Sunday, June 3, 2012

Violence in ancient times: Hobbes vs. Rousseau

Are humans naturally violent or peaceful? Was life violent or peaceful before the Urban Revolution and states? What about prior to the origins of human society? For centuries these questions have been discussed in reference to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. A recent issue of the journal Science has a very interesting theme section on "Human Conflict" (Science, volume 336, no. 6083, 18 May, 2012). There are some excellent journalistic reviews of research (see the Lawler papers cited below), and some interesting technical papers by experts on these topics such as Christopher Boehm and Samuel Bowles.

Andrew Lawler's piece, "The Battle over Violence" reviews some of the ideas in anthropology and archaeology. The subtitle of his paper is "Under the long shadow of Rousseau and Hobbes, scientists debate whether civilization spurred or inhibited warfare--and whether we have the data to know." This is a great article; Lawler says what I have thought for years -- that we don't have enough solid evidence to choose between opposing viewpoints, and that the conclusions of many scholars owe more to their philosophical positions than to the empirical evidence.

Rousseau argued that life before the state was more peaceful and egalitarian, and that states brough inequality, oppression, and fear. Hobbes, on the other hand, argued that life in the 'state of nature" (that is, life before states) was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." States brought order, peace, prosperity, and progress. Liberals tend to look to Rousseau for philosophical inspiration, while conservatives look to Hobbes.

We know there was quite a bit of violence in ancient societies, to judge from skeletons with trauma and other evidence. But just how much violence? Different archaeologists can look at the same data and come to different conclusions. What does this mean? It means that we don't have good enough data, or good enough methods for interpreting those data, to make a solid, scientific conclusions.

A related question is ethnographic, not archaeological. Is there more or less violence in egalitarian (non-state) human societies compared to states? Again, there are lots of low- and medium-quality data, a dearth of good methods, and a diversity of opinions on the matter. A recent paper by a criminologist (Amy Nivette) has assembled most of the information and taken a good hard look. She points out the problems of making inferences from the data; not surprisingly, the !Kung or Shoshone hunter/gatherers don't keep modern crime statistics. Nivette shows that the nature of violence and conflict is much more complicated and culturally-influenced than one would like.

These same points apply to city walls in the past. In some urban traditions all cities were walled for defensive reasons. But in other cases, some cities were walled and others not. The Hobbesian (or materialist) interpretation is that the presence of city walls means that war and attack were the reasons the walls were built. But some scholars (the Rousseau-ians, or idealists) have asserted that walls were often built for symbolic reasons - to have a container for the town that symbolizes its cohesion, or else as a symbol of the power of the ruler or the authorities. So how can we choose between these alternative explanation? I don't know. We need better methods, better models, better ways of testing alternative ideas like this.

The special section in the journal Science is well worth looking at. Lots of good ideas, even if there is not as much hard evidence as we might like. But that is part of science. It is better to acknowledge the difficulty of interpreting scanty or faulty data than to rush ahead and make arguments as strongly as one can for one position or another. (I have discussed this problem of theoretical preconceptions getting in the way of interpreting data in my other blog Publishing Archaeology )

Looking over what I wrote above, I'm not sure I like how I equated Hobbes with materialism and Rousseau with idealism. I am a thorough and hard-core materialist, yet I think that Rousseau was closer to the mark on the advent of inequality and oppression after the Urban Revolution. People had it much better before states (see my "Myths of the urban revolution"). But then I'm not much good with philosophy. Give me data and theory and I'll try to figure out what happened in the past. But don't ask me about the grand meaning of it all.

Lawler, Andrew
2012    The Battle Over Violence. Science 336:829-830.

2012    Civilization's Double-Edged Sword. Science 336:832-833.

Nivette, Amy E.
2011    Violence in Non-State Societies. British Journal of Criminology 51:578-598.

Final note: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, my favorite novel when I was in college, has a law firm with the name "Saliteri, Poore, Nast, deBrutish, and Short."  Maybe they represent the estate of Thomas Hobbes. Pynchon also has a great argument between two people on whether Beethoven or Rossini was the greater composer. Rossini wins!!!!

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