavern was home
enough for a man, a mass of leaves for a bed. The wife
“bore breasts to feed great children and was often more
savage than her acorn-belching mate.” These men had
no private property and they knew nothing of adultery.


Thus the hard primitivism of Juvenal is mitigated by
certain features of the more idyllic versions of history.
And he carries on as well the Hesiodic story that after
the Golden Age Shame and Justice fled from earth to
live in heaven.

Ironically Saturn, who had conferred upon mankind
so many benefits, became a ludicrous figure later on.
The Greeks used the name of Kronos in compounds
and derivatives to mean dim-sighted, senile foolishness,
nonsense, antiquated ideas. The planet Saturn became
a malignant body. The fact that Kronos (and presuma-
bly Saturn) was the oldest of the gods identified him
with very ancient times, and it was easy to equate
antiquity with senility. Possibly it was the identification
of Saturn with Moloch, who also swallowed little chil-
dren, that gave the planet its bad name. Yet when the
planet became the symbol of philosophy and mathe-
matics, to say nothing of melancholy, a more favorable
view could be taken of the god. But to consider the
transformation of the ancient gods into planets and
stars would take us beyond our range.

2. The Return of the Golden Age. One form of
chronological primitivism locates the best period of
history at the beginning of each cycle. We have already
seen this suggested in Empedocles. The Stoics in par-
ticular maintained that history on a grand scale mani-
fested an eternal recurrence. They usually held that
they derived their theory of cycles from Heraclitus,
who may be interpreted as believing that each cycle
ended with a cosmic conflagration (the ekpyrosis), after
which all things would begin once more and continue
to repeat the history of the previous cycles. This ver-
sion dates back at least to the fourth century B.C.,
though it is by no means certain that Heraclitus, a sixth-
to fifth-century figure, held any such theory. As for
Empedocles, we have already mentioned his Age of
Love. Whether this is to be thought of as the beginning
or end of a cycle is disputable, for the image of eternal
recurrence by its very nature excludes beginnings. Yet
there need be no uncertainty that in the mind of
Empedocles the Age of Love would return with all
its blessings, and these blessings were those of the
traditional Golden Age. So the Sybilline Oracles fore-
told a return to a period of happiness when “all-bearing
earth will give her best fruit without end to mortals,
bread, wine, and wild olive.” All the old refrains are
heard again, the disappearance of war and violence
as well as a return to peace and plenty. But since these
Oracles are as a whole apocalyptic prophecies and
show no firm evidence that they were based on a
doctrine of cycles—though the language used in some
of them is affiliated with that of Stoicism—they may
be out of place here. But one document that must be
included is Vergil's famous Fourth Eclogue. The pur
pose of this poem and its use by Christian apologists,
beginning with Constantine, are too much a matter
of debate to be dealt with here. We mention simply
as a case of predicting the return of the Golden Age
when in Shelley's words, in the concluding chorus of
Hellas, “the world's great age begins anew.” Vergil
predicts that the Golden Age is at hand in the consul-
ship of Pollio and that a child will be born on whom
Earth “untilled” will bestow her blessings. All the evils
both of human nature and of the Iron Age will disap-
pear and the regime of soft primitivism will once more
be instituted. But the Fourth Eclogue and its many
imitations belong to the story of Millenarianism rather
than to that of primitivism and we leave it here with
this simple mention.

3. Chronological Primitivism in Christianity. The
condition of Adam before the Fall in the Garden of
Eden is the Judeo-Christian equivalent of life in the
Golden Age. In the first chapter of Genesis Adam,
created in the image and likeness of God, is given
dominion over the earth and all its creatures; in the
second chapter he is ordered to “dress and keep” the
Garden. The amount of work involved was presumably
thought of as light and pleasant, prelapsarian life as
easy and delightful. There are, however, very few
details given in Scripture of just what Adam and Eve
did before they met the Serpent; but later writers filled
in the gaps, as Milton was to do, by imagining what
was most pleasant and by asserting that it existed at
the earliest period of human history. On the whole they
excluded from primitive life all forms of hard primitiv-
ism. Man's condition before the Fall was, when dwelt
upon in any detail, like life in the Golden Age, accounts
of which the Christian writers could get from Ovid,
if they had no text of Hesiod. There was a complete
absence of whatever an author believed to be an evil,
whether a defect of human nature or of the natural

The early Fathers paid little attention to the original
condition of man. With one exception—the Epistle to
which is later than the second century—the
name and mention of Adam and the Tree of Knowledge
do not appear in any of the patristic writings. But when
we come to a late second-century writer, Theophilus,
we find in his letter to Autolycus an account of the
life of the first human couple which is in part well
in the tradition of soft primitivism. Adam, we are told,
was created innocent and happy, had no suffering, and
knew no toil; earth, as in the Golden Age, gave him
spontaneously of her fruits and the beasts were friendly.
But at the same time man's original condition was not
intended by God to be permanent. It was meant to
be the first stage in man's continuous moral improve-
ment, an idea which was to recur in Lessing in the


eighteenth century. Whether this applied to the whole
human race or to Adam alone is not clear, but there
is a hint that Theophilus believed that history was to
exhibit an educational process in religion at least. It
should be noted that in this account Adam stands for
man in the state of childhood. That is why God forbade
him to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; he
was not yet ready to digest it. In the words of Theo-
philus, “When a child is born, it is not able to eat bread,
but is first fed on milk, and then with its advance in
years it proceeds to solid food. So it was with Adam.”
In our own time the innocence of childhood has been
repeatedly held up as a model for adults (see below),
and we find here, in this description of Adam, an
anticipation of a kind of anti-intellectualism which was
not intended by its author.

In Tertullian an additional bit of information is given
us. Man up to the time of the Deluge was a vegetarian,
for God disapproved of eating flesh. But after the
Deluge God extended the permissible diet of men on
the ground that morality demands freedom of choice:
though it was better to be a vegetarian than a carni-
vore, it was best to be free to choose one's diet. Adam
and Eve before the Fall were emotionally and even
physically children; they had neither attained the age
of reason nor even puberty. Yet Tertullian elsewhere
asserts that the human soul was created in a purely
rational condition and that our irrational faculties were
added after we had yielded to the temptation of the
Serpent. It was impossible to reconcile the idea of our
primordial juvenility with rationality and our rational-
ity with our yielding to the gullet, as he puts it, to
our appetite for sensual pleasure. But Tertullian was
not too respectful of logical consistency, and he gives
us a picture of primitive man as sexually immature,
rational, and mentally a child; and furthermore, the
image of God.

Similar confusions can be found in the Pseudo-
Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, which are now
generally believed to date from the third century.
Basically they all assert that Adam was created in the
most perfect of conditions, so perfect in fact that Saint
Peter is made to say in the Homilies that since Adam
was created in the image of God, he must have pos-
sessed foreknowledge and could not have sinned
through ignorance. But Eve on the other hand was the
very principle of evil, and it was through her that death
and war and false prophecy came into the world. This
seems to be the beginning in extant Christian literature
of the attribution to woman of whatever things were
thought evil. All primitivists agree that in the begin-
ning everything was good and, in view of Adam's
likeness to a divine model, he could not have brought
evil into existence. Elsewhere in the Clementina the
life of our primordial parents and those of several
generations of their descendants duplicate life in the
Golden Age. But upon becoming accustomed to the
free gifts of Nature, men forgot their divine benefactor
and proceeded to introduce the seeds of evil into the
world, as if they were advantageous to men. But the
Clementina do not develop this theme and pass on to
another version of our earliest historical stage. Based
upon the descent of the Sons of God to earth, where
they were married to the Daughters of Man, the story
says that they descended with the best of motives, to
show men the error of their ways. But the angels too
lost their power to regain their perfection, though they
did retain their supernatural knowledge of magic.
They, moreover, acquired the sexual appetites of man
and united, as in the Bible, with women.

All sorts of arts were invented to please their mis-
tresses, and the technological state of nature was lost.
The children of these unions, the giants, became bes-
tial, began to eat animal food—were even cannibal-
istic—and the earth, defiled by blood, bred disease
along with carnivorous and destructive beasts. The
persistent dread of sexuality which appears in so many
of the early Fathers, as contrasted with the Pagans,
finds in sexuality the cause of all human troubles. There
is nothing in Genesis, as Saint Augustine was to say,
that forbade procreation. Quite the contrary. But the
evil lay in man's sexual desires, not so much in their
satisfaction or consequences. In any event the first stage
in human history began in perfection and ended in
failure. Men, with the exception of Noah and his sons,
were wiped out by the Deluge and a new start was

It is worth pointing out, in view of later develop-
ments of the same theme, that in the Recognitions
(VIII, 48) there is a passage that suggests that some
races of men still exist in relative purity and in the
enjoyment of primeval felicity. They may be the liter-
ary ancestors of imaginary peoples who turn up in later

The notion of Adam's childlike nature is also to be
found in Clement of Alexandria (third century). It was
indeed his childlike quality which allowed him to
succumb to the wiles of the Serpent. For the Serpent
is a symbol of pleasure. The true Christian in becoming
like a child, returns to Adam's condition. This opinion
opened the way for many other primitivistic ideas,
anti-intellectualism, the docta ignorantia, and the gen-
eral depreciation of learning (see below).

In Novatian (third century), a schismatic, the diet
of primitive man is not merely confined to vegetable
foods but to the fruits of trees. Thus, being made
upright in stature, he will not have to stoop to the
ground for sustenance. The cultivation of grain and


the eating of flesh came after the Fall. For then labor
was man's lot and he needed stronger food. Hence a
carnivorous diet and toil are associated, and nothing
is made of the verse in the second chapter of Genesis
which specifically says that Adam was put into the
Garden to tend it. The emphasis is upon Genesis 3:19:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” The
dream of toilless happiness was the dream of a return
to primeval innocence and it was to take centuries
before men could introduce the notion of the dignity
of labor into common belief. Work was punishment.

A new conception was introduced into the accounts
of man's original condition by Gregory of Nyssa (late
fourth century). Gregory draws a picture of human
perfection in which there were no hints of defect.
Adam knew neither old age nor sickness nor passion;
he had no sexual intercourse, conception, parturition,
impurity, evacuation, gradual growth, disease, nor
death. He was perfectly beautiful, physically and mor-
ally, without envy or other evil emotions. The con-
tempt which the early Fathers had for everything that
is specifically human comes out strongly in this writer;
and since almost all human traits, as distinguished from
the angelic or divine, have their origin in the emotions,
Adam is depicted as a Stoic Sage, rational, free, and
apathetic. Yet envy entered the scene with the Serpent,
and Adam, in spite of his perfect rationality and his
ability to see truth face to face, yielded to that emotion
and hence brought all imaginable evils into the world.
He became mortal rather than immortal and subject
to all the ills of the flesh. Yet Gregory still thought
that we could return to the age of innocence, and his
primitivism turns into a program rather than remaining
simply a historical description. We should renounce
marriage, then agriculture, then the life of sensation,
“the wisdom of the flesh,” and follow God's command-
ments alone. We see here a similarity to the life advo-
cated by the Greek Cynics, but cynicism was not moti-
vated by a desire to expiate an inherited primordial
sin. Both Cynic and saint, however, agreed in their
contempt for civilized life and in the belief in the
possibility of rejecting it while remaining alive. This
will be treated below under Cultural Primitivism.

Gregory's brother, Saint Basil, also thought of Adam
before the Fall as a Stoic Sage. Basil's ideal was the
apathetic life, the life without emotion. He also
thought it could be regained by renunciation. The
fundamental problem to such a writer is how a per-
fectly rational being could have yielded to temptation.
Oblivious of this Basil goes so far as to assert, as Tertul-
lian had, that Adam fell through literal gluttony, “the
lust of the belly.” Why a Stoic who was enjoying the
fruits of all the trees but one should have wanted the
pleasure of an extra sensation is never explained,
though maybe that would be to ask too much. On the
contrary, Basil simply accepts the fact and urges us
to return to something approximating original happi-
ness by fasting and other forms of penance. We must
especially avoid the eating of flesh, for in a work of
the Basilian school even the beasts were not originally
carnivorous. We must, moreover, learn to do without
superfluities and to restrict ourselves to necessities, thus
becoming, like the Cynic in his wine jar, free from
wants and needing but little. Adam was free from all
wants, needed no clothes nor house, and enjoyed per-
fect health. But with the Fall even the climate deterio-

In Lactantius these themes are repeated, as they
were to be repeated throughout the later history of
Christian thought. Life in the Garden was free from
toil; man was immortal; no evil existed. But Lactantius
also refers to secular history and bases some of his ideas
upon pagan legends. In the Age of Saturn there was,
he says, a general acceptance of monotheism and char-
ity. But the Fall is analogous to the assumption of
power by Jupiter, a man full of hybris and pride.
Jupiter wished to be deified and worshipped; hence
polytheism began. Whereupon images were made and
worshipped and a general decline of morality was
initiated. Man lost his original feeling of fraternity, his
sense that we are all children of one parent, and cupid-
ity was born, the source of all the evils that were to
follow. But mankind could not have been truly virtuous
without having at least some knowledge of other possi-
bilities. In short, there is no virtue in obligatory inno-
cence. Hence the knowledge of the body was useful,
but unfortunately man made poor use of it.

In Saint Ambrose we have once more the old stories
of man's felicity based not only on Genesis but also
on the classical poets. The tone is that of soft primitiv-
ism. Ambrose is in fact such an ultraprimitivist that
he believes man to have been happiest before the
creation of Eve, in spite of Genesis 2:18: “It is not
good that man should be alone.” If he had been left
in solitude, he would not have fallen. But this must
have been a passing remark, for Ambrose could not
deny that the multiplication of the human race was
part of the divine plan. The trouble lay in Adam's
immaturity; he was not yet ready for a thorough
knowledge of the truths for which he had a craving.
God's purpose was to educate the human race step by
step. In this way the new revelation of Christianity
surpasses the Old Law. If Adam had not been so pre-
cipitate, he would not have sinned. Virtue is the over-
coming of temptation, and if the Devil entered Para-
dise at all, it must have been with God's consent. In
fact the Fall was a cryptic blessing, for it permitted
the incarnation and redemption; it was a felix culpa


(“happy fault”). That neither would have been needed
without the Fall is true; but does one praise crime for
permitting expiation?

With Ambrose's pupil, Saint Augustine, one may
terminate the patristic period. Augustine is one of those
great figures into whom streams of thought from many
sources flow, and out of whose works scores of authors
derive their fundamental notions. He was learned in
the pagan authors, the philosophers as well as the
poets; and it would require a lifetime of labor to sort
out all the sources for his many ideas. As far as human
history is concerned, Augustine thought of all events
under two aspects, the temporal and the spiritual or
allegorical. The Garden of Eden was indeed a spatio-
temporal locality in which our first parents were born
and sinned, but it is also a figure of speech symbolizing
the pleasures of the spiritual life. “For [Eden],” he says
in De Genesi contra Manicheos (Book II, Ch. 9), “may
mean either delights or pleasures or feasts, if it is
translated from Hebrew into Latin.” The trees that
were growing in the Garden signify every spiritual joy,
for they tower over the earth, that is, over matter. And
the Tree of Life planted in the center of the Garden
means “that wisdom, by which the soul ought to know
that it is placed in the center of things... so that
although it have all corporeal nature subjected to it,
yet may know that above it is God's nature, and it
should neither bend to the right, arrogating itself to
what is not, nor to the left, negligently disdaining what
is.” Similarly the Tree of Knowledge is a symbol, a
symbol of “the centrality of the soul and its ordered
integrity.” But eating of its fruit is forgetting God upon
whom we depend for all things and we swell up with
pride in our own endowment. Having committed this
sin (of pride), we then know evil, into which we have
fallen, and the good which we have abandoned. If we
now ask just what Adam was like before the Fall, we
are told, in Augustine's treatise on free will (Ch. 24),
that he was midway between wisdom and stupidity,
capable of either, like a child, but actually enjoying
neither. Yet he did not live an entirely spiritual life.
Our parents had bodies, as the animals do, but they
kept them well disciplined. Before the Fall they lived
in a state of innocence, in perfect sinlessness. When
they decided to have children, “those parts were
moved by that act of will which moves the other
members, and without the ensnaring stimulus of hot
desire, in tranquillity of soul and no loss of corporeal
integrity did the husband pour forth his seed into the
womb of his wife” (City of God, Book XIV, Ch. 26).
And just as there was no pleasure in procreation, there
was no pain in childbirth. All bodily acts were under
the control of the will and man was not forced by
emotion to do anything whatsoever.

Yet such a picture of apathetic happiness did not
include idleness, as might be expected. Adam did a
certain amount of agricultural work, but since the
climate of Eden was as perfect as the nature of its
inhabitants, the work was pleasant. Adam in tending
the Garden was simply cooperating with his Creator.
Pain, like all other evils, was a consequence of the Fall.
Not only are all sins, crimes, and misdemeanors attrib-
utable to this one act, but also all catastrophes over
which Adam could have no control: accidents of travel,
poisons, harmful insects, famines, nightmares. The only
escape from this terrestrial hell is through God's grace.
Some of these evils cannot be avoided by a man; they
are rooted in the nature of the physical universe. Yet
they were brought into existence by one man's sin. The
Pagans had usually attributed evil to one man's acts
and confined it to his life. But in Augustine evil had
cosmic relevance, though caused by one man, and was
passed on to his descendants. To explain the inheritance
of evil, if not its cosmic importance, Augustine devised
the theory that all mankind was included in Adam
as particulars are included in a universal, even as
triangles—equilateral, scalene, and isosceles—are in-
cluded in the concept of triangularity. But how a flesh
and blood human being could be thought of as a uni-
versal concept living in space and time, created and
dying at given moments, was never clarified by this

Chronological primitivism continued in the Christian
tradition, as might be expected, throughout the Middle
Ages. Like all beliefs based on a sacred text, Christian-
ity could be subjected to detailed exposition and clari-
fication, but not to fundamental criticism. Inner con-
tradictions were to be illuminated but never rejected
and when one came upon apparent inconsistencies one
could accept them with resignation as evidence of
mysteries. Hence the medieval apologists spent their
time elaborating details of life before the Fall and its
evil consequences. None could assert that human beings
were better off since that unfortunate event. And since
God could not have created anything evil, all must
have been perfect before the Serpent entered the stage.
But even his entrance was not in itself an evil, for it
gave Adam and Eve the chance to resist temptation
and remain virtuous.

To read medieval literature on this topic is to be
entertained with a variety of fantastic dreams, dreams
of a soft primitivistic life which were not exceeded
by those of any of the Pagans. Yet the delights of such
a life might seem to some readers in direct opposition
to what we have come to think of as essential to
Christianity, the utmost control of our sensual desires.
There is no need to string out expositions of such
dreams, for they are in the nature of the case largely


similar. What is more important is to see how they
kept alive the contemptus mundi (“contempt for
worldly things”) and to an extent that made most of
the outstanding figures of that period, whether they
knew it or not, enemies of what the Church was teach-
ing as basic doctrines.


Cultural primitivism came to the fore in the Greek
Cynics who apparently had no interest in appraising
contemporary life. In spite of the fundamental differ-
ences in the Greek and Latin ethical schools, they all
agreed that the end of life was personal self-sufficiency
(autarky), freedom from all claims made by the external
world upon the soul of the individual. The Platonist
found this in the life of reason, freedom from the
demands of the senses; the Aristotelian found it in the
Golden Mean, freedom from extremes; the Epicurean
found it in freedom from pain and indeed from all but
the simplest pleasures; the Stoic found it in apathy,
freedom from any emotional attachments. The empha-
sis on freedom from something or other is the essential
point; and one might reasonably conclude that the
ancient philosophers had become weary of society, of
family, of friends.

1. Cynicism. The most extreme form of autarky was
sought and found by Diogenes of Sinope, whose
teacher, if tradition is correct, was Antisthenes (ca.
444-365 B.C.), a member of the Socratic circle. Though
we have no writings of Diogenes and only scattered
fragments of dubious authenticity from his master, it
is fairly well established that their principal axiom was
that life according to nature was the best of life. “Na-
ture,” however, is one of the most ambiguous words
in either Greek, Latin, or English. It may refer to that
which distinguishes one class of things from all others,
or to the geological landscape. It may name that which
is congenital as contrasted with the unnatural and the
supernatural as well. It is both descriptive and norma-
tive. For the very reason of its invincible ambiguity
it has taken on a strong emotional color, and arguments
about the value of human behavior are based on
whether it is natural or unnatural, natural or merely
customary, instinctive or deliberate. One is always hard
put to it to know precisely what a man means when
he calls an act “unnatural” or “natural.”

To the early Cynic one of the basic meanings of the
natural was that which distinguishes it from the cus-
tomary, that is, physis vs. nomos. (Later nomos in the
sense of “law” came to be divided into the Law of
Nature and the Law of the State.) And if we read the
tradition correctly, we should have to conclude that
for Diogenes the natural was that which he could not
discard and still live. Thus we could discard clothing
and throw a rag about us to keep off the cold; we could
discard a house and creep into a wine jar; we could
discard all family ties, wives and children, and pro-
create like the animals; we could even discard cooked
meat and eat food raw. Those things that could be
discarded without committing suicide are all the con-
tributions of civilization, and it might be assumed that
mankind as it came from the hands of the Creator was
without them. As far as Diogenes was concerned, he
had only to look at the beasts to see what was natural
and what unnatural; and, looking at them, he threw
away his clothes and his cup, wrapped a length of cloth
round his body, and lapped up water like a dog. To
carry out this program to its logical consequences was
to renounce all social life whatsoever, to give up
schooling, the arts and sciences, all crafts except the
simplest (for the birds built nests and the spiders spun
webs), and to roam about in solitude.

The revolt of the Cynic was above all a revolt against
the intellect. The use of reason might seem to be
natural to man in that most of the ancients believed
rationality to be man's differentia, the one thing that
distinguished him from the animals. But it was perhaps
easier to follow one's instincts and appetites than to
reason to what ends one wished to attain. So the Cynic
deprecated any attempt to supersede instinct by learn-
ing. If one did not follow one's instincts and appetites,
one could substitute something else which would do
just as well: intuition, direct communication with rev-
elation, momentary desires. And there are grounds for
believing that this is precisely what Diogenes did.
Hence stories began to circulate about the Cynics that
seemed obscene to their contemporaries: doing “the
works of Demeter and Aphrodite” in public. If the
charge was founded, the Cynic was obscene. And if
his program eventuated in such practices, it followed
that the arts and sciences were an evil and should be
discarded. When he assumed that primeval man was
more natural than civilized man, he turned to chrono-
logical primitivism and attributed to our primordial
ancestors only those forms of behavior which were not
based on learning, or, as he would have said, on art.
The natural desires are then defined as those which
can be gratified by all men regardless of their state
of civilization: the universal, the biologically irrepres-
sible, the primary. Hence shame and modesty must be
repressed, as Aratus had said the Iron Race had re-
pressd them, for they obstruct the satisfaction of our
fundamenal drives. Cynicism was the most extreme
form of cultural primitivism.

Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics, having accepted
reason as essential to humanity, could not indulge in
this kind of moral philosophy. Reason is above all a
critical faculty, whether it is employed in logic, sci-


ence, or ethics. In Aristotle it chastens our instinctive
appetites by holding them to the mean; in Plato it
teaches us to reject the temporary for eternal goods;
in the Stoics it clarifies our duties and corrects passion-
ate and willful behavior. The Epicurean with his em-
phasis on pleasure and his dislike of “culture” never-
theless saw, by using his reason, that most pleasures
are the prelude to pain and that the avoidance of pain
is the sanest form of hedonism. Antirationalism was
an inherent part of cultural primitivism as it appeared
in pagan thought.

Occasionally Socrates was held up as an exemplar
by the Cynics. He was represented as being contented
with simple pleasures, being neither an ascetic nor a
voluptuary. He could withstand cold and hunger and
yet did not disdain the comforts of life. He was about
as self-sufficient as a man could be and yet he enjoyed
the company of friends and philosophic discussion. He
was rational and yet listened to the controlling voice
of his daimon (“guiding spirit”). The true Cynic, how-
ever, could not follow Socrates, for he could not admit
that any desire which was “natural” should be con-
trolled. He could not disapprove of incest, as Dio
Chrysostom puts it in his Discourses (X, 29-30), for
“cocks do not see anything wrong in such unions, nor
do dogs or asses, nor yet the Persians.” Diogenes even
approved of cannibalism, since some nations indulge
in it.

Perhaps the best account of the Cynic life is that
given by Lucian in his Cynicus, though it dates from
a much later period (second century A.D.). Here the
Cynic is pictured as unshorn, shirtless, barefoot, roam-
ing from place to place, sleeping alone on the hard
ground, dirty and in rags. He is proud of his economy,
for he needs no money. He has everything he requires.
He is chided for rejecting the good things that Nature
has given him—the wool of sheep, wine, oil, and honey
—but replies that like a temperate man he uses those
goods that he needs and does not gorge himself with
delicacies that are superfluous. Lucian launches into
a criticism of luxury that was to be repeated over and
over again in the course of history. “Embroidered
clothes are no warmer than others, houses with gilded
roofs keep out the rain no better; a drink out of a silver
cup—or a gold one for that matter—is no more re-
freshing, and sleep is no sweeter on an ivory bed—the
reverse in fact is true.” The enjoyment of these sup-
posed delights simply involves one in endless trouble,
whereas the simplicity of the Cynic's life is free from
worry and anxiety.

The fusion of the simple life with life in the Golden
Age was made by the essayist, Maximus of Tyre (second
century A.D.), in his question, “Whether the Cynic life
is to be preferred.” Maximus was a paradoxist and it
is doubtful that his conclusions were to be taken seri-
ously. But whether this is so or not, some people did
take them seriously. When man was created, by
Prometheus, he was “in mind approaching very near
to the gods, in body slender, erect and symmetrical,
mild of aspect, apt for handicraft, firm of step.” He
had at his disposal an environment with abundant food
such as Earth “is accustomed to bear when undisturbed
by husbandsmen....” Strife was unknown, peace
reigned, health was in every body, all was perfec-
tion itself. But then in another age men began to
divide up the earth, built walls and fortifications,
made soft clothes for their bodies, hung gold about
their necks and on their fingers, built houses, and
invented locks and keys. They molested the earth
with mining, built ships for war and foreign trade,
caught birds out of the air, slaughtered the animals,
and filled their bellies with blood, and, seeking wealth
and pleasure, they fell into poverty and misery.
Maximus gives us here a picture of man's unhappiness
which might apply to any century, whether pagan or

The remedy for this condition is obviously the simple
life. Compare the men who live naked, without a
house, without arts, who have all the earth for their
city and their household, with the men who have all
the clothes, the kind of house, the arts and contrivances
of civilization. Who is the happier? Obviously the
former. For he is free, whereas the latter is as a man
in a dark prison, weighted down with irons. He will
relieve his misery by singing, guzzling food, and sexual
indulgence. Yet he is always afraid of the consequences
and is never really free. His antithesis is the Cynic,
the man of the Golden Age, who “is living in the clear
light of day, whose hands and feet are free, who can
turn his neck in any direction, can lift his eyes to the
rising sun, look at the stars....” In short, he is Di-
ogenes. There follows a eulogy of the early Cynic
describing him as the one free man.

If then Cynicism is the natural program of life, it
must be the program followed by all who are not
corrupted by civilization. Hence it is the universal
philosophy, much as the “religion of nature” was be-
lieved to be the universal religion in the eighteenth
century. Its universality sufficed to recommend it and
in a time when cosmopolitanism was being preached,
not only by the Stoics but by the Christians as well,
the search for a universal philosophy was of paramount
interest. It was not surprising that the monks should
have been identified later on with the followers of
Diogenes and that they should have adopted as their
uniform the Cynic cloak, the tribon, a cloth wrapped
loosely about the body.

2. Epicureanism. But before entering into the


Christian version of cultural primitivism, we must say
a few words about Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the
simple life. Though this doctrine sometimes has been
interpreted as urging involvement in all sorts of pleas-
ures and the very name of its founder has become a
synonym for the ultrahedonist, the original sources of
the doctrine, as far as we have them, tone down the
note of pleasure seeking. Epicurus himself urged men
to simplify their desires and to search for the attain-
ment of only those which are necessary for the free
life. He did not refuse to partake of the pleasures that
were offered to him so long as he had to make no effort
to get them. But as a free agent, seeking autarky, he
would be content with very simple pleasures. “Bread
and water,” he says in his Third Letter (Diogenes
Laërtius, Book X, 130-31), “yield the very acme of
pleasure to a man who is really hungry and thirsty.”
And the same frugality of corporal delights was to be
paralled in the delights of the spirit. But there was
certainly no anti-intellectualism and the Epicurean
seldom went to the extremes of the Cynic in shocking
his neighbors.

The Epicurean who is best know is Lucretius (first
century B.C.). And though he is in some ways an anti-
primitivist, assenting to man's technological progress
through the discovery of fire, yet he had a streak of
hard primitivism in him which comes out when he is
relating the life of primitive man. Lucretius clearly
admires the physical strength of the first man “created
out of hard earth,” who was able to stand the cold
or heat and was not assailed by illness. He lived like
an animal, roving about, and had neither agriculture
nor cooking, but fed on acorns and berries, which were
then more plentiful than they are now. He drank water
from the streams, had no fire, no system of laws, no
settled customs. “Whatever booty or chance gave to
each,” he says (Book V, 958ff.), “that each bore off at
his own pleasure, taught to be strong and live for
himself alone. And in the woods Venus united the
bodies of lovers; for each woman was won either by
mutual desire, or by the violence of a man and his
vehement lust or at a price of acorns.” These men
chased the wild beasts with stones and heavy clubs,
lying on the naked ground when fatigued and sleeping
until dawn awoke them. But their Spartan regimen was
no preventive of lamentation; for they often met death
through encounters with wild beasts which caught and
mangled them, and they died “in wild convulsions.”
But at the same time they were not bothered with
foreign trade and navigation, which apparently most
primitivistic authors disdained, and rather than seek
food in foreign lands they let themselves die of famine.
“In those days men often took poison in ignorance;
now, better instructed, they give it to others.”

In such a passage as this Lucretius admires the vigor
of our primordial ancestors and their ability to do
without some of the superfluities of life which his
contemporaries thought of as necessities. But he is no
chronological primitivist. For he goes on to relate the
story of man's progress from savagery to civilization,
beginning with the discovery of fire. This part of the
story properly belongs to the history of the idea of
progress and we shall leave Lucretius here. But we
should point out that he regrets man's lapse from
primitive simplicity. Our greatest misfortune seems to
have been the discovery of gold, “for the majority
follow the party of the richer” (V, 1113-15). The idea
of wealth stirs men to seek position and power and
they forget that it is better to live as a subject and
in peace than as the governors of others. Men, more-
over, having discovered metals, had the means to make
weapons, and war began; Lucretius dilates upon our
departure from primitive pacifism. Yet he also praises
learning and the arts.

But best of all was the philosophy of Epicurus, which
freed men from their supernatural terrors, “set bounds
to both desire and fear,” and showed us the chief good
which we all seek. It is clear that Lucretius is ambiva-
lent about primitive conditions, admiring physical
strength and the ability to do without luxury, but also
regretting the absence of the arts that enlighten men.
He definitely rejects chronological primitivism, for the
first stage of history was far from the best. He wavers
also about the value of cultural primitivism, for the
best period was the second stage of history when men
lived a simple pastoral and agricultural life. Men then
for the most part lived at peace with one another and
only later did ever more horrible wars begin. His atti-
tude is very similar to that of Rousseau in the Second
Both men are on the whole cultural but not
chronological primitivists.

Though Lucretius' contemporary Cicero favored
antiprimitivism to primitivism, there were certain
primitivistic strains which appear in his writings. He
too uses “nature” as a catchword, without any definite
meaning, goes back to antiquity for authoritative
knowledge, looks for the natural in the child. But he
also believes in the value of racial experience, holds
up the light of nature as a guide which has been di-
verted from the true path by prejudices, and often has
recourse to the consensus gentium (“general agree-
ment”) as a criterion of truth. The Law of Nature has
been corrupted by man, who has invented statutes
which are as poisons to the body politic (De legibus
II, v, 13). None of this is systematic and it would be
misleading to try to organize such ideas into a system.

3. Stoicism. The early Stoics—Zeno, Cleanthes, and
Chrysippus—are said to have agreed with the Cynics


about some of their tenets. For instance, Zeno and
Chrysippus are said to have believed in the community
of wives and the permissibility of incest. Zeno even
is reported to have approved of cannibalism “in certain
circumstances,” and to have argued that money is
needed neither for travel nor for exchange and that
the reputation and the esteem of others are not goods.
These resemble Cynic doctrines and all seem to issue
from the initial axiom, “follow nature.”

Along with such ideas went a positive adoration of
the cosmic scene, as expressed in the Hymn to Zeus
of Cleanthes. This religious attitude towards the cosmic
order led to a contempt for man, to whom all evils
were attributed. Yet since man had been created by
Nature and therefore was created good, evil must be
due to a Fall. But how explain the fall of a perfect
man? This problem was solved by the Stoic invention
of cycles, according to which doctrine things went from
good to bad indefinitely, with a cosmic conflagration
putting an end to the world's Great Year. Since the
rise of evil is inherent in natural law, it was one of
many reasons for remaining in a state of apathy and
taking things as they come. But unfortunately for the
consistency of the system, the Stoic was more apathetic
about evil than he was about good. And among the
goods of life was the use of reason. The Stoic was not
indifferent to philosophy nor to the pleasant aspects
of civilization. His apathy was internal. He accepted
or rejected goods as they occurred. Stoicism in fact
was a doctrine with many shades of meaning, some
members of the school being closer to Cynicism than
others, and some, like Seneca, now being more, now
less “cynical.”

Seneca emphasizes the physical superiority of prim-
itive man and the advantages of the absence of the
arts and of private property. But at the same time,
the primitives were obviously not Stoics and their
resemblances to Stoics in their way of life were in-
stinctive rather than rational. Seneca was a strong
believer in the value of knowledge: it is better to know
why a certain course is right and then to pursue it
than it is to pursue it without knowing why. The
innocence of the savage, like that of the child, is good
but not so good as the conscious virtue of the Sage.
Most of this can be found in Seneca's ninetieth Moral
addressed to Lucilius, which begins with the
opinion that though life is a gift of the gods, the good
life is a gift of philosophy. The first men followed
nature, had the strongest man as their chief; but his
strength lay in his mind as well as in his body. There-
fore in the Golden Age the wisest man was the leader.
Seneca's description of such a leader would correspond
to what was later said about benevolent despots: they
were all-powerful but used their power for the benefit
of the tribe. Yet, as in so many political philosophies,
one had to admit that degeneration could set in and
the benevolent despot become a tyrant; the rule of law
had to take the place of the rule of a king.

So far Seneca says that he is following Posidonius.
But since Posidonius says that philosophy gave men
all the arts, of which Seneca has a low opinion, he
is abandoned as a guide at this point. Seneca cannot
believe that architecture and the use of iron, from both
of which only evil has resulted, could have come from
philosophy. Here his cultural primitivism shows itself
strongly. On the contrary, Seneca believes that it was
man's cunning (sagacitas) that invented these things.
The wise or philosophic man can do without houses
and rare foods. He is content with little, for most of
the things we prize are encumbrances. Seneca launches
into a typical diatribe against luxury in the vein of
the early Cynics, a diatribe which is the more amusing
in that its author was enjoying all the luxuries of the
imperial court while writing this. “Luxury has aban-
doned nature; day by day she grows greater, age after
age she has been gathering strength and making intel-
lect the minister of vice.”

Almost everything which civilized men value is
subjected to the philosopher's scorn. The only way to
reconcile the acceptance of all these evils rationally
is to see that they follow from the cosmic law, the
steady degeneration of mankind. It was probably from
Seneca that Rousseau found his source for his First
if one was needed. For Rousseau too took
as his theme the depreciation of all the arts and sci-
ences (see also Seneca's eighty-eighth Moral Epistle).
Though there are less woeful passages in Seneca, in
the end his teaching leads to despair. In each cycle
the earth is destined to senescence and decay, and all
that a man may accomplish will be in vain if he hopes
that his accomplishments will be lasting. As he puts
it in Natural Questions (III, xxx, 7-8), once the cycle
is ended, men will be created anew, “born under hap-
pier auspices, knowing naught of evil.” But their inno-
cence will endure only so long as they are new. Wick-
edness creeps in quickly.

4. Christianity and Cynicism. The cultural primi-
tivism of the Christians appears in the influence of
Cynicism upon the ideas which they held concerning
the best life. Unlike the Pagans, however, they had
a sacred text which told them at least the rudiments
of a moral philosophy. Their problem was mainly a
rationalization of the doctrine and the drawing of
inferences from its basic principles. For just as the
Pagan believed in a fundamental distinction between
nature and custom, so the Christian believed a conflict
to exist between the laws of God and those of man.
There was a further contrast found in Christianity, one


arising from the Platonistic inference that the creation
was inferior to the Creator. Nature, in every sense
except that which equated it with God, was part of
creation and, though inferior to God, yet it showed
traces of its Maker's hand. But there were other traces
of the Greek use of the term “nature” in Christianity.
Saint Paul, for instance, when he tells the Corinthians
that women should cover their heads, bases his lesson
not on Scripture but on the unnaturalness of a woman's
hair being her covering. The “teachings of Nature” also
turn up in the Epistle to the Romans, where the
Gentiles are described as doing by nature the things
that are commanded by the Law.

This became customary in the patristic period. When
one comes to a man like Tertullian, who was born a
pagan, it is not surprising to find him resorting to an
appeal to nature when he can find no scriptual support
for his teachings. He uses the argument when he is
preaching against the wearing of wreaths as deco-
rations for the head; such usage is unnatural. But he
equates the Law of Nature with the Law of God, the
Creator of nature. In general one can say that Tertul-
lian turns to nature about as often as he turns to Scrip-
ture. So Lactantius, attacking philosophy, uses a type
of epistemological primitivism, arguing that philosophy
is too recently founded a practice to be followed. True
wisdom, he maintains, must be innate, and what is
acquired must thus be rejected in favor of the innate.
In fact, if philosophy were true wisdom, then before
its appearance on earth men would have lived sine
But this is absurd, for by definition man is a
rational animal. The Carpocratians, an heretical sect,
appealed to nature in support of equalitarianism. This
heresy, which seems to have recurred in the thirteenth
century, and appears in the Roman de la Rose, sup-
ported the marital status of nature, for the community
of goods demands the community of wives. The Mar-
cionites, on the other hand, saw Nature as an evil deity
and did not contrast nature and custom, but Nature
and God. Hence that which was natural and good to
the Carpocratians was on that very account evil to the

Out of this confusion Saint Ambrose draws a con-
clusion which had definite effects. He puts this cultural
primitivism to special use in arguing that the Law of
Nature decreed that all things should be owned in
common; but wives were not among the things owned.
We have already seen that it was common among the
Pagans to oppose private property; indeed many of
them maintained that its initiation in early times was
the source of most of our ills. Now there was no basis
in the Old Testament for the belief that private prop-
erty is unnatural or that God had ordained the earth
to be owned by all in common. But certain texts of
the New Testament, such as Matthew 19 and its paral-
lels, condemned riches, though even these texts did
nothing more than advocate an extreme form of
charity. But by seeing Adam, as Saint Augustine also
was to do, as the entire human race and God's gifts
to Adam as of the earth and the fruits thereof as a
gift to all mankind, Ambrose was able to preach primi-
tive communism as a Christian doctrine. Mankind thus
becomes a corporate person bound together by the
Law of Nature. It is for that reason that charity has
the position that Saint Paul gave it. But, says Ambrose,
there is no distinction between the Law of Nature and
the Law of God. Both appear in the operation of
instinct, though sometimes we fail to follow instinct.
If we had continued to follow it as the first men did,
we should have had no need for statute. He is so
convinced of this that he is almost unique in early
writers in finding in children a model for the kind of
behavior of which he approves. The child, who is
innocent, follows the Law of Nature (lex naturae); he
is a living example of what Adam was like before the
Fall. He is, in Cicero's language, a mirror of nature
(speculum naturae). And like Adam he is neither avari-
cious, guileful, cruel, ambitious, or insolent. He is the
opposite of such things because he follows nature, not
because he has received any instruction. Saint Ambrose
has his own interpretation of the word “knowledge.”
Knowledge for him is cunning (astutia). The command-
ment not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge was the
commandment not to be cunning, thus avoiding all the
vices attendant upon its use. The good Christian then
is a man in the state of nature, childlike and unreason-
ing. Thus the same type of argument which in Cyni-
cism produced the ragged and wanton Diogenes, pro-
duced the saint in Christianity.

The cultural primitivism of the Cynic also comes
out in the Christian doctrine of the simple life. The
Cynic had rejected almost everything which civili-
zation had given mankind. But this contempt for the
worldly things of life was also shared by some of the
Christians. Justin Martyr, for instance, continued to
wear the philosopher's cloak, the tribon, after his con-
version, and it was easy for a third- or fourth-century
man to confuse the monks with the Cynics; both wore
soiled garments and carried wallet and staff. Even Saint
Basil confuses Cynics and saints from time to time, as
when he compares the ethical ideals of the Pagans and
the Christians. The teachings are highly similar but
their motivation is quite different.

Moreover some of the early Fathers did not hesitate
to use pagan as well as biblical sources in support of
their ideas. One of the best examples is Constantine's
using Vergil as a prophet, in the Fourth Eclogue, of
the birth of Christ. Another is the legend that Saint


Paul and Seneca had been friends, a legend that pro-
duced their correspondence. In fact the use of pagan
sources grew to such a point that Saint Jerome pro-
tested vigorously against it. But that did not prevent
him from listing Seneca among the saints. The similar-
ity between the two sets of doctrine was so great that
some writers explained it away as plagiarism on the
part of the pagans. So Philo Judaeus (first century A.D.)
had spoken of Plato as “Moses speaking Greek.”

It must be granted that the Christian who followed
the way of poverty and chastity, who was free inter-
nally while a slave externally, was indeed hard to distin-
guish from a Cynic or a Stoic. And when monasticism
was instituted, the resemblance was all the greater. The
hermit for that matter was not unlike Diogenes in his
wine jar; the monk in his monastery reminded one,
as the Essenes had, of the Golden Race, sharing all
things in common, having few if any wants, and living
a life of freedom from external goods. But the resem-
blance was superficial. For the Christian lived not in
dependence on himself alone, but in full dependence
on God. The pagan ascetic was not an ascetic because
he was doing penance, but because he wanted to be
free from all social ties. In reality the Cynic or Stoic
reduced his wants as a gesture of self-assertion, the
Christian as self-denial. One of the clearest examples
of the Christian motivation, and practice as well, is
in the Pseudo-Clementina (Homilies XII, vi), where
Peter says, “I eat only bread and olives and rarely
vegetables—and my wrap and cloak (tribon) are this
very thing which is thrown about me. Nor have I any
other nor need I others. For in these I have more than
enough, for my mind, looking upon all the eternal
goods over yonder, sees none of the things here below.”
With the exception of the last sentence, this might have
been said by any Cynic, by Epictetus, or even by

This difference in motivation sharply distinguishes
Christian cultural primitivism from pagan. The pagan
would be free not only of wants for material things,
but, as we have said above, from the claims of family
and friends. The Christian would be free of the former
but hardly of the latter, since brotherly love or caritas
was one of the virtues which Saint Paul had most
earnestly commended. In Saint Basil's Longer Rules it
is made clear that a communal life was to be instituted
for the monks, but within the community living was
on a par with what one had learned from pagan cul-
tural primitivists. Dress should be as simple as possible
and a single cloth ought to suffice for protection against
the weather; the rule of poverty should be strictly
enforced and it was pointed out that there is virtue
in living a hard life. Basil actually refers to Hesiod as
a teacher of this rule and offers the Cynic hero, Her
cules, as an exemplar. But he was schooled in the
classics and did not hesitate to use even the language
of the Cynics when it suited his purposes. Nor does
he refrain from the Cynic argument that desiring only
the bare necessities is in accordance with nature. But
he, as a saint, exceeds their limitations, for the Cynic
permitted the gratification of bodily needs, including
the sexual, whereas he suppresses all pleasures and is
suspicious even of good health.

The hard primitivism of the monks, regardless of its
motivation, so closely resembled that of the Cynics that
it was easy to confuse the two. But after the Dark Ages
the Cynic was forgotten and the ascetic monks stood
in his place as models of the virtuous life. In the twelfth
century we find a man like Alain of Lille writing a
Summa of the Art of Preaching in which (Ch. 25) he
refers to nature without any mention of those biblical
passages which one might expect him to quote. He
urges self-sufficiency (autarky) and indicates that it can
be attained by checking concupiscence, rejecting
pleasures, being moderate in eating and drinking, and
limiting one's wants to those that Nature demands, that
is, to sustaining life. The basis of this passage is Seneca,
not the Bible, and earlier in the same work (Ch. 5)
he almost reproduces a speech of the Cynic Antisthenes
in saying, “If you live in accordance with Nature, you
will never be poor.” But Alain had read his Latin
authors and held them in greater respect than was
customary in the earlier period of Christianity. So Peter
Cantor (twelfth century), whose Verbum abbreviatum
is a sort of anthology, sets forth not only passages such
as Luke 6:20 and Matthew 8:20, but alongside these,
long quotations from Seneca's epistles. This is a way
of bringing pagan and biblical authority into harmony.

More typically Christian was Guigo the Carthusian
(early twelfth century). Addressing his fellow monks
and extolling poverty, he recalls the hermits and their
life of hard work and abstinence. He was impressed
by the communism of the primitive church and the
sacrifice of possessions. Yet, as might be expected, the
hard primitivism of his appeal is based on the need
for self-humiliation rather than on the Law of Nature.

Another aspect of the cultural primitivism of the
Middle Ages was a strain of anti-intellectualism which,
though never dominant, was nevertheless strong. It
could not be denied that Adam fell because he wished
to know something which he had been forbidden to
learn. In Tertullian the sacrifice of rationality is no
more than any saint should be willing to make. Pope
John XIII took another stance: living in the tenth
century, he pointed out that the vicars of Peter and
his disciples had no need for pagan authorities, that
God had not chosen orators and philosophers to preach
his word, but illiterate and unpolished men. But these


words, which were only the faint echo of a philosophy,
were repeated by none other than Saint Anselm in his
De contemptu mundi. And Saint Bernard in the twelfth
century put intellectual curiosity in the same class as
the sin of Eve. Self-knowledge, he insisted, was alone
worth seeking—paradoxically enough a pagan goal—
but knowledge about external things is vain. As for that
knowledge which is necessary for the Christian life,
self-knowledge and the knowledge of God, these may
be had without technological or scientific training. In
his The Steps of Humility and Pride (II, 10) we find
him praising ignorance of both the mechanical and the
liberal arts on the ground that the Apostles were igno-
rant of both. A pure conscience and unsullied faith are
enough to win salvation.

Similar views are expressed by Helinandus, the Ven-
erable Guibertus, Hildebert, and even Pope Innocent
III. The Pope almost preached ignorance on the plea
that we are made sick by too much learning. “Let
scholars,” he says in his De contemptu mundi (I, xiii),
“scrutinize, let them investigate the heights of heaven,
the stretches of the earth, the depths of the sea, and
let them dispute over each particular and explore
whole subjects, let them spend their time in learning
and teaching. For what shall they discover from this
occupation but labor and pain and affliction of the
spirit?” And he refers back to Ecclesiastes. This is
followed by a diatribe against all the arts and sciences,
a diatribe which was to be made again in the sixteenth
century by Agrippa von Nettesheim. It was in itself
a repetition of the thoughts of the Greek Cynics.


One of the problems that confronted the primitivist
was the discovery, if possible, of the natural man—the
man who followed nature rather than custom or opin-
ion, and who was a living exemplar of the primitivistic
life. The Greeks found such persons among the savages,
both real and imaginary. The Scythians, the “blameless
Ethiopians,” the inhabitants of the Fortunate Islands,
and the Hyperboreans were fair samples of what they
found or invented. Life in the Fortunate Islands, as
in the Land beyond the North Wind, was characterized
as softly primitive: the climate was pleasant, earth gave
its fruits spontaneously, the goats, as Horace put it
(Epode XVI, lines 40ff.), came to be milked unbidden.
In short, all the delights of the Golden Age seen
through the magnifying glass of the poetic imagination
are attributed to these lands. And as for the Hyper-
boreans, they live until they have found their pleasant
life sufficient—not boring, according to Mela in his
Chorographia (III, 35-37). They then wreathe their
heads with garlands and fling themselves into the sea.
The Scythians, like most Noble Savages, lived a hard
primitivistic life. They were nomads, ate meat, and
drank mare's milk, and, though they grew fat and
indolent, they had no need for luxuries. In Herodotus
(IV, xix, 46-47) they emerge as a somewhat praise-
worthy people for they have produced at least one
sage, Anacharsis.

But in later writers they are described as very pious,
never injuring anyone, nomadic, and communistic. So
Pseudo-Scymnus, in his Orbis descriptio (A.D. 850-59),
describes them. Similar remarks are made by Strabo,
the geographer; and the tradition of thee hardy and wise
Scythian passes on into Latin in Cicero, Horace, and
Vergil. Ovid, however, who knew whereof he was
speaking, despises the savages of the Pontus, region
of the Scythians, and can find nothing good to say of
them. It is interesting that when the colonists came
to America, their views of the Noble Savage were
similarly modified by direct acquaintance. They may
have been touched by the glowing accounts of the
native American which had been made by the first
explorers, but they were quickly disillusioned.

The most famous passage in Latin literature on a
savage people is in the Germania of Tacitus. But the
Germans had already been described by Julius Caesar
in his Gallic Wars (VI, 21-23) as men who admire
chastity, live mainly on milk, cheese, and meat, have
no private property, and are noticeably brave in war.
The tradition that idealizes them begins in Seneca's
De providentia (IV, 14-15). Though Seneca admits the
harshness of the German climate, he admires the peo-
ple for walking in the path of nature. Tacitus gives
us more details. The Germans are a cattle raising peo-
ple; they have no pride in adornment; are particularly
brave; have no cities; are chaste and in general monoga-
mous, knowing little of adultery; are very hospitable;
are communistic; and have no elaborate funerals. They
are thus contrasted with the Romans. But at the same
time, they have certain weaknesses: belligerency, glut-
tony, drunkenness. In short he is describing this people
as he believes them to be and is not imagining a culture
to fit a preconceived theory.

The Christian writers were not so fond of Noble
Savages as the pagans were. After all they had tried
to convert them and had suffered directly at their
hands. Many of the twelve Apostles had been sent
beyond the frontiers of the Mediterranean Basin and
had not been welcomed by the inhabitants. Above all
the barbarians had not received the Revelation and,
though they could hardly be blamed for that, they
could not be thought of as on a par with Jews and
Christians. But sometimes one finds an early Christian
author who will see some good in them. Saint Jerome
for one used the barbarians as a standard of comparison
with Christians, excusing to some extent their injustice,


their avarice, and their general wickedness, since they
knew no better, whereas the Christians did know better
and hence were less excusable for their sins. Salvianus
(fifth century) goes a bit farther in his De gubernatione
(III, i, 2) citing the Goths as models of sexual
decency. The Romans, he says, are unchaste, the Goths
are pure, and that is precisely why God permitted them
to conquer the Romans.

The Greek Fathers also occasionally refer to the
barbarians in terms of praise. Clement of Alexandria,
for instance, admits their moral weaknesses, drunken-
ness, idolatry, belligerency, but at the same time says
that they are superior to the Christians in invention.
He even brings up the case of that preeminent Noble
Savage, Anacharsis, as a model for Christians to observe
with shame. But his point usually is that if the savage
can achieve excellence, the Christian ought to do as
well. This, as a matter of fact, was the general tendency
of Christian writers until the twelfth century when the
reading of classical texts was revived. Then one finds,
for instance, Hugh of Saint Victor writing of the
Scythians in his Excerptiones priores (V, ii) in the same
vein as his Greek forebears had done, emphasizing
Scythian virtues, their Spartan endurance, their abste-
mious diet of milk and honey, and their great corporeal
strength. By this time the Scythians had become a
legendary people.

The idea that somewhere there was a people living
in accordance with nature never died out. Though the
Christian writer could not find a real Noble Savage,
he could find a few imaginary ones. The Camerini, for
instance, have never been identified with any real tribe,
but in the Liber junioris philosophi (ca. fifth century
A.D.) we are told that they receive their food as a gift
from heaven, live in a juristic state of nature, know
no evil, do no work, and die happy at the age of one
hundred and twenty years. At the same time, along
with this mild form of cultural primitivism, the author
reports that their country abounds in precious stones,
something no pagan author had ever imagined. The
emeralds, pearls, and sapphires remind one of Saint
John's heaven.

The Camerini did not survive, as far as is known,
in medieval literature; the Brahmins who, though real,
were treated with as much fantasy as the Camerini,
became known in Western Europe as early as the
fourth century B.C. through the histories of Alexander's
wars. In the Gesta Alexandri of Pseudo-Callisthenes,
a work influenced by Christianity, the Brahmins take
the place of the Scythians. They are withdrawn from
the world like monks, live in nakedness, have neither
domestic animals, agriculture, iron, buildings, fire,
bread, wine, clothing, “nor anything pertaining to the
productive arts or to pleasure.” Their diet is vegetables,
fruits, and water. They sleep on beds of leaves. The
passage describing them ends with a dialogue between
the Brahmins and Alexander, in which the former talk
like Greek Cynics who have learned some manners.
Their aim, they say, is to live in accordance with
nature, which means to have no wealth, to withstand
the cold and the heat, to conquer oneself rather than
others. They have no love of money, of pleasure, of
fornication, murder, or wrangling. In short the main
difference between the regimen of the Brahmins and
that of Diogenes is that it is communal rather than
solitary. The story of this encounter was repeated and
with repetition grew until by the twelfth century the
Brahmins were proto-Christians.

Yet it is fair to say that medieval writers were not
enthusiastic about savages. The main function of these
writers in the history of cultural primitivism was to
keep alive the idea that it was possible to live in a
hard primitivistic fashion and at the same time be
virtuous, in fact exemplary in behavior. And it goes
without saying that such men would also be happy.
The more remote the savage, the more likely was it
that he would be virtuous. The Icelanders win the
palm, for they live on the young of their flock exclu-
sively, are clothed in skins, inhabit caves, and, as Adam
of Bremen (eleventh century) put it in his Description
of the Islands of the North,
they lead “a life holy in
its simplicity.” They ask for no more than nature yields
and are especially happy in their poverty. They own
all in common and practice charity to all. But, says
Adam, they are now all Christians.

The desire to find somewhere or to believe that
somewhere there exists a really virtuous and happy
people may have been the stimulus in the Middle Ages
to invent islands in the Atlantic where a life in ac-
cordance with nature would be lived. The Fortunate
Islands, the Earthly Paradise, the Islands of the Blessed,
Saint Brendan's Island, Perdita, the country of Prester
John (though not an island in this case)—these were
some but not all of these happy lands, far, far away.
When it was a question of the Earthly Paradise, clearly
the apocalyptic visions of early Christianity played
their role in describing these lands. But the belief in
such lands persisted up to the time of Columbus and
indeed beyond that time. In fact Columbus' account
of his third voyage almost if not quite identifies the
West Indies with the Earthly Paradise. The people, he
says, are graceful, shrewd, intelligent, and courageous.
But they are also timid, and this was a trait that made
them little to be feared. They are the best people in
the world, “so unsuspicious and so generous with what
they have, that no one who had not seen it would
believe it.” With Columbus we are at the beginning
of the Renaissance and modern views of primitivism.



By the end of the fifteenth century the explorers had
changed men's minds about the inhabitants of the
globe, having found men who had never heard of the
Gospel and who nevertheless seemed to be living in
relative decency. The invention of printing moreover
had given more men access to the accounts of these
people and when combined with all the inventions and
discoveries of the sixteenth century, permitted people
to doubt a good portion of what they had always
accepted on authority. But the proliferation of books,
which were now preserved instead of being lost, makes
it impossible to enter into details about the history of
a point of view which was widely adopted and as
widely combated. Hence what follows attempts to be
no more than a sketch of the various kinds of modern

Saint Augustine had laid it down as an outline of
history that there would be seven ages of the world,
of which the first, from Adam to Noah was the best.
This age corresponded to infancy; and Augustine drew
a parallel between the life of a human being, from
babyhood to senescence, and the life of the race. This
parallel has been used in historical accounts of civili-
zation up to our own times by a writer like Spengler
and in a modified form by Arnold Toynbee. To Augus-
tine all would end in a cosmic Sabbath corresponding
to the seventh day of Creation on which God rested.
His outline was repeated without significant variation
throughout the Middle Ages, and in modern times
vestiges of it appear in speculations on the senescence
of the world, of which the outstanding example is
Thomas Burnet's Theory of the Earth, of which the first
edition appeared in 1681. By emphasizing the decay
of all the physical forces, proved by the diminution
in size of the animals, including man, the book gave
additional reason for looking backwards with longing
to the first age when all was fresh and vigorous.

But by the end of the fourteenth century the sub-
merged social classes had revolted in England, France,
and a bit later in Germany. The famous cry of Wat

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
recalled to his listeners that social class was not in the
order established by God, and was a stimulus to return
to the original plan according to which the Creator
ordained the life of his people. One found much the
same thing in the Proto-Protestant and Protestant
movements in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
when only primitive Christianity and the words of the
Bible as “uncorrupted” by commentators were con-
sidered authoritative. Of these movements in their most
primitivistic form one might select the Adamites. From
then on the idea that the best condition of anything
was its primordial condition was often taken for
granted; and we find that there is a tradition not only
of seeking the earliest form of religion as the best, but
also the earliest form of the state, of the arts, even
of the individual.

Columbus' accounts of his voyages were given cur-
rency in the works of Peter Martyr (Pietro Martire
d'Anghiera, 1459-1526), whose Decades were fre-
quently translated and reedited. Peter Martyr gave
detailed accounts of the conduct of both the Spaniards
and the Indians; and though those of the Indians were
not always to their credit, nevertheless he kept alive
the tradition that the natives resembled the men of
the Golden Age. The islanders of Hispaniola, for in-
stance, would be well nigh perfect if only they were
Christians. They go about naked, like the Adamites,
know nothing of weights and measures, “nor of the
source of all misfortunes, money... living in the
golden age, without laws, without lying judges, without
books, satisfied with their life, and in nowise solicitous
for the future.” They are like men who were living
before the social compact and yet with no need for
government. The description is one which could well
be written by a cultural primitivist but for one partic-
ular: the Hispaniolians are ambitious and fight among
themselves. The Cubans are similarly described. They
hold the land in common and know no difference
between meum and tuum. Peter Martyr compares them
also to the men of the Golden Age, and they apparently
differ from their neighbors in Hispaniola only in that
they are naturally equitable and never injure one an-
other. If one believed this writer, and many did, one
saw that ideas that might have been thought of as
simply literary conventions or legend were in fact true.
The Indians were primitive in the concrete sense of
preserving the manners of the first age of man. They
were real people living in a state of nature.

But the idea of the Golden Age was also kept alive
in belles lettres. Italian literature of the fifteenth cen-
tury is full of allusions to that happy period, and the
following custom, started by Vergil in his Fourth
was often used to celebrate the advent of any
new ruler. All the well worn clichés about the earth
producing without toil, the community of goods, the
happiness of mankind, the beauty of men and women,
their goodness, were brought out of storage and put
into liquid verse. Sannazaro's Arcadia (1504) was a case
in point with its fairylike land, peopled by exquisite
shepherds and shepherdesses, all of whom speak in
exquisite tropes. This classical theme, derived from
Theocritus and Vergil, was reinforced by the reading
of travelers' tales. Gilbert Chinard in his L'Exotisme


américain dans la littérature française au XVIe siècle
has shown how such reports extended the imagination
of poets, even when they were using the idiom and
mythology of the ancients.

It would be impossible to list all the contributors
to the progress of modern primitivism for they survive
in too great quantity. We shall therefore confine our-
selves to mentioning a few of the most influential and
let them stand for the rest. Of these Michel de Mon-
taigne must head the list, for his Essais (1580) not only
went through several editions and were widely trans-
lated, but one of them, On the Cannibals (Book I, 31),
was hotly disputed by his seventeenth-century critics
and was thus called to the attention of men who might
not otherwise have read it.

There was, however, little in this essay that had not
been anticipated by reputable classical writers, though
they would not have been writing about American
Indians. Montaigne's main thesis is simply that civili-
zation does not improve morals. He points out that
all that is barbarous among American natives is their
strangeness, for we always think that the strange is
barbarous. These people are wild (sauvages) in the
same way that berries and flowers are wild: they are
the product of “our great and powerful mother, Na-
ture.” They are living as men lived in the Golden Age,
without trade, letters, mathematics, courts of justice,
political ranks, servitude, riches or poverty, contracts,
legacies, leisure occupations, individual kinship, cloth-
ing, agriculture, metallurgy, wine, or grain. They have
no words for lying, treason, dissimulation, avarice,
envy, belittlement, pardon, or misunderstanding. And,
quoting Vergil (Georgics I, 20), he says, “These ways
of life were first taught by Nature.” Their country
enjoys a mild climate, so that it is rare to see illness
or any defects of bodily structure. They live on the
coast and have plenty to eat. Their food is cooked
without artificial embellishments. Their houses and
clothes are simple, and they rise with the sun and eat
their single meal immediately. They pass their time
in dancing, while their youth are at the chase.

After relating their regard for women, the discourses
of their old men, and their wars against a transmontane
people, Montaigne comes to their cannibalism. He
excuses this on the ground that they eat only their
enemies, and they eat them not for sustenance but for
vengeance. (This would seem to show that they could
do things for which they had no names.) But this was
no worse than what the Portuguese were doing, which
was to bury their captives waist-deep and then shoot
at them with arrows. There is no sense in our being
horrified at their behavior if we can accept our own.
“I think,” Montaigne says, “it is more barbarous to eat
a man alive than to eat him dead, to tear to pieces
by torture and pain a body still capable of feeling, of
roasting it bit by bit, of letting it be bitten and torn
by dogs and swine”—here he cites what he had seen
during the wars of religion—“than to roast and eat
him after his decease.” In any event cannibalism is
better than our ordinary defects: treason, disloyalty,
tyranny, and cruelty.

Montaigne here is not embellishing the life of his
primitives; on the contrary he accepts all their blem-
ishes but maintains that in comparison with our own,
they are either no worse than we, or not bad at all.
The primitive thus serves as a basis of contrast, and
this service is founded on the premiss that morality
is not to be judged by an absolute standard but by the
context in which deeds are done. The argument may
not be solid if acts are considered in isolation. But
Montaigne was one of the first to think of the total
regimen of peoples and he uses his law of nature as
a standard for that. To take this attitude is to challenge
one of the traditional premisses of the Church, that the
foundation for morality lies in the Decalogue and the
words of Christ. It might also be argued that these
words are at the same time the Law of Nature and
the Law of God. But in that case the goodness of savage
life would be an accident of history and in no sense
a paradigm for civilized people. Montaigne, it should
also be noted, contributed to that side of primitivism
which looked to the animals for models of good behav-
ior, and to children.

The feeling spread that if goodness could be found
in men who were supposed to be living in a state of
nature, then one had but to revert to the Greek ideal.
The problem was to find exemplifications of that which
was natural. As a result of this search new concepts
of primitivism arose. The savage began to lose his
prestige as soon as more reports came in from, for
instance, the North American settlers. No one who had
been through the Deerfield Massacre could feel friendly
towards the Indians. They became simply a blood-
thirsty lot. Their behavior showed that they had not
received the word of God and knew nothing of the
theological virtues. Someone had to take their place.
And when the islands in the Atlantic became exhausted
as a source for primitivism, men turned to the Pacific.
When there were no more imaginary lands to be in-
habited by imaginary saints, instead of abandoning the
notion, writers turned elsewhere.

First to be endowed with the characters of the Noble
Savage, probably because of the influence of Rousseau,
was the Peasant, living a simple, pastoral life as was
lived in the pastoral period of history. The Peasant
lived close to nature in the sense of the nonartificial.
He was primitive only in degree, for after all he plowed
his fields, sowed them, reaped the harvest, bought and


sold; but he was innocent of most of the arts and
sciences and, until advanced methods of agriculture
were introduced, he could be endowed with simplicity,
innate wisdom, guilelessness, and, by the time Words-
worth came along, with poetic insight. He seemed to
be living in intimate communion with forces over
which men had no control, the wind and the rain. It
was the urban dweller who represented Custom as
opposed to Nature.

Sometimes a ballad would play on the Peasant's
shrewdness, his ingenuity, even his ability to outwit
the city man. Men of education, like Montaigne or
Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), along with some
of the Protestant mystics, insisted that learning was
a cover for a higher kind of knowledge which needed
no schooling to emerge. This was a reversion to that
form of anti-intellectualism which had appeared now
and then in the Middle Ages, when writers pointed
out that Christ had not chosen scholars for his disciples
but fishermen. Only four of the Apostles, as far as is
known, were actually fishermen, but since the occupa-
tion of only one of the others, that of Matthew (a tax
collector, publican) was known, no one could be con-
tradicted who held to this opinion.

At the same time there was a current of thought
that was definitely antipeasant. It appears, to take but
one instance, in the vogue for emblems, whose sup-
porters insisted that the deepest truths were too im-
portant to be revealed to all and sundry, that Christ
had spoken in parables not to teach the unlearned, but
to conceal his real meaning from them. The sixteenth
century had as one of its marked traits the antagonism
between learning and folly, and Erasmus was not alone
in praising the latter. Agrippa's Eulogy of the Ass was
in line with the tradition of the Wise Fool; and the
party of the Wise Fool could appeal to Saint Paul,
“the Fool in God,” or for that matter to Tertullian if
they knew about him. Montaigne was bitterly attacked
in the seventeenth century for his anti-intellectualism.

But in a time when one side of Protestantism was
emphasizing any man's ability to interpret the Bible,
the other side could only take refuge in insisting that
the truths of Scripture were too complicated, too recon-
dite, for the understanding of anyone but a scholar.
Yet just as the American Indian could be peaceful,
gentle, kind, able to do without law and judges, so the
farmer knew instinctively the essentials of religion, and
the inessentials could be reserved for those who wanted
to study them. It would be absurd to see in this no
more than an epistemological quarrel. The fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries were, as we have said, periods
of armed revolt, revolt not only against the State but
also against the Church. And once the Peasant had the
audacity to declare that he had the same rights as the
landed proprietors, the magnates, and was willing to
fight for them, the truth would be proved prag-
matically. As in the case of the Noble Savage, closer
acquaintance with the Peasant led to doubts. The
Peasant, like the urban ruffian was soon to be just as
evil as the noble, the burgess, or the small employer.

The lower classes had to wait until the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries to become fully rehabilitated.
And by that time they were on the wane, slowly rising
in the social hierarchy. But there was another candidate
for the position of primitivistic paradigm waiting in
the wings, ready to enter the stage when the cue came.
That was the Child. The Child might have come into
his own with Christianity, for the verses of Matthew
18:3, beginning, “Except ye be converted, and become
as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom
of heaven,” might have been expected to be an incen-
tive to put childhood on a pedestal. But that did not
take place and, though it may seem strange from the
modern perspective, even the cult of the infant Jesus
was relatively late (sixteenth century). It was Mon-
taigne again who first began calling attention to the
rights of the child to be a child and not an immature
man. And in Rousseau's Émile this right was accentu-
ated and developed into a theory of pedagogy. Rous-
seau did not urge men to turn into children—that was
to come in the middle of the twentieth century. But
he did insist on the evil of treating children as if they
were only potential adults. And since there was a
strong streak of anti-intellectualism in him, it was easy
to infer that he meant education to be nothing more
than allowing a child to do as he would.

It is true that Rousseau believed in a source of truth
that was nonempirical and which he called the heart.
One could always argue that, if men were simply
rational, then the present person without schooling was
defective. But this would never do, for society needed
men of all grades of intelligence, and there must be
at least a minimum of knowledge accessible to us all.
We have quoted Cicero on the Child as a speculum
This meant that one did not have to go to
the Scythians to gather information about universal
beliefs in order to discover what Nature had to say
to us. One had but to look at the Child.

This form of cultural primitivism contained within
itself an element of chronological primitivism. The
Child stood for Adam before the Fall. He was innocent
and pure and the fact that his innocence depended on
his impotence was irrelevant. He was like an angel.
In the words of John Earle in his Microcosmographie
(1628), he is “the best copy of Adam before he tasted
of Eve or the apple.... He is nature's fresh picture
newly drawn in oil which time, and much handling,
dims and defaces.” The process of growing up is de-


generation. The history of individual men reproduces
the history of the race. And if we wish to understand
what has happened to mankind since the Fall, we have
only to watch the Child as he matures. He gradually
loses his primeval innocence and innate wisdom; in
Wordsworth's words, the “shades of the prison-house
begin to close” about him. During the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries the Child loomed larger as an
exemplar; and children's rights took on greater im-
portance, not only in the eyes of educators but also
in those of moralists. The twentieth century, said Ellen
Key, was to be the “century of the child.” The Child,
she maintained, instinctively knows both what is right
and what is true. The totem of this school of thought
might well be Hans Christian Andersen's child who
saw that the Emperor was naked.

From the Savage to the Peasant to the Child would
seem a fairly steep descent, but there was one more
step to be taken, the step into animality. Diogenes the
Cynic had already taken the beasts as his model. And
it had been said that man had learned his arts from
the spider and the bird; that the beasts never went
to extremes of eating and drinking and sexuality; never
made war upon their own kind; and, according to some
writers, were not only as rational as men but more
so. During the Middle Ages when men believed that
the animals had been created for the use of mankind,
this sort of infraprimitivism was recessive. But during
the Renaissance it was revived. How seriously admir-
ation for animals was preached is questionable. But the
problem of their intelligence, as of the existence of
their souls, was very seriously debated. For if they had
souls, those souls might be immortal; and if they were
intelligent, what became of man's differentia?

To treat the beasts with kindness is modern and it
would be senseless if the creatures had no feelings, as
the Cartesians maintained. But since the development
of theories of evolution, men have tended to integrate
themselves into the whole biological order and to feel
their kinship with the other animals. This tendency
would by no means allow us to infer that animals had
rights which were equal or superior to our own. But
it would lead men to protect them from cruelty, to
study their ethology, to admire their ingenuity. One
thing above all was true of them: they could not be
called unnatural. They had developed no culture which
might lead them away from that which was “in ac-
cordance with Nature,” and even more than the Child,
the animal was a mirror of Nature's designs.

One other strain of cultural primitivism should be
mentioned, though it was short-lived. That is the strain
of epistemological feminism. At the end of the eight-
eenth century, especially among the romanticists, it
was believed that women had a kind of insight into
the truth which was lacking in man; it was called
“intuition.” Intuition usually was directed towards
character reading, the arts, and the concealed motives
of human behavior. The story of the rehabilitation of
Eve does not belong here. But it is not out of place
to recall that most of the evils which beset mankind
had been attributed to her weakness when faced with
the Serpent. Christ as the Second Adam had redeemed
mankind from the sin of the first Adam; the Blessed
Virgin as the Second Eve had been the immaculate
vessel of the Redeemer. But somehow or other woman
had to wait for some centuries to pass before the
German romanticists saw in the sex those dark enig-
matic forces which are unperceived by the more
active and rational male. This very attractive point of
view was not of long duration. With the economic and
political emancipation of women, they were given
something approaching equality and hence lost what
mystery they had previously possessed.

Chronological primitivism today has lost most of its
force. Few take the story of either the Golden Age
or prelapsarian Adam literally. Life in the Islands of
the Blessed has become simply a literary decoration,
at most a wistful dream, and there are no Noble Sav-
ages left to admire. But the theory of social evolution
as framed by nineteenth-century writers like Herbert
Spencer led some people to believe that preliterate
tribes were really primitive, as children or eggs prior
to adults or freely living individuals. According to this
view there ought to be no significant differences among
such tribes. Yet one could hardly lump together the
Polynesians and the Bantus, the Eskimos and the
Patagonians without noting important differences in
manner of life, social organization, kinship rules, sanc-
tions, in short, ideals. The use of the word “primitive”
to characterize all such people was scientifically unfor-
tunate, for there was no evidence that any civilized
group had ever literally evolved from any condition
identical with that of the so-called primitives. But
psychologically the misfortune was not so great, for
it satisfied those who had primitivistic leanings. It
induced men to look upon the arts of the Africans and
the American Indians, the South Sea Islanders and the
Eskimos, with greater sympathy and, though the
reasoning about such matters was usually weak, the
results of the reasoning were to broaden our sympathies
and understanding. The South Sea Islands were usually
described in terms of soft primitivism, but soon the
detection of yaws and elephantiasis balanced the notice
taken of beautiful women and the abundance of fruit
and flowers.

The extension of our field of aesthetic appreciation,


moreover, was helped by the opening of caves in
France and Spain, by the discovery of the rock paint-
ings of North Africa and southern Mexico. Where some
saw in these works of art the persistent need for self-
expression, others saw in them a degree of “natural-
ness” which was lacking in what came out of the
academies. Consequently there was an aesthetic move-
ment back to what was believed to be primitive; and
the drawings of children, as well as the masks and
images of the Africans or Maoris, became the inspira-
tion of artists like Paul Klee, Miró, and Picasso. Some
of these men have denied this influence, but an artist
is seldom aware of all of the forces which have been
most powerful in forming his style.

There has also been a reversion to a form of anti-
intellectualism with primitivistic overtones in the work
of both Freud and Jung. Freud was a bitter critic of
civilization and found in it the unconscious vestiges
of primitive mentality. Yet he never urged us to act
either as uncivilized human beings or as children. Jung
on the other hand with his theory of archetypes tended
towards a definite aesthetic primitivism. The arche-
types were supposed to be a limited number of univer-
sal symbols possessed by the collective unconscious.
The collective unconscious by its very nature is the
common property of all human beings, regardless of
their culture. Hence to uncover these symbols is to
see directly into the minds of all one's fellowmen. But
it was also to discover within one's psyche an identity
with the primitives. Thus we had a form of cultural
primitivism which led its proponents to interpret all
myths, all forms of scientific theory, all artistic expres-
sions of aspirations and fears, all ethical command-
ments, in a manner independent of linguistic barriers.
Since the archetypes tend to be covered with layers
of cultural accretions, they are most clearly found in
the child or the childlike adult, who are not inhibited
by convention from seeing and speaking primitive

There was also a strain of cultural primitivism in
the two outstanding forms of fascism, that of Italy and
that of Germany. Mussolini was heavily influenced by
anarchism and the theory of violence. The emphasis
upon leadership, that which was later to be called by
the Nazis the Führerprinzip, was a throwback to the
model of the horde governed by the will of a strong
man. Mussolini emphasized the need for strength and
power. Bitterly opposed to any form of humani-
tarianism, a kind of neo-Darwinism was his ideal. Man
was a superior form of ape and must remember this.

In Nazism the animal origin of mankind was even
more strongly emphasized. The motto “Blood and Soil
was supposed to indicate the continuing link between
the blond beast of today and the blond beast of primi-
tive times. Men like Ludendorff and Rosenberg even
urged a return to the religion of the Nordics, the
worship of Odin and Thor, as a fit religion for the
German people. The Nazis would readily have claimed
that civilization had detracted men from their original
condition, for it was no longer the civilization of the
Germans; it was an international style of culture. But
his primitivistic vocabulary did not prevent the Nazi
from using all the modern methods of destruction when
he made war.

Finally, it might be conceded that some forms of
extreme “progressive education” are based on primi-
tivistic postulates. If the child is to be permitted to
satisfy all his desires, however contrary to the general
peace, he will obviously act in a totally undisciplined
manner. Discipline is something imposed from outside;
it rarely, if ever, originates from within. Hence it
cannot be called “natural.” But progressive education
was also based on the hope, which had been expressed
by Rousseau, that the child would soon grow out of
its anarchic state, just as society was believed to have
done. In fact, some theories of pedagogy were derived
from transferring the Law of Recapitulation out of
embryology into sociology. It was then maintained that
the growth of the individual recapitulated the history
of the race. Hence the child must be allowed to repeat
all the stages through which mankind had grown to

Since some historians, Spengler for instance, had
utilized the basic metaphor of the life cycle as a picture
of a nation's progress, there seemed to be some evi-
dence that would justify this educational process. But
though the American child might begin his schooling
with studying the American Indian, building tepees,
dancing corn dances, making Indian costumes, none
seem to have been made to live in a cave, eat his
fellows' flesh, or hunt with stone-tipped arrows. At the
time of writing a similar movement has set in among
certain sociologists to erect the animals again as ex-
emplars of civilized behavior. Thus the “territorial
imperative” is used to interpret what civilized nations
are doing on the international scene. But it is not
always clear whether this is an interpretive description
or a program.

There always remain residues of earlier cultural
periods in every period and these tendencies may not
be of long duration. Primitivism now seems to exist
mainly in the arts, perhaps because it is no longer
reasonable to deny the benefits of scientific discovery
and technological inventions. It appears as if modern
man were committed to civilization with all its weak-
nesses and lack of picturesqueness.



A. O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism... in Antiquity
(Baltimore, 1935), gives in Greek, Latin, and English all the
passages pertinent to the subject. G. Boas, Essays on Primi-
tivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages
1948), cites English translations of similar texts for the
medieval period. For the eighteenth century, see Lois
Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress in English
Popular Literature of the Eighteenth Century
1934). Other books covering aspects of the subject: Gilbert
Chinard, L'Exotisme américain dans la littérature française
au XVIe siècle
(Paris, 1911); and idem, L'Amérique et le
rêve exotique dans la littérature française au XVIIe et au
XVIIIe siècles
(Paris, 1933); G. Boas, The Happy Beast (Bal-
timore, 1933); and idem, The Cult of Childhood (London,
1966). For the rise of the pastoral and its relations to primi-
tivism, see Walter W. Greg, Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral
(London, 1906); for primitivism in art, see Robert
J. Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Painting (New York,


[See also Allegory; Astrology; Christianity; Cosmic Fall;
Cycles; Cynicism; Education; Epicureanism; Happiness
and Pleasure; Impiety; Law, Natural; Millenarianism; Myth;
Nature; Progress; Rationality; Sin and Salvation; Skepticism;
Stoicism; Women.]