Depotism and Individualism, Hand in Hand


At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the State, by Eli Sagan, New York: Knopf, 406 pages, $19.95

Eli Sagan's At the Dawn of Tyranny is an absorbing treatment of one of the most important events in all human history: the simultaneous rise of political despotism on the one hand and individualism on the other. In ancient times that event—repeated over and over at all the great meeting points of peoples, in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, etc.—signalized the loosening at last of the absolute power of kinship authority over individual lives. The rise of political power in the hands of the chief meant for the first time a power in competition, potential or actual, with the clan leader and his assembled council of house-fathers.

The mere fact of the new power, involving as it did individuals under the power, represented some degree of liberation of at least a few individuals from strict kinship role alone, and thus the primordial rise of individualism—in some places, at different times, and in varying degrees of completeness. As both the chief's political power and the consequent limits upon the clan's authority widened, kinship organization diminished accordingly. As Sagan emphasizes, when this functional relationship between the rise of the state and individualism reached a certain point, significant changes of an economic,religious, and social character became evident. Liberations, as it were, of role, function, and creativity followed the first stages of individual liberation from clan leader.

Sagan shows us how the power of the state over kinship, and indeed other prototypical forms of social grouping, actually widens and intensifies characteristically in democracies, whether of the sort exemplified by totalitarian "people's republics" or by pluralist representative governments. What Tocqueville gave magisterial account of in his Democracy in America—that is, the vastly greater potential power inherent in government of, by, and for the people compared with the relatively slender power resources that even the most absolute of monarchies can claim—has been a recurrent phenomenon for a long time in the oscillations of political history. The popular element, the real or pretended fawning upon the people occasionally, gave to the Caesars powers far greater than those of the more austere empires and monarchies.

Sagan limits himself for substantive material to the preliterate societies of Buganda, Hawaii, and Tahiti. In this he follows conventional anthropological preference for the preliterate or "primitive" over the historical and civilized, thus perpetuating an unfortunate gulf, now more than two centuries old in Western social thought. Judging from text and bibliography, he seems not to be aware of, or at least interested in, the remarkably cognate events and processes that we can draw out of the epics, sagas, and poems of some of the most ancient of European and Asian peoples, among them the Greeks and Romans. They too, and with a comparative wealth of documentation, underwent at the dawn of history the kinds of centralization of power and individuation of social structure that Sagan writes of with respect to nonliterate peoples. Yet the latter present formidable problems, at best, in the reconstruction of history.

That is why anthropologists have had to rely so often upon psychological stages, processes, and causes in the peoples they have been studying for well over a century. The same kind of intuition and ratiocination that the makers of 18th-century "natural" and "conjectural" histories employed have been employed perforce by a great many evolutionary anthropologists in their reconstructions of the stages and epochs assertedly undergone by countless primitive peoples, all devoid of written records. And that is why, too, such peoples—whose actual existences on earth are presumptively at least as long as the existences of Europeans, Asians, etc.—become "our contemporary ancestors." And that is why, finally, we have the many and variant evolutionary panoramas of Turgot, Condorcet, Comte, Bachofen, Tylor, Marx and Engels, Morgan, Spencer, Bagehot, and Ward among the old boys and in our day of White, Murdock, Parsons, Lenski, Bellah, and the ubiquitous and ever-devout Marxists among the new boys, all competing, all insisting, in virtually the same words: This alone is the only true evolution of society; come to me.

But the esthetic in us can sometimes be stimulated by superior artistry here and there among the lunges made for the real and authoritative science of man. Sagan's treatment of his primitives is exemplary in this respect. He seems to me to take us just as far, and as excitingly, on his journey into the past and imagined past as anyone I've read.

As I noted above, there is common recourse in this type of endeavor to the psychological, given the lack of historical records of consequence. Sagan treats us to psychoanalytic states, processes, and causes. He does this in a generally sophisticated way; he is never crudely deterministic; he has a sense of limits. But it is entirely characteristic of a tradition going back to Comte that he nevertheless sees psychological states and changes in the individual—as he is observed chiefly in psychiatric clinics—as the motor causes of social and historical developments. And he comes very close indeed to that most favored of all concepts, or myths, in social evolutionary writ: Phylogeny recapitulates Ontogeny. That is, the evolution of the group may essentially be seen in terms of the development of the individual psyche.

I like the book. It has been years since I've seen anything in this canon as sprightly and charming. It makes the best of reading. But if readers desire to go beyond the "as if" school, seductive as it is in the esthetic and psychogenic realms, to some actual, observed, and well-recorded instances of the rise of political despotism and the accompanying emergence of individualism, together with all the cultural trimmings, I recommend the glory that was Greece and greatness that was Rome; that is, I recommend these among historical nations whose beginnings were attended by song and poetry and, shortly, by historians like Hecateus and Herodotus, not to overlook dramatists like Euripides and Sophocles.

From these historical peoples and ages we shall discover that, fundamental to the events and processes that Sagan teases out of the psyche, is the phenomenon of war. War, for good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice, has over and over in human history been the decisive cause of the elevation of chief over clan elder, of individualism over strict conformity, and of the secular over the sacred. Not the sons' lust for mother but rather their lust for war is probably the best metaphor to epitomize the sons' challenge of paternal authority. To this day, it is surprising how much combined release, stimulation, freedom, as well as community lie in war.

Robert Nisbet's Conservatism: Dream and Reality will be published this spring.