Friday 2 December 2011

Hunter-gatherer, Agricultural, Modern - the three types of society


I got from Ernest Gellner the division of human societies into these three categories.

And it seems that Christianity, and indeed most types of religiousness especially monotheism are most associated with the middle type of society, the agricultural: herders, and especially farmers.

The most religious, in the sense we understand religiousness, are those in Agricultural societies; H-Gs are something else, Moderns are anti-religious.


Complexity goes  H-G, Agric, Modern: so does capability and (potential) power.

Agriculturalists are rational; H-Gs are pre-rational; Modernists are post-rational.

Happiness/ pleasure goes H-G (highest) to Agric (lowest). (This is why Agrics so often try to escape into Modernity.)


In perspective and organization: H-G is cyclical; Agric is static; Modern is evolutionary. 


In temporal focus: H-G is the present; Agric is the past; Modernity is the future.

The focus of time: H-G is the days; Agric is the seasons; Modern is the minutes and the millennia.


In terms of incentives: H-G is custom; Agric is coercion; Modern is bribery.

Spiritually H-G is immanent - animistic - maybe totemistic, locates gods in nature; Agric includes monotheisms and creator God located outside nature; Modern locates god in humans - i.e. nowhere.


H-G is pre-Good - non-moral, non-aesthetic, non-truthful; things just are obvious, necessary, how it is done.

Agric is in pursuit of The Good - Truth, Beauty and Virtue in Unity. Primary virtues are courage, loyalty, honour.

Modern is the anti-Good. The only primary virtue is kindness, the reluctance personally to inflict suffering here and now (except to prevent other suffering of someone or group more important).


It seems inescapable that Man is a creature of Agricultural society, archetypal Man is a farmer of some type.

Agriculturalists seem to have least pleasure, but most religiousness, most rationality: they are un-worldly, unkind - orientated to life beyond life.

It seems inescapable that Hunter-Gatherers strike us as something less than human, less than moral, less than truthful - simply unconcerned by such matters - immersed in instinct and the here and now, doing what is needed or relaxing, regarding life as a cyclical flux of transforming souls and energies - unconcerned about where it came from or where it is going.  Just being. Much like animals, not-much like people.

It seems inescapable that moderns strike us as something other than Men, post-Men, trying to escape from being Men.

Moderns are transhumanists (unwittingly, most of the time) wanting to escape from the pain and alienation of Manhood into... something else. Not wanting to return to the child-like state of H-Gs, but to 'evolve' beyond the tragic unworldliness of Agricultural-Religious man.


H-G, Agric; Modern - Pre-Man, Man, post-Man.



Baduin said...

Voegelin in New Science of Politics writes (and is right) that all such triple divisions of history (Ancient, Middle Ages, Modernity) go back to Joachim de Fiore. He divided history into the Age of Father, Age of Son and the future Age of Holy Ghost.,9171,890497-1,00.html

"..the age of the Spirit was to be devoted to prayer and song. The third is the age of the plena spiritus libertas, the age of contemplation, the monastic age par excellence, the age of a monachism wholly directed towards ecstasy, more Oriental than Benedictine. Joachim does not conceal his sympathies with the ideal of Basilian monachism. In his opinion - which is, in form at least, perfectly orthodox - the church of Peter will be, not abolished, but purified; actually, the hierarchy effaces itself in the third age before the order of the monks, the viri spirituales. The entire world will become a vast monastery in that day, which will be the resting-season, the sabbath of humanity. In various passages in Joachim's writings the clerical hierarchy is represented by Rachel and the contemplative order by her son Joseph, and Rachel is destined to efface herself before her son. Similarly, the teaching of Christ and the Apostles on the sacraments is considered, implicitly and explicitly, as transitory, as representing that passage from the significantia to the significata which Joachim signalizes at every stage of his demonstration.
The Joachimite ideas soon spread into Italy and France, and especially after a division had been produced in the Franciscan order. The rigorists, who soon became known as "Spirituals," represented St Francis as the initiator of Joachim's third age."

Joachim represents - and creates- the mystical, esoteric side of the modernity.

Its mechanical, rational side is represented and in a large part designed by another near-saint, near-heretic and theoretician of democracy, Raymond Lullius.

Their theories were efficacious - the modernity which they have proposed and foreseen was created - but not true.

For that reason, all theories which propose a triple division of history are suspect as such, and should be researched with especial care.

The theory of Hunter-Gatherer, Agricultural, Modern is obviously false. It leaves out two very important social/economical system:
- herders of the Great Steppe and other nomads, esp Arabs -all of which were very much different from the agriculturalists,
- Northern European Barbarian civilisation (of Germans and Slavs) - which was nominally mostly agrarian, but with important function of herding and hunting .

"Associated with the lactase persistence core was a unique system of agriculture I call quasi-pastoralism. It can be distinguished from the normal agriculture that was standard to civilization in southern Europe, the Middle East, and South and East Asia, in having more land given up to pasture and arable fodder crops than to arable food crops. Nearly all agriculture combined livestock with food crops, due to the crucial role of livestock in transporting otherwise rapidly depleted nutrients, especially nitrogen, from the hinterlands to the arable. However, as arable produces far more calories, and about as much protein, per acre, civilizations typically maximized their populations by converting as much of their land as possible to arable and putting almost all the arable to food crops instead of fodder, leaving only enough livestock for plowing and the occasional meat meal for the elite. Quasi-pastoral societies, on the other hand, devoted far more land to livestock and worked well where the adults could directly consume the milk."

Bruce Charlton said...

@baduin - the three part classification is not disproved by hybrids and transitional stages any more than the classification of animals is disproven by intermediates like the duck billed platypus. Forms may be more or less perfectly expressed.

What is interesting is that the modern ideal is so purely evolutionary as not to know what it wants, nor where it is going, but embracing - in advance - whatever happens as a consequence of selectional processes like natural selection, markets and democracy (processes which are regarded as *intrinsically* Good, optimizing, benign)...

...and recalling that less than a decade ago I was an extreme advocate of this view - which now seems to me utterly psychotic! The best known advocate may be libertarians like Virginia Postrel in The Future and its Enemies, or modernizers like Robert Wright in Nonzero .

Anonymous said...

At one time, the millenarian/utopian character of various triple divisions of history, of which there are many, was well known. Today, the only source in English known to me which describes it is Voegelin's New Science of Politics.

This book is rather closely connected with ideas you write about here. It is not perfect, by any means - Voegelin's idea of Gnosticism is obviously mistaken. It includes much things which cannot be found anywhere else, and is at the same time a good introduction and a warning about the Western esoteric tradition.

Another example of the triple division of history is
Comte's Theology, Metaphysics, Science

Those standard triple divisions (with the third part always being the coming Millenium) have one thing common: as they are not based on facts, but created according to the standard system, they always leave out many elements which do not fit the system.

If the triple system proposed by Gellner (a very interesting writer BTW, his analysis of the agrarian economy is very important) forces us to treat the nomadic civilisations and economies of the Great Steppe as special cases of either small tribes of hunter-gatherers (compare it to the empire of Genghis Khan), or to typical sedentary agrarian civilisations such as China, it shows that there is some problem there.

Anyway, to understand the point about the triple divisions of history, it is necessary to read Voegelin's The New Science of Politics.

CorkyAgain said...

Of course, the most fundamental triad describing time/history is past-present-future.

But I'm not sure I see how it applies to Bruce's "H-G,Agric,Mod" because they're all in the past.

Voegelin used to be very popular in conservative circles back in the 1950's. Has he really been so forgotten that he can be re-introduced now as something of a new discovery?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Baduin - I stand by the three part division separating simple (immediate return) hunter gatherers and the modern/ industrial from everything-else-in-the-middle (which would include herders, mixed agriculture and hunting, and sedentary gatherers like the Pacific Northwest Amerindians).

The point of this posting is that it is from the 'everything else in the middle', group that the major world religions come; and indeed our whole conception of Man; and in the other two groups things are qualitatively different: neither simple H-Gs nor moderns have a concept of Man, nor the human condition, nor of God/ gods/ religion.

For moderns these are merely objects of study and discussion (diversions), while simple H-Gs are probably mostly innocent of these matters, like children.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure but it seems to me that the fundamental division is between H-Gs and Agriculturalists.

For me, this is the meaning of the "original sin": our genes are programmed to behave in a way that was adaptive to the H-G's existence but has become maladaptive in an Agriculturalist society.

Or, to say it in more traditional terms, human nature is inclined to do evil.

For me, this could be the answer of one of the critiques coming from atheists: why did Revelation happen so late in the history of mankind?

Methinks that God gave new rules when the old rules wired in human nature did not work anymore.

About modernity, I will write another comment.

Anonymous said...

As for modernity, it seems a cyclical concept to me. The first thing to take into account is that hedonism breeds nihilism and not the other way around.

Nihilism has always been present. You find it in the Bible (the Qohelet), the Carvaka school in ancient Indian philosophy, Leucippus and Democritus and so on. I remember some ancient Egyptian nihilistic inscription but I cannot find it now.

But nihilism has always been a minority, even among the intellectual class. It grows in the moments of crisis, like during the late paganism and it is followed by a renewal of religion.

Even during these times of crises, it remains mostly confined to the intellectual class. Even in our secular Europe, atheism remains a minority (this explains why atheists are so elitist). Most people believe in a vague Superior Being, even if they don't subscribe to Christian belief.

I think that what has happened is that wealth and birth control have enabled people to unleash their hedonistic instincts (the flesh), that is, the wiring they have inherited from H-G years. Since this is contrary to Christian doctrine, they have abandoned Christian doctrine.

So what we have is a massive Christian apostasy, driven mostly by sex and not by intellectual arguments (which only a few intellectuals like us are concerned about).

It was the same with the Ancient Rome during the Late Republic and Early Empire. Wealth and Roman forms of birth control ended up enabling hedonism, which was incompatible with the ancient patriarchal Roman religion. So Romans ended up leaving this religion.

Of course, you always need an intellectual alibi to do whatever your instincts tell you to do: in Ancient Rome it was helenism, in our days it was modernity (the so-called Enlightenment).

So, for me, modernity is a cyclical concept: the cyclical rebellion of the old H-G ways suppressed by the Agriculturalist society. It ends up in chaos and a renewal of religion (Islam in Europe).

Gyan said...

I don't understand the sense in which H-G are described as pre-rational.

It requires more elaboration of the thesis to understand it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - in the same sense as children. I can only suggest you read H-G ethnographies, especially first contact ones and by non-Leftists - H-Gs strike the observer as pre-rational (as contrasted with modern Leftists who are post-rational).

One factor may be that what evidence there is suggests that it is probable most H-Gs (especially in hot climates and low latitudes) had a general intelligence (IQ - abstract analysis and systematic thinking, problem solving, ability to remember new material etc) at roughly the level of an average 10 year old European.