The sage savage

It’s often claimed that in distinction to modern societies the chiefs of neolithic tribes were/are the wisest members of their community. In his memoir Tristes tropiques, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss implies this as well. This might seem little more than the glib sanctimoniousness of a committed noble-savageist. But for one thing his considerable first-hand experience among neolithic tribes probably makes his testimony count for more than the opinion of a Rousseau, even if people inevitably view even first-hand experience through content-laden eyes (i.e. through a filter of preconceptions), and in fact I think there may be something to his idea. I know from my own first-hand experience working in small organizations that it’s often surprisingly easy to pick the best leader. In my fraternity, for example, in my four years of college all but one year I would say that, within certain paremeters of seniority (it’s almost always a senior, or if need be a junior–but then, underclassmen get their chance eventually), the president chosen by election was arguably the best leader in the group (and even in the case of the one exception there were various mitigating factors that probably justified the result in the end, and my preferred candidate became president a couple of years later anyway). Why? Becasuse, as I say, most people can probably tell intuitively who is the most dedicated, the most level-headed and logical, the best at organizing people, even when most of them may not fully understand what the job entails. Of course, for subsidiary positions that require specific skills other than who’s the most popular, the democratic system is much less successful.

Of course, not all, or even most, neolithic tribal chiefs are chosen by election (although probably more than democracy-is-solely-a-Western-invention-created-in-Athens dogmatists would be willing to admit), but as Lévi-Strauss argues fairly persuasively, in a small group where everyone knows each other it’s probably not very realistic to lead if most of the members don’t support you, at least tacitly. And at that extremely local level most people seem to be fairly decent at recognizing who natural leaders are. So the problem with politics, especially democratic politics, is not that people are idiots. But think about the situation in a large nation-state: with millions (or billions) of people, no one can possibly know everyone else. Therefore, those who are vying for leadership are those who have had to devote themselves to pushing themselves into the spotlight, i.e. generally ambitious opportunists. Not that those people are always bad leaders, but in any group larger than a few hundred people they’re going to be, with a few exceptions, the only pool of people from which to choose, almost by definition. Even in student government, with only a couple of thousand people to choose from, it was generally student-government people that fought with each other for the honors, not those that you would necessarily actually want representing you (of course the problem there might also be that nobody else cared because the positions were meaningless–even more meaningless than fraternity president, since they at least have to attend to the continued existence of the organization, especially nowadays). So the problem isn’t so much how people choose a leader, but the framework that defines those choices even before they get the chance to decide. Because it’s not so hard to choose someone when you can weigh the alternatives among everyone in the group, but in a large-scale political system the potential nominees essentially have to nominate themselves first, then kick and fight their way into a position of prominence first before people even become aware of them. Of course, if you’re half as cynical about human motives as I am, that makes it seem almost impossible that leaders of large organizations could be as good as leaders of small organizations. There’s a reason that people that nominate themselves in small-group elections never win. At any rate, it seems there may not be such a contradiction between having good leaders on a small scale and bad ones on a large scale as it might at first seem, nor that the idea of sage tribal chiefs running around the jungles of the world is as entirely absurd.

5 Responses to “The sage savage”

  1. shonk Says:

    Nice point. Another factor is that, especially in a small, fairly primitive tribe, there’s not much specialization of labor, so everyone has a pretty good idea of the relative merit of everybody else and, almost as importantly, the leader has enough experience with the tasks he delegates that he knows who is most capable of performing them and when someone’s doing a bad enough job to merit intervention.

    Neither is true in large-scale democracies; most people have a very poor idea of how good or bad a job a politician is doing because it’s impossible to keep track of everything he does. Likewise, it’s extremely unlikely that a, say, Congressman has enough expertise in energy, military, economic, environmental, health and jurisprudence issues to be able to act intelligently in all of those areas or to know when aides or agencies specifically tasked to advise him on or deal with those issues are doing a good or bad job. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that a successful politician is expert in much of anything other than getting elected.

    Incidentally, what do you think of Tristes tropiques? I read Myth and Meaning a few weeks ago and found it pretty interesting.

  2. El Charno Says:

    Good points.

  3. Dave Says:

    I read something about Indian tribes which said the chief was credentialed through his success in battle. Braves were also ranked similarly. Also, many primitive tribes in South America and New Guinea were extraordinarily violent and had a high mortality rate for males. So, we if we were like them we might get Dwight Eisenhower or Mike Tyson as president. Hillary need not apply or maybe she should since she resembles a female Nixon, a street fighter. I don’t know how many of these warriors would be sages.

    Today voters usually elect persons who appear pleasant but underneath have inhuman ambition. What you get are scary persons who are often pathologically driven. Would you want to be president? Having read extensive biographies of Nixon and Johnson that drive to get elected was what they had in common. You have to admire that kind of energy. By the way, both Nixon and Johnson were student body presidents of their colleges, though they were both personally unpopular, confirming your observation that the really big shot leaders even at the college level may be not particularly likable. In more intimate circumstances, such as ones day to day life, leadership takes place in a more positive atmosphere but there are always problem people and problem circumstances.

  4. Curt Says:

    I read something about Indian tribes which said the chief was credentialed through his success in battle. Braves were also ranked similarly. Also, many primitive tribes in South America and New Guinea were extraordinarily violent and had a high mortality rate for males.

    The second point is undoutedly true, and the first may be true of some tribes but I’m not sure if it can be generalized. For one thing, even in the relatively simple, violent conditions of tribal life a leader probably would need to have a more comprehensive skill set than just bravery in battle. For example, Lévi-Strauss points out that especially for the poorer tribes the primary imperative of tribal chiefs is securing food sources. Fighting other tribes is undoubtedly one way to do this, but a rather costly and uncertain one. Often more important is the ability to keep a detailed map of the area in one’s head for purposes of foraging and hunting, organizational ability in devising a food-gathering strategy and so forth, all while managing the shifting alliances and loyalties of the group. Lévi-Strauss also empahizes how totally passive the other members of the tribe often are in letting the chief solve all their problems. Of course, the tribes he writes about seem to have been so decimated by disease that they didn’t encroach on each other all that much. In any case, I’m not saying that tribal leaders are all wise, simply that it might make intuitive sense that in small groups leaders would be of consistently higher quality than in large ones.

    Incidentally, what do you think of Tristes tropiques? I read Myth and Meaning a few weeks ago and found it pretty interesting.

    It’s definitely interesting, mainly because he’s more reflective than the average conservationist and actually explores his motivations and values in studying indigenous tribes, although I don’t think he ever very seriously questions them. His biases themselves are a bit grating, since he’s a pretty conventional noble-savageist and exoticist, and he’s pretty convinced that tribal life was much freer than civilized existence, which I’m rather skeptical about. Plus, whenever he’s trying to make a big point (or rather make a not-so-big point seem like one) his wrtiting style often falls into the over-heated airy nothings that French seems to particularly lend itself to in the wrong hands, though maybe in English the translator has squashed that tendency a bit, and on a related note I think the book is a bit too long, though memoirs generally are. But in general, as the back cover informs us, he seems to have aimed at recapturing the sort of erudite, self-aware travel writing of the “voyages philosophiques” of the 18th and 19th century (and the shadow of the philosophes certainly hangs over his idolization of primitive tribes), and I’d say he more or less pulls it off. After reading all too many National Geographic travelogues, I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.

  5. Curt Says:

    By the way, I might have to qualify my evaluation of Tristes tropiques a bit due to the fact that I hadn’t quite finished it when I wrote the last comment. In one of the last chapters Lévi-Strauss actually does what I said he didn’t, namely “seriously question” his basic beliefs. In this chapter he wonders whether he and those like him in his profession respond to indigenous cultures simply out of a sense of loathing for their own culture and an illusory desire to latch onto anything that seems different. He avows that primitive peoples were not probably not really freer than members of modern societies, worries that he might be underestimating the progress achieved by modern civilization and acknowledges that there is no “natural man,” that man is by nature a social animal and that the natural and cultural elements of humanity are indissolubly linked. He even consciously subsumes his theory into the greater mass of Rousseau’s political thought, seeking by study of primitive cultures to get at the commonalities which consistitute in the Rousseauian the natural essence of humanity as a prelude to a more active project to reform it by bringing modern culture more into line with its fundamental nature. Not that I necessarily agree with most of his final conclusions, but he acknowledges and addresses almost all of the questions and objections that had gone complacently untouched elsewhere, which is admirable.

    Unfortunately, rather than making that the end of the book he adds two concluding memorably, amazingly bad chapters (remember I said the book was too long). First he throws over the tone of careful judiciousness in assessing foreign cultures that he has built up through the book and which one would think would be a prerequisite to being an anthropologist by launching into a random, unhinged attack on Islam and then, as if permanently destabilized by that, proceeds to a number of facile characterizations of various religions and cultures (Islam=masculinity, Buddhism=femininity, etc.), engages in some extravagant pessisim by complaining that human society has been in a state of continual decline since its birth, vaguely and incoherently tries to reconcile Marxism and Buddhism before finally sinking into a sea of meaningless, disjointed abstractions. So I guess the three chapters sort of cancel each other out and I feel about the same about the book’s overall quality, just on different grounds now. If you do read it, just don’t read the last two chapters and it will be a much more enjoyable experience.

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