Friday, March 21, 2008

Tacitus and Political Correctness in the Roman Empire.

I came across this piece by John M. Ellis on the origins of the "noble savage myth". While Rousseau usually gets the credit/blame for the creation of the cult of the primitive, Mr. Ellis points to a much earlier source-one that should have occurred to me but didn't-Germania which I had always taken at more or less face value. Time for me to go reread Tacitus with a more jaundiced eye.

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany."

Nor was sexism one of their vices, for they had a high regard for the opinions of women and treated them with the utmost respect: "They do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies." In fact, these Germanic tribes, though primitive, exhibited high moral character, a point Tacitus stresses repeatedly, with remarks such as "They live uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitements of banquets" or "No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to date' to seduce and be seduced" or "Clandestine love letters are unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is extremely rare." Tacitus' Germans were also brave, honest ... and just about anything else one could wish.

Tacitus sums up his idyllic picture by saying that "good morality is more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere." That is, of course, because the Germans were a naturally good people who did not need laws to keep their behavior in check. If Tacitus had been speaking about a tribe that had vanished without a trace, we might simply regret that we had never encountered such a splendid and admirable people. Unfortunately, we actually know a great deal more about those Germans than Tacitus did, and they do not seem so admirable in other recorded accounts. Moreover, Tacitus never actually traveled among them. What is going on here?

That vague word elsewhere in Tacitus' summary, suggesting as it does an unspecified place where people must be governed by laws to keep their depravity in check, gives the game away. It refers, of course, to Tacitus' own society, to the first world of the time: imperial Rome. What Tacitus really has on his mind is less the virtue of Germans than the corruptness of civilized Rome--its sexual depravity, greed, and obsession with rank and conquest.

We are surely familiar with this situation in our own time. A sophisticated man of letters, disillusioned and even embittered by the flaws, inconsistencies, and retrogressions of a great civilization, deludes himself that a world of primitive innocence and natural goodness exists in peoples who are untouched by the advances of that civilization. So intense are his hostile feelings toward his own society that he is unable to see the one he compares it to with any degree of realism: whatever its actual qualities, it is endowed with all of the human values that he misses in his own. Consequently, he sees his own culture not as an improvement on brutish natural human behavior but as a departure from a state of natural goodness. This recurring Western fantasy runs from Tacitus' idealized Germans all the way to such twentieth-century versions as Margaret Mead's sentimentalized Samoans and ultimately to one of the most far-reaching outbreaks of this illusion--the political correctness of our own day.

1 comment:

admiral burns said...

Jeremiah Johnson, Dances With Wolves, A Man Called Horse. Without this concept of the Noble Savage, we would not have these movies. I am sure I am missing others.
There is also the idea of the Noble Savage who walks among us. This dates back to the Epoch of Gilgimesh with Inkido. From him we get Tanto, Chubacka and Crocadile Dundee.