Chapter 1: The meaning of history

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014

The Mad History of the World – Michel Bounan

“… sometimes … it may be the very weakest of an author’s books that, coming in the sequel of many others, enables us at last to get hold of what underlies the whole of them—of that spinal marrow of significance that unites the work of his life into something organic and rational.”
Robert Louis Stevenson (Familiar Studies of Men and Books, “Victor Hugo’s Romances”)



“A mild and passionless disposition, want of spirit, and a crouching submissiveness … are the chief characteristics of the native Americans; and it will be long before the Europeans succeed in producing any independence of feeling in them. The inferiority of these individuals in all respects, even in regard to size, is very manifest….”
G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History

When the Amerindian peoples discovered European civilization towards the end of the 15th century, they were surely more shocked by the encounter than the adventurers who had just disembarked on their shores. The customs of the inhabitants of America, their economic and social organization, as well as their rudimentary technics, evoked among the invaders, and among the Europeans to whom the latter recounted their achievements, a “primitive” world that was not entirely unfamiliar to them. The way of life the Amerindians—their life in common—might have reminded the Europeans of their own childhood and, for those who were not unacquainted with historical or at least Biblical accounts, it might have even recalled the origins of their own civilization. What they saw, not without a certain disdain and maybe even a touch of nostalgia mixed with a little hypocritical religious sentiment, evoked an almost familiar world for them. The inhabitants of America, on the other hand, discovered a completely unfamiliar, previously unimaginable civilization. In this sense, one could say that the discovery of Europe by the Amerindians was a much more important and shocking historical event than the discovery made by a handful of Spanish sailors along the coasts of the Antilles.

First of all, the weapons of war with which the new invaders were armed astonished the peoples of America. Against populations that, for the most part, were not even familiar with the rudiments of metallurgy, the lances, pikes and crossbows, armor and helmets of the invaders were terribly effective. As for firearms—the arquebuses, muskets and primitive cannons—it is easy to imagine the terror that they provoked. And there were other things that defied the understanding of these “primitives”: metal tools, stone architecture, horses and carts capable of transporting heavy weaponry and supplies over long distances. The visitors who had landed on their coasts were undoubtedly the bearers of a fearsome knowledge.

However, we cannot really say that the Amerindian peoples were totally intimidated by the technics of the invaders: “Will not my arrow kill? I do not need your guns…. Now go back to the country from whence you came. We do not want your presents, and we do not want you to come into our country”, declared a Pawnee chief in one of the first encounters of his people with the Europeans.1 And as for the knowledge of the Europeans and the education that was used to transmit it, they soon rejected these things, too. In the early 18th century, the Council of the Six Nations refused to send their children to the schools of the invaders: “… several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us … they were totally good for nothing.”2 Furthermore, the Amerindian peoples were quick to recognize the devastation that European technics and knowledge caused: “… they deface [the earth] with their buildings and their refuse. That nation is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path.”3

Other peculiarities, even more disturbing, seemed to characterize the recent arrivals. First of all, their insatiable greed shocked peoples who were unacquainted with the use of money: “… the love of possession is a disease with them”, was the diagnosis of a Sioux warrior during a gold rush.4 These people did not kill animals to eat them, they killed them for “the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy”.5 Similarly, their propensity to lie, their deceitfulness and their repeated betrayals testified to an extraordinary lack of dignity: “They have no honesty”, declared a Canadian Indian: “They are an unsightly beast. Their faces are twisted from the appearance of honest men”.6 Likewise with respect to their gratuitous cruelty: the white men sometimes kill “merely for the sake of killing”.7

The Amerindian peoples were also surprised at the obstinate devotion shown by the invaders to hard work, their industrious frenzy more worthy of insects and, above all, their unwavering determination to inculcate this extravagant madness in everyone else: “… you tell us to work for a living…. You white men can work if you want to. We do not interfere with you, and again you say, why do you not become civilized? We do not want your civilization!”8 And again: “My young men shall never work. Men who work cannot dream; and wisdom comes to us in dreams.”9

To top it all off, these greedy, cruel, lying and frantically industrious Europeans attempted to inculcate the Indians with a kind of religion—in whose name, on the other hand, they ceaselessly fought against them—a religion that, in the view of the Amerindians, “makes the straight and plain path trod by our fathers, dark and dreary”.10

Nonetheless, despite the disdain they showed for the knowledge of the invaders and for their shocking madness, it was their social and political organization, more than any other factor, which the Amerindians found to be most contemptible. In his Essays, Michel de Montaigne recounts the visit of three Amerindians, brought to Rouen during the reign of Charles IX, who expressed their surprise at the existence among their hosts of “men full and crammed with all manner of commodities”, while other men “were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty”. It seemed very strange to them that these needy persons “were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses”. A century later, a chief of the Hurons told the Baron de Lahontan: “I am Master of my own Body, I have the absolute disposal of my self, I do what I please, I am the first and the last of my Nation, I fear no Man, and I depend only on the Great Spirit: Whereas thy Body, as well as thy Soul, are doom’d to a dependence on thy great Captain; thy Vice-Roy disposes of thee; thou hast not the liberty of doing what thou hast a mind to; thou art afraid of Robbers, false Witnesses, Assassins, etc. and thou dependest upon an infinity of Persons whose Places have rais’d ‘em above thee. Is it true, or not?”11 And around the same time: “We believe, further, that you are also incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves, all masters and grand captains though you may appear.”12 Much later, a Sioux warrior would observe: “These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take tithes from the poor and the weak to support the rich and those who rule.”13

This is what the attitudes of this strange people who had just arrived on their coasts at the end of the 15th century looked like to the Amerindians: a considerable technical genius, but one that was for the most part useless and often harmful; a hitherto unknown mental derangement, associated with the mania for wealth and accumulation; a sadistic cruelty and a frequent inclination to lie; and to top it all off, an outlandish social organization based on work, one that was scandalously unequal and so viscerally opposed to freedom that everyone was the slave of a master who was himself nothing but a slave.

These technical feats, these aberrant mental conditions and this social organization are clearly united; it has always been the case in the history of human civilization that individual consciousness and social organization are united. But the way they are related to each other can be addressed from different angles, and the points of view that arise from this observation—which we shall examine here—merit further scrutiny.

The encounter between the old America, which seems not to have changed since time immemorial, and the new Europe, which had scarcely a few centuries of existence behind it, might at first sight appear to be an extreme case insofar as we have here related, for the most part, the customs and declarations of the Amerindians of the Great Plains of the North.

The brutal confrontation between the new Europe and the old civilizations, however, had also taken place, of course, and assumed the form of the same kind of confrontations and given rise to the same kinds of opinions almost from one end of the world to the other. These opinions were recorded not only in North America, but also in large parts of South America, in the islands of the Pacific, in almost all of Indonesia, from Borneo to Sulawesi, as well as among the peoples of Oceania, among the Inuit of the Arctic regions, and among the Siberians, as soon as the Europeans accosted them with their weapons and their technologies, their neuroses and their ideologies, their cult of work and generalized servitude, and their system of organization and social oppression. Later, the exploitation of Central Africa and the discovery of peoples who were not in contact with the Arab-Moslem civilization led to the same kinds of confrontations and the same mutual appraisals.

All of these older social formations were defeated and, for the most part, exterminated. There is nothing left of their civilizations, which were destroyed, except small enclaves—preserved for the benefit of ethnologists—within the immense European colony that the world has become. Modern weapons and technics made short work of these civilizations that were incapable of opposing them. Alcohol and drugs shattered the last pockets of resistance. The victory of Europe was therefore complete, just as the victory of Roman armies and technologies was complete fifteen centuries before when the latter were launched against all of Europe, the Berbers of Africa and the peoples of the Middle East.

The European colonizers also encountered other peoples, however, whose civilizations were deemed to be more “advanced” and more similar to their own than those of the Amerindians of North America, the Aborigines of Australia or the Pygmies of Central Africa. And there is no doubt that these civilizations had a long and distinguished past to their credit, with regard to science and technology, as well as with regard to individual neuroses and the elaboration of metaphysical systems, despotism and servitude.

On the American continent, the invaders also discovered great empires in Central America and throughout the Andes: farmers and herdsmen, builders of roads, palaces and temples. The religion of these peoples was not an individual affair, but was directed by a corps of priestly functionaries, in accordance with a very strict liturgical calendar. The purpose of this religion was to protect them against terrifying demonic powers that were exorcized by means of animal and human sacrifices. Furthermore, the people of these empires lived under hereditary monarchies. They were divided into rigid social classes, just as in Europe, and were ruled by a rigidly centralized system organized around a semi-divine monarch.

Previously, and in other regimes throughout the world, Europeans had the opportunity to become acquainted with gigantic empires, especially in the Middle East and Asia, empires that they quickly confronted in order to subject them to their own laws. In these empires, works in stone, metal, glass and textiles had reached very high levels of excellence long before they did in Europe. Their sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy, were more ancient and exhibited an exceptional degree of development. The social organization of these peoples was also based on a rigid system of hierarchical social classes; commerce flourished and, here and there, the slave trade was practiced, sometimes only to provide for the insatiable sexual needs of their ruling classes.

All of these empires, in America, Asia and the Middle East, had traversed the same road of “progress” as Europe, both with regard to their technological development as well as their customs and social organization. Nonetheless, some factor appears to have blocked their further progress at a particular juncture, and even frozen it at a stable point of equilibrium. This stasis was so pervasive that all of them were forced to capitulate to European military power in the 19th century.

For Europe had continued to follow the road of progress. There is no doubt that Europe would have been incapable of victoriously confronting China or the Arab-Moslem power during the period when it was seizing the Amerindian continent, but from then on nothing could oppose its progress in any domain—technological, moral, political—and it was able to subjugate the entire world and force it to accept its forms of existence, knowledge and life.

After long-range artillery had proven its effectiveness against China and the Ottoman Empire, other, even more sophisticated, weapons defeated those peoples who attempted to compensate for their backwardness in the military and technological fields. An industrial power that had become a veritable Leviathan completely transformed the face of the earth and the life of its inhabitants, who from then on could travel from one point to another in their countries, and even across the entire planet, in a few hours, without having any idea of what was happening in these places, which is identical everywhere insofar as the instantaneous transmission of information and orders now ensures the homogeneity of the world.

In other domains in which it had already become proficient, Europe continued on its path of progress. In view of the fact that the Europeans had already begun to examine “reason” in all of its dimensions, to divinize it and even to transform it into a religion, what explains all the madness that so shocked the peoples of the ancient civilizations? In order to get some idea of this problem, you do not even have to quote the speeches of the indigenous peoples of America or anywhere else. Its own psychiatrists, although thoroughly immersed in a culture that by no means favors the understanding of these questions, acknowledge that today, in Europe and its former overseas colonies, one out of every four adults indisputably suffers from some kind of mental disorder. And what can we say about the other three? Are any psychiatrists expressing their concern about the fact that so many people continue to buy and accumulate in their homes totally useless objects as defensive shields against the emptiness of their lives? Or even more disturbingly, since they are inveterate fantasists, the fact that most of our contemporaries identify with social roles that are considered to be noble and exalting, but which must nonetheless be incessantly renewed in order to compensate in an illusory way for their absolute submission to a system of oppression that is now universal?

For tyranny and social injustice have also been formidably exacerbated. The beggars, “lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty”, of the times of Montaigne have multiplied to such an extent in our time that a billion human beings do not have enough to eat and twenty thousand children die each day from malnutrition. Approximately two billion people now live in overcrowded slums, while a large proportion of the others survives in unsanitary housing, eats contaminated ersatz food and breathes polluted air. The new tyrannies that rule over these populations—which are themselves tyrannized by the implacable laws of a globalized economy—now possess astounding resources for killing not just the enemies of their nations, but also their own subjects, for the purpose of preventing any possible insubordination or simply to accuse those who still dare to resist their designs of perpetrating hideous crimes. The alleged “religious conflicts”, which are in their own way even more deadly than those of the 16th century, are also orchestrated to justify or pave the way for these unusual massacres.

Thus, Europe has continued down its slope, dragging the whole world along with it to participate in its unique history and increasingly detaching the world’s populations from that way of life, life in society, that was formerly observed in America, the Pacific islands and the immense regions that were previously unacquainted with European ways. The peoples of these territories were decimated and some of the survivors were sometimes put on display in “reservations”, which are actually human zoos, ethnological parks. The rest of the world followed Europe in its technological adventure, its peculiar madness, and its form of social organization.

The recitation of these devastations, these bloodbaths, and these disasters does not have the purpose of arousing feelings of either nostalgia or shame; and much less to inaugurate a debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages that this history has brought. First of all, it is intended to respond to questions that seem very timely and urgent for us to pose at the present moment. What was the initial impulse that one day led Europe to undergo this unique transformation and force the rest of the world to follow in its footsteps at gunpoint? What is the real nature of this power? By means of what mediations was it decided upon to engage in this process and these practices?

No one cares about the responses to these questions that the exterminated peoples would have given, or about the responses of those imperial civilizations that were more recently forced to submit to a way of life that they had not chosen. Instead, it is the Europeans—from the very moment when they issued forth from their territory in search of gold and slaves—who have always known how to provide excellent philosophical and moral reasons to explain and justify their exemplary adventure.

Today we laugh at the priests who accompanied the European conquerors and claimed to bring the Christian “good news” to the savages, while they legitimized massacre and pillage. Since then, however, other ideologists have in their own ways found a way to justify the path chosen by Europe—and also to some extent by the great imperial civilizations—convinced that “progress” of this kind was necessary and beneficial for all of humanity. While some have imagined that on the distant horizon of this path we will find “supreme reason”, the “absolute idea”, or the “omega point” of an ideal in their image and semblance or the perfect social organization, all, without exception, have proclaimed the necessity and the exemplary nature of this history. The great march of humanity towards its realization had to necessarily, without any excuses, follow the program such as it had been conceived in Europe centuries ago. Do we not refer to the ancient nomadic civilizations as “childlike peoples”? Doesn’t their destiny—theological, philosophical or political—assign to them a future that “is on the path towards development”, so as to finally be transformed into “developed”, fully adult peoples like the Europeans?

This idolatry of progress is, even today, so widespread and so much taken for granted that it is almost impossible to display the slightest trace of concern about, or even a certain distaste for, the most recent products of our modern civilization without falling under the suspicion, as if it was a crime or mental illness, of being “against progress” or an advocate of “anarcho-primitivism”; without having to hear about the danger of a regression “to savagery” that literature, including scientific literature, has always contrived to represent under an openly bestial or grotesque aspect, idealized by the smug pretentiousness of a ruthless Europe.

Some people—granted, in sectors that still represent a very small minority—are beginning to worry about the dangerous consequences of modern technology, the accelerated extinction of species, the new epidemics, and the new terrorist methods for subjugating populations. Sometimes, these same people dare to speak of degeneration and decline and wistfully contemplate a past that seems to them to be almost idyllic.

Most of these nostalgic people do not question the historic benefit of this “progress” chosen by Europe so long ago and imposed on the rest of the world at gunpoint. They only think that this benefit, after having remained beneficial for centuries and after having lifted humanity out of its initial barbarism, all of a sudden ceased to be beneficial, quite recently, maybe in the 18th century, and maybe even later. They do not conceal their sympathies—tinged with a trace of melancholy—for those peasants of the days of yore, who farmed their little parcels of land and tended their cattle, or for the lords who still preserved their taste for war and for the good life. The real peasant—who has always been the enemy of the rodents and the homeless, a zealous proprietor full of envy, idolatry and suspicion—of the times prior to this supposed “degeneration” never appears in their bucolic reveries. Nor does the great lord of the Crusades and the massacres of the infidels, the wars of religion and the conquest of the “new world”, nor those persons who one fine day were converted to the cause of “progress” and the latest version of “reason”, before lining up for the guillotine the unfortunates who had not understood quickly enough the new requirements of this “progress” and this “reason”.

Others situate the beginning of this “degeneration” in an even more distant epoch, after which European civilization entered into decline. They refer to a certain “golden age”, whose characteristics coincide with those of the old imperial civilizations, with their agricultural and artisanal technologies, their hierarchical and caste systems and, finally, their religions or metaphysics, all of them in conformance with that form of social organization. This reference, although historical in the strict sense of the word, situates the “degeneration” at “the beginning of time”. It would correspond to a “primordial” civilization that had later degraded over the course of the millennia, one that survived to a large extent in the Orient and which still exists, although this is not so evident when viewed from the outside, in today’s Arab-Moslem civilizations, which are inspired by the most important features of this depiction. But this civilization, which is claimed to be primordial, is nothing but the civilization of the old imperial organizations of India and China, Egypt and pre-Columbian Mexico, which began to follow the course of historical progress and then halted their progress at a certain stage of development.

The most extreme devotees of this kind of nostalgia confess their inclination for a pastoral lifestyle, similar to that of the Amerindians of North America, one that is much more archaic, of course, than the epoch in which others situate their golden age. But these people do not ask why the European peoples—who once possessed their own great imperial civilizations—all of a sudden abandoned this state of grace in order to plunge into the great adventure of technological development at the cost of their own freedom. Nor do they ask just how it would be possible to recover what they think has been lost and to collectively renounce once and for all a civilization that has not only transformed the world, but also men in their aspirations and preferences.

In order to account for this puzzling advance that characterized the great empires of America and Asia, and then also the European peoples, some have evoked a characteristic human passion, which tends to create new tools incessantly for the purpose of transforming both the world and humans themselves, to create “History”. Progress is thus satisfactorily explained by the presence of the “virtue of progress”, which made it inevitable. It must be pointed out, however, that this human passion was never a trait of numerous peoples—Amerindians, Australians, Asians, Africans—who only yielded to its charms at gunpoint. They lived, since time immemorial, immobilized with their simple technics and their nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles, apparently not without consciousness or intelligence, although unaware of the omega point of their future. Why didn’t these people plow their hunting territories, or build roads, or explore their coasts in search of gold and slaves?

Almost identical questions arise with respect to the great imperial civilizations, which had long followed the “main road of history”, invented sciences and technologies, and created cities and empires. What force of inertia all of a sudden stood in the way of the further unfolding of this process, until the power of European arms forced them, as well, to once again resume the forward march of “progress”?

What happened to Europe? Its past, after all, is not so different from that of the Amerindians of North America or that of the Aborigines of Australia. At a certain moment, it reached the technological level of China and the Islamic civilization, which had long exhibited supremacy over Europe in this and other domains. And it continued its advance until the conquest of space, organ transplants, the nuclear industry, and genetic manipulation; and it has forced the entire world to follow this same road. Why was this inertial force never manifested here, either at the beginning or anywhere along the course of Europe’s development?

  • 1 George Bird Grinnell, Pawnee Hero-Stories and Folk Tales, Forest and Stream Publishing Company, New York, 1889.
  • 2 Samuel Gardner Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America: From Its First Discovery, 11th Edition, Sanborn, Carter & Bazin, Boston, 1857, p. 41.
  • 3 Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, To Serve the Devil: Natives and Slaves, Vol. I, Vintage Books, New York, 1971, pp. 3-4.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 4.
  • 5 Black Elk Speaks (available online in March 2014 at:
  • 6 George Francis Gillman Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, University of Toronto, Toronto, 1961, pp. 289-290.
  • 7 “Slaughtered for the Hide”, Harper’s Weekly, December 12, 1874, p. 1022. Cited at:
  • 8 T. C. McLuhan, ed., Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1971, p. 67.
  • 9 Smohalla, of the Nez Perce tribe of the American Northwest, founder of the “Dreamer Religion” in the 19th century. See Jim Mason, An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature, Lantern Books, New York, 2005, p. 50.
  • 10 T. C. McLuhan, op. cit., p. 63.
  • 11 Lahontan’s “New Voyages to North America”, Vol. II, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, LL.D., A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1905, p. 554.
  • 12 Father Chrestien Le Clercq, New Relation of Gaspesia. With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians, tr. William F. Ganong, The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1910, p. 105.
  • 13 Jacobs and Landau, op. cit., p. 4.