Chapter 2: Verbum dimissum

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“We may, therefore, rest assured that among her productions nature has not really formed either classes, orders, families, genera or constant species, but only individuals who succeed one another and resemble those from which they sprung.”
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy

We would condemn ourselves to understanding nothing about the consciousness of the primitive peoples if we do not first of all grasp the fact that neither the Amerindians, nor the Africans, nor the inhabitants of Oceania, nor undoubtedly the inhabitants of archaic Europe, are mere individuals in the modern sense of the word. They perceive themselves, before anything else, as members of a kinship group, a social group, a living universe, and the cosmos. This knowledge, of course, seems strange to us but, on the one hand, it is, for most of us, purely speculative, external to our innermost nature and, on the other hand, as a result of this external quality, it is perceived as a limitation of our autonomy, of our individual freedom. Among the primitive peoples, however, this knowledge is intimately experienced and constitutes an almost infinite expansion of their existence. The “primitive” recognizes himself as the totality of the whole in which he participates.

This consciousness endured for a very long time in all parts of the world and did not completely disappear until quite recently. The circumstances surrounding the death of Socrates, as related by Plato, are already practically incomprehensible to the modern spirit. Unjustly condemned to death by the tribunal of Athens—and fully aware of the iniquity of this death sentence—he refused to escape in order not to betray the laws of Athens, respect for which he considered to be more important, for himself, than his mere individuality. For he was not just the individual Socrates; he was also an Athenian and a Greek. Even more importantly, he felt that he was invested with a universal mission that he perceived through three sources: the Oracle at Delphi, the “remembrance” of his own essence, and the direct communication of his “inner voice”. A member of a social community, he was also a member of humanity and the universe. It was under the aegis of these factors that he claimed to “act as the midwife” of the essential truth of each and every one of his contemporaries, which is beyond individuality and is thus the same for all.

Hegel, for whom ancient Greece is “the focus of light in history”, points out that “to the Greek, the idea of the fatherland, the state, was the invisible, the higher reality for which he labored and his constant motive”. The case of Greece is by no means unique. If the ancient Greek perceived himself not only as an individual, but above all as an Athenian, as a Hellene, as a member of a living universe and, for that very reason, as the interlocutor of the gods, the Amerindian of North America is not just a mere individual, either, foreign to the world that surrounds him. He is, first of all, a Sioux or an Algonquin, and beyond that, an Indian. Above all, however, he is a member of nature and the cosmos, in which he participates and of which he is fully responsible by way of his intimate communication with the “Great Spirit”.

Among all the primitive peoples observed by the anthropologists, one encounters these same characteristics, in Central Africa as well as in the islands of Oceania. And it is more than likely that they also prevailed in ancient Europe. Who can be surprised by this? A consciousness of this kind belongs to every man who comes into the world. Only a modern consciousness, forged in very different conditions from those of the primitive world, can believe that collective life is the sum of individual lives associated in a kind of “social contract”. In earliest infancy, life appears in the first stage in the form of the mother, a family, and a tribe. And the child does not distinguish his own life as differentiated from the life of the world. It is only later that the consciousness of his individuality arises in him and, in certain social conditions, so, too, does the total or partial loss of his “childlike” consciousness.

In the imperial civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mexico or Peru, China or India, civilizations that came to a halt during the course of their development and, for that reason, were vulnerable to those that continued on the path of development (first, the Roman civilization, and then European colonization), one also finds the principles of unitary consciousness, although it is not intimately experienced, but rather perceived as external to the individual, theorized and concentrated in the social strata of the political and religious powers. For the first time in history, religion testified to what had been lost. It provided an external testimony, but a real one nonetheless. It manifested, in the form of a religious phenomenon, the break with unitary consciousness, but its content translated the information of a real experience. And to the extent that the political structures and the foundations of knowledge sought to base themselves on this religion, they also reflected this consciousness, although in a caricatural form.

Thus, a Chinese Mandarin of the imperial epoch—like the priest of ancient Egypt or the Brahman of Dakshinapatha—knows that he is an element of an organized social and cosmic totality. And this totality is similar, in its structure and dynamic, to the one that he believes he can recognize in himself, both in his physical make-up as well as his emotional and intellectual dispositions. In this way he discovers affinities between each element of his organism, the social structure and his world, the cycle of the seasons and the organization of universal space.1

To different degrees and according to various modalities, all religions testify to these correspondences between the “earth” and “heaven”, between man and the divine. All have justified the social organization of their world by reference to the organization of the Universe. Sometimes, however, they asserted that it was necessary, in order to reach the heart of this knowledge, and in order to unveil its meaning and to verify its content, to rediscover a primitive consciousness of the “little child”. The religion that dominated Europe for fifteen centuries even proclaimed that the same law applied “on earth as it is in heaven” and that the “spirit” of this law was an inseparable emanation of the heavenly “father” and of the incarnated “son”, merged into a single divinity.

Thus, after the first separation of man and the universe, of living beings and life, after the loss of primitive unitary consciousness, religions preserved, in the form of images, the isolated shadow of a knowledge that had previously been directly apprehended. And these images almost always served to legitimize a social organization that was precisely the result of this lost immanence.

Since the almost general dissolution of religion in Europe and in those territories that followed in its footsteps, the ghost of unitary consciousness has served purposes that are even more bizarre than those to which it was subjected in the times of religion and of the Sun Kings. The claim that all individuals are, above all, members of a national or social community has been abundantly utilized throughout the 20th century in order to impose directives that are contrary to the personal conscience of refractory populations, and to make them obey the orders of their political leaders. This perversion has incited a rejection of this form of unitary consciousness. But the consciousness of the child or the primitive does not recognize any interruption, or any hiatus, between the world and those who observe it. The hunter-gatherer does not regulate his individual consciousness in accordance with a social or divine consciousness that is supposed to be superior. To the contrary, the primitive knows the truth of the world through his own inner truth, he can control at every moment the congruence between them; and the primitive social organization has no other foundations or justifications than these focal points and forces, which are always fluid, of his own individuality. These are the factors that allow us to understand the mental characteristics of the primitive, and of his mode of social organization; and also his knowledge and the tools he produced.

The basic difference between the primitive mentality and the modern mentality can be perceived mainly in this: the fact that the merger of the primitive with the world that surrounds him brings about the complete identity of his subjective universe and his objective world. The primitive knows his desires as comprising a force that acts in the universe through him, a force that has its origin in and is manifested by his person, which amounts to saying that it is manifested in the world. His thoughts and the words that convey them are, likewise, elements and articulations of the universe, of which they sketch the plot and reveal it to him and within him. For the primitive there is no separation between his sensations, his desires, his thoughts and the object that brings them about: his subject, his object and the relation between them are one and the same.2

In a consciousness endowed with such characteristics, religion, as we know it today, has no place. Where there is no rupture between the “spirit” of the world and the “spirit” of the individual, one cannot have any transcendent, or even immanent, god. Furthermore, the idea of personal sin, of a sin against the “spirit” or, worse yet, of original sin, is totally alien to the primitive mentality. The man of those rude times was himself the “word” of God, a center of the universe that was both unique and multiple, where the “spirit” was manifested without veils. And if the idea of sin was brought to him by the intervention of conscientious missionaries, it could only be the sin of God himself, and the idea that God had about his own sin. It is easy to imagine the horrified shock of the seminarians when they discovered this unprecedented heresy.

The “ontological” participation of the primitive in the living totality is not, however, either continuous or perfect, nor is it identical for all men. It by no means implies the egalitarian participation of all, much less of each individual, at every moment of their lives, regardless of the activity in which they are engaged. For individual life is not just the expression of universal life, but it is simultaneously an element of that universal life and a limitation of the unifying communication, insofar as it operates within the living totality in order to maintain its particular role there and to reconstitute, with the other individual lives, the totality of the work of life.

On the other hand, certain states of inactivity, such as sleeping and the dreams that come during sleep, the moment of awakening, prolonged fasting, the abandonment of the self to extreme conditions, the moments before death and “de-individualization”, can favor unity with the living totality. And each person can experience this contact and seek there for the answers to his questions and a conduct in accordance with the universal movements, a conduct outside of which he would be excluded from the living world and condemned to disappearance.

Also, some members of the group, less involved in practical social activities, are more suited than others to transmit this unifying communication. They are chosen for this purpose after a series of “tests”—fasting and abstinence, subjection to difficult conditions of survival, individual “death”—that are intended to augment their inherent dispositions and verify their real presence. These individuals are the “shamans” of Siberia, the “healers” of America, and the “witch doctors” of Africa.

Later, in the imperial civilizations where very different living conditions prevailed, where the State religion was imposed on everyone as an external, indemonstrable and indisputable truth, “centers for initiation rites” were established—introduced to the Mediterranean peoples by the “mysteries” of ancient Greece— that maintained an open portal for immediate access to the universal life for those who felt inclined to experience it. But the divulgation of any communications regarding these experiences, which was perceived as “anti-religious” in the view of these societies, was strictly prohibited and could therefore be dangerous. Similarly, in modern religions, certain “mystics” who attained this direct participation and divulged it in some way were persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities of their own religions (such as the “Christian” Meister Eckhart, the “Moslem” Husayn ibn Mansur (also known as “al-Hallaj”), and the “Jewish” Sabbatai Zevi).

Before we conclude our discussion of this question of the primitive unitary consciousness, we must point out that certain objects or certain actions appear as bearers of a living dynamic that is enclosed within these objects or actions and separated from the universal: the pregnant woman or one who has just given birth, incestuous relations, consumption of the totem animal, etc. They are simultaneously objects of horror and veneration. They are called “taboo” in the Polynesian languages. They certainly involve something very different from what modern psychology has anachronistically imagined them to be on the basis of historically more recent neurotic dispositions, unknown to the primitive peoples, whose social relations are not comparable, in any respect, with those of the Freudian 20th century.

For the social organization of the collectives of hunter-gatherers was as different from our social organization as the mentality of the Australian Aborigine is from that of today’s European. That organization was the result of the unitary consciousness we have just described. In the primitive social group, each person recognized himself as the representative of the living totality, himself responsible for the order of the world and, at the same time, as a simple member of that totality, a specialized element of the whole that, together with the rest of the members of that totality, restored the living whole. The same thing was true at a higher level and this elementary community was involved, as an individual element, in a much more vast social whole that, in turn, was part of the living totality of the cosmos.

As the representative of the living totality, with its stages of growth, maturity, and decline, as well as its internal dynamic, each person recognized himself as the fellow of his neighbor: “men of the same age call one another generally brothers, those who are younger, children; and the old men are fathers to all”, as Montaigne points out. He later adds, however: “they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another”, since each one is a simple element of the social totality and therefore a part of each of the other members of that totality. One may add that each member of the primitive community never considered himself ill on his own account. It was always the group that was perceived to be afflicted—through one of its members—and therefore also healed.

The internal organization of the primitive group reflects that of the living universe, and the name given to each man recalls his particular disposition, his role within the group. Furthermore, the group recognizes itself as a specialized part of a much more vast living whole, and its place in this whole is revealed by means of the totem. Totemism, the fundamental characteristic of primitive social organization, proceeds from this type of unitary consciousness that we have just described.

It is from the living dynamic in which the primitive individual consciously participates, absolutely and as a constituent part of it, that his individual and collective conduct, his morality, is derived. The Amerindian of the Great Plains killed wild animals to eat or to defend himself—just as the animal kills and eats its prey—but cannot just massacre free animals without any reason, much less exterminate entire species in order to make room, for example, for cornfields or railroads. Likewise, he makes war on neighboring communities in order to seize their hunting grounds or to protect his own, but he cannot totally eliminate these communities from the world without great risk to the general equilibrium and therefore to himself. The “Delenda est Carthago” of Roman civilization is unimaginable in this context.

It is evident that the theory of value as it was minutely elaborated by the European economists of the 18th and 19th centuries has no application in these primitive societies. One could even say that it is absolutely opposed to them. The surplus obtained by each part of the whole sustains the other parts in accordance with the dynamic of life, in order to permit the survival of the whole (and therefore of each individual person), in order to make it stronger. Gifts between individuals and those exchanged between different tribes testify to this social consciousness and, in the tribes of the American Northwest, for example, where ritual ceremonies of reciprocal gift giving are known by the name of potlatch, the objects that are given away acquire their value in each transfer, so that their “exchange value” thus obtains a more and more general and superior meaning over that of their “use value” within the tribe.

Everyone knows how crazy and ridiculous primitive tribal organization might seem to modern minds. The practice of potlatch is economically disastrous. And how is it possible that someone can be named “sitting bear” or “black hawk” without making us laugh? How can someone recognize himself in the totemic representation of a wild animal or a reptile? And how can anyone feel fearful veneration towards a woman in childbirth? For most of the Europeans who came into contact with these civilizations, all these stories of the totem, the potlatch, taboos, and absurd names, indicated an unrefined consciousness and thus one that was dominated by unconscious and subconscious drives similar to those that emerge in modern psychoses. And this same wacky consciousness had given birth to the purely imaginary, so-called archaic sciences that undoubtedly merit the same derision as the puerile folklore of its collective superstitions.

The insolent arrogance of the modern attitude to the primitive sciences is based, in the first place, on a lie and a confusion, universally cultivated by the historians of science, who associate the sciences and technologies of civilizations that are completely different. When one speaks of primitive sciences it is necessary, first of all, to dismiss the pseudo-sciences later elaborated by the imperial civilizations that had crystallized into their caste systems and their State religions: astrology, certain techniques of divination, sacrificial ceremonies.

Astrology, which is common to all imperial civilizations—sometimes reduced to the mere observation of the movements of the sun and the moon, although it is often much more complex—sought to reveal the affairs of the earth and, principally, the destiny of each man by means of the examination of a system that, in appearance, was autonomous and cyclical: the movement of the stars as it was presented to the terrestrial spectator. The observation of the movement of the planets, of the conjunctions of the heavenly bodies, of eclipses, and of comets, was supposed to allow for the understanding of the dynamic of that other autonomous system, the knowledge of its lines of force and its results, and the choice of the most propitious times and places to engage in any particular enterprise. Much the same was true of the arts of the augurs, divination by examining the viscera of sacrificed animals, the yarrow stalks of the I Ching or the shells of turtles. Moreover, they, too, involved attempts to discover, by way of certain systems of correspondences, the most propitious times, places and circumstances for carrying out a project.

These pseudo-sciences, based on the alleged correspondences between two systems that were thought to be similar, viewed the real world and each individual as simple effects of mechanical arrangements that human freedom was powerless to alter. They asserted that one could know lived time by way of apparent time, and real life by the organization of things. They were the result of a reversal of perspective perpetrated by the imperial civilizations, of a perversion of the primitive unitary consciousness, a reversal and a perversion that are bound up with the very nature of these societies, concerning which we shall have more to say below.

For the hunter-gatherer societies, however, the knowledge of the world and of oneself can only be attained within oneself, by means of techniques of psychological assimilation. Primitive science, the knowledge of the world and of time, as well as of the procedures that were necessary to attain this knowledge, constituted the unitary consciousness that these peoples knew how to preserve. Such procedures, entirely ignored by modern pseudo-science, as well as by the alleged sciences of the imperial civilizations, were preserved by the latter, although in a very restricted sense, in what we today call “artistic” activity: dance, song, rhythms, music and its instruments, poetry, the graphic arts and sculpture, the art of ornamentation, masks and tattoos, the creation of weapons, tools and utensils, all of which were undertaken with a view to a use that these civilizations reserved to them in relation to the entire scope of individual and social activity.

Among the primitive peoples, all these procedures contributed to the modification of the consciousness of each individual with respect to the world and with respect to himself, in order to allow him to recognize himself in both his individuality as well as his universality; and, above all, to continuously recreate the world according to the information of this modified consciousness. They possessed the function—like all sciences—of transforming the world by and for man, but their purpose was also the transformation of man by his own creation.

No unitary civilization ever cultivated either astrology or the art of augury, for obvious reasons. Nor did any of them willingly embrace modern sciences and technologies, from which man is even more excluded than he was from the sciences of the imperial civilizations. Tools, as we know them today, and even more so, modern machinery, impose by reason of their very structure and functioning the standard form of a particular object. They partially determine the created object to the exclusion of the artisan; and all the more so, the more complex the machine is. The entire process of “machine” fabrication expropriates man of his creation. And the object thus fabricated is, obviously, incapable of transforming the machine in order to modify its effects. The object created by the primitive artisan, on the other hand, modifies its creator during the time of activity and, by virtue of its own qualities, inspires him to the fabrication of other objects that are very different from the first. The modern machine imposes on the living man the domination of the completed state of his own past and crushes him under the weight of a dead determination. No unitary people could accept this without apprehension or rebellion.

Some assessments concerning what the primitive peoples thought they had to do or leave undone provoked two kinds of reactions among modern observers. First, a critique of the irrationality of the ancient knowledge and techniques as opposed to the alleged “rationality” of the modern era. Then, an apology for the practical results that modern sciences have contributed for the beneficial transformation of the world and the conditions of its inhabitants, as opposed to the lack of results displayed by the primitive social organizations.

As for the misfortunes and inconveniences of primitive life, compared to the delights of “civilized” life, we must point out that the confrontation between the primitive peoples and the Europeans never led to any kind of enthusiasm on the part of the former for “civilized” life, and that it was necessary to massacre them in order to put an end to their obstinate resistance.

As for the claim of the “rationality” of our sciences and our technology and, above all, the demand that they be judged by their concrete results, unlike the ancient sciences, which were considered to be purely imaginary, infantile and lacking any real efficacy, such claims do not stand up to a careful examination of the goals in question when they are subjected to a comparison with the results that these sciences and technologies have obtained. What is “real” for a modern consciousness? Is it not the purpose of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and deforestation to increase the production of food in order to eliminate famines and thus to improve the health of all? Yet these products and procedures are today responsible, directly or indirectly, for the sterility of the soil, the definitive disappearance of edible plant species, and new famines and deadly epidemics. Does the “real” have to omit the inclusion, in its announcements, of information that qualifies and even totally annuls the sought-after final result? What kind of reality is a “real” that is not concerned with the effective congruence of its goals, its means and its results?

It was altogether different in the ancient sciences and technologies. The activity of the hunter, the warrior, the artisan or the dreamer, just like the product of their activities, modified for a time their consciousness, their goals and their undertakings, determined a different kind of activity that was opposed to the destruction of their living conditions. Lacking this free dynamic of life, we now know that other mechanisms and other controls enter into play, which destroy the undertaking long before the beginning of the activity that it has produced. From the comparison between the ancient sciences and the modern sciences, from the only important point of view, that of the correspondence of its intentions with its results, we have to draw the conclusion that the former are irrefutably superior.

This same freedom which protected the environment of the primitive peoples also kept them free of modern neuroses—an issue that we shall address below—and prevented the formation of castes and social classes that we shall also discuss below. This raises the question of knowing why and how certain ancient civilizations, at first only lightly populated and dispersed compared to the rest of the world, were transformed, and technically and socially modified until they assumed the form with which we are familiar in India, China, the Middle East, and then later in Europe, where they finally developed without the least restraint.

Social Darwinism provided a response to this question of evolution that was worthy of the society that produced it: the “struggle for existence” always led to the survival of the fittest and the disappearance of the least fit and the incapable. Conscientious scrutiny of this evolution shows that it was absolutely otherwise and that, to the contrary, in certain historical or environmental conditions, it was the most narrow and deficient consciousness, the most intellectually weak individuals, who must always triumph over the fittest and impose their domination on them.

  • 1 See Marcel Granet, La pensée chinoise, Albin Michel, 1934.
  • 2 See R. P. Placide Tempels, La Philosophie bantou, Plon, 1948. In English: Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, HBC Publishing, Orlando, n.d.