The Origins Of European Thought On Inequality

Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link

In Chapter 2 of The Dawn Of Everything David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the context in which the standard history of societal development was developed. The story is usually traced to a 1754 essay by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind. The essay was entered into “… a national essay competition on the question: ‘what is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’” P. 28. How did we get to this question in France, a country where the very idea of inequality threatened the entire social order?

The authors give a short intellectual history of Europe. In the Dark Ages the continent was cut off from global trade and global intellectual discourse. In the Middle Ages, Arab scholars re-introduced Aristotle to Europe. Gradually other Greek and Roman writers were recovered and studied. European scholars, mostly clerics, began to construct an intellectual tradition.

As an aside, the Europeans don’t seem to have gotten the full benefit of the scholarship of Arab and other thinkers, which was quite advanced by that time. They weren’t bound to those traditions as dogma, but were able to read and study them fairly neutrally. European clerical scholars mostly tried to adapt the ancients into a more principled Christianity. It’s not even slightly surprising that their early thinking reinforced existing social structures. As an example, consider the divine right of kings. See the correction at the end of this post.

Back to the text. There is nothing about equality in the entire pre-Renaissance system of thought.

Ranks and hierarchies were assumed to have existed from the very beginning. Even in the Garden of Eden, as the thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed, Adam clearly outranked Eve. ‘Social equality’ – and therefore, its opposite, inequality – simply did not exist as a concept. A recent survey of medieval literature by two Italian scholars in fact finds no evidence that the Latin terms aequalitas or inaequalitas or their English, French, Spanish, German and Italian cognates were used to describe social relations at all before the time of Columbus. P. 32.

The first discussions of equality arose in the development of the theory of Natural Rights. This theory evolved to justify the European domination of the people they found when they invaded the Americas and other lands beginning in 1492. Natural Right theory tries to identify the rights which inhere in people just because they are human beings, and even though they are living in a state of nature, completely unaware of Christianity. They concluded that you could invade as long as you didn’t treat them too badly, whatever that means.

Natural Rights discourse moves early societies away from the Garden of Eden story, opening the way to secular theories. European thinkers proposed ideas about what the original people might have been like. One common conception was that societies in the state of nature were free and equal. In contrast, we get Thomas Hobbes who argued that in the state of nature there was a war of all against all, only salvaged by the arrival of the powerful state.* The authors then describe some aspects of the term equality. For example, the Christian religion teaches a form of equality. All of us are equal in relationship to the Almighty. There is nothing much about freedom in the discourse of that time.

What we’re going to suggest is that American intellectuals – we are using the term ‘American’ as it was used at the time, to refer to indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere; and ‘intellectual’ to refer to anyone in the habit of arguing about abstract ideas – actually played a role in this conceptual revolution. P. 35.

From the beginning of the French invasion of North America, missionaries, soldiers, and travelers lived among the Americans. They learned eaah other’s languages, and talked about everything humans talk about. Of course that didn’t stop the rape, torture and murder. Many of these Europeans wrote reports and books, and gave lectures, on what they heard. As a result we have first-hand knowledge of the way the Americans perceived the French as well as the way the French perceived the Americans. That story fills out the Chapter. I’ll take up some of these fascinating dialogs in my next post. In the meantime, here are a pair of quotes that give a good taste of the Indigenous Critique of the invaders.


Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not think much of the Mi’kmaq, but reported that the feeling was mutual: ‘They consider themselves better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” They are saying these and like things continually.’ What seemed to irritate Biard the most was that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, ‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time. P. 38-9, fn omitted.


[One writer] was surprised and impressed by his hosts’ eloquence and powers of reasoned argument, skills honed by near-daily public discussions of communal affairs; his hosts, in contrast, when they did get to see a group of Frenchmen gathered together, often remarked on the way they seemed to be constantly scrambling over each other and cutting each other off in conversation, employing weak arguments, and overall (or so the subtext seemed to be) not showing themselves to be particularly bright. People who tried to grab the stage, denying others the means to present their arguments, were acting in much the same way as those who grabbed the material means of subsistence and refused to share it; it is hard to avoid the impression that Americans saw the French as existing in a kind of Hobbesian state of ‘war of all against all’. P. 39.


1. Why have I never heard about these fascinating discussions between the Americans and the European invaders? I had a pretty good education and I’m reasonably well read, and I never knew about it, did not know there were contemporaneous records, and didn’t realize that those records were commonly discussed among French bourgeoise.

2. What did the other peoples of the Americas, Africa, India, and China think of the invader? Are there similar records? These people have been muted, turned into something less than humans to use Arendt’s phrase. They spoke for themselves, but we of today don’t know them, their thinking, their understanding of their lives and the world. We are weakened by this loss.

3. This disappearance of whole cultures is genuine violence towards the people and cultures wrecked by the invading Europeans. But it’s also symbolic violence towards broader publics. Our discourse, our ability to understand the way things are or could be, is robbed of a deeply needed range of alternatives. We are herded into channels of thought chosen by those who know what others thought and who for reasons of their own bury not just the bodies but the thinking of our fellow human beings.

History may be written by the victors, but the victors haven’t destroyed all the contemporaneous records. I hope there are scholars and volunteers looking for it.

* Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the bloody and shocking English Civil War, which must have influenced his theory that

//… during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. …

… In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.//

Leviathan, Ch. XIII. I looked this up to see for myself; I haven’t read Leviathan and won’t.
I wrote that it seemed that European scholars did not get the full benefit of global thought when Aristotle was re-introduced by Arab scholars. I should have checked. Of course my education didn’t include anything about the influence of Arab thought on the thinking of Medieval scholars. According to The Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, the brilliant Arab polymath Ibn Sina, known to us as Avicenna, influenced such scholars as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Sina’s work on Metaphysics was banned in Paris in 1210. This is just another example of the Euro-centrism of my education, and one more thing I have to relearn.

Enough With Hobbes And Rousseau

Introduction and Index. This post is updated with other stuff I think is interesting.

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow asks us to think about whether our society is the culmination of the development of human societies, and whether it’s the only one that can possibly work in a technological age.

In Chapter 1 they tell us that they initially set out to contribute to the growing debate about inequality by examining advances in archaeology and anthropology to see what they tell us about the origins of inequality. They concluded that this was not a good plan.

They start by explaining the prevailing view of the the history of human societies. One is that of Thomas Hobbes, set out his his book Leviathan, written in 1651. The other comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in an essay, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, written in 1754.

Hobbes seems to start with the proposition that humans are basically selfish and brutish, and argues that we can only live decently under an authoritarian system. Rousseau seems to start with the proposition that humans were once good but have fallen from grace, a secular version of the story told by Christian Bible’s Book of Genesis. Rousseau then offers the progression of human society from foragers to bands to tribes to cities to states.

Both of these writings are speculations, thought experiments, or personal prejudices, utterly without evidentiary support. Hobbes was writing during the English Civil War, a serious crisis that the authors suggest influenced his view that humans are aggressive jerks. Rousseau wrote his essay for entry in a contest with a cash prize. It was meant not as an historical account but as a thought experiment, a speculative account. The question was set because the issue became salient in part through what the authors call the “indigenous critique” which they take up in detail in Chapter 2.

As the reader can probably detect from our tone, we don’t much like the choice between these two alternatives. Our objections can be classified into three broad categories. As accounts of the general course of human history, they:

1. simply aren’t true;

2. have dire political implications;

3. make the past needlessly dull.

This book is an attempt to begin to tell another, more hopeful and more interesting story; one which, at the same time, takes better account of what the last few decades of research have taught us. P. 3.

The first point is a major thread of the book. As to the second, on the Hobbesian view the best we can hope for is an authoritarian government with power to force decent behavior as defined by the Leader. Rousseau’s fall from grace theory says that we’re stuck, and can’t hope for much change. With respect to out-of-control inequality, either view means we aren’t going to get any change that the rich don’t like.

In the discussion of these first two points, we are introduced to some of the main themes that recur throughout the book.

1. It’s only in the last 300 years that Western thinkers have considered inequality a serious problem. Before that time, almost everyone just accepted rigid class structures as the will of the Almighty. It’s telling that the most common meaning of the term is economic inequality. We rarely discuss the other inequalities that beset our society such as power, participation in decision-making, the right to have one’s interests considered in decision-making, and the way these are distributed by race, sex, creed and class to name some of the obvious.

2. Some people can and do convert material wealth into political power, or as the authors sometimes put it, the power to push other people around.

3. The quality of life in modern civilization isn’t all that great. We get our first taste of this argument, as the authors ask whether Western civilization actually made life better for everyone. Here’s one data point from a paper by J. N. Heard: The Assimilation of Captives on the American Frontier in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,

The colonial history of North and South America is full of accounts of settlers, captured or adopted by indigenous societies, being given the choice of where they wished to stay and almost invariably choosing to stay with the latter. P. 19.

Benjamin Franklin agreed! P. 20.

Returning to the third point, the standard account of the history of human societies says that there is a natural and inexorable progression from band to tribe to city to our current apogee of hierarchy, state violence, and jacking up the price of life-saving drugs. Western cultures are founded on the idea that market exchange is the most important aspect of human character when it comes to organizing societies. If we dump that notion we can imagine all sorts of possible organizations of society that would be more interesting. Here’s a taste.

The founding text of twentieth-century ethnography, Bronisław Malinowski’s 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific, describes how in the ‘kula chain’ of the Massim Islands off Papua New Guinea, men would undertake daring expeditions across dangerous seas in outrigger canoes, just in order to exchange precious heirloom arm-shells and necklaces for each other (each of the most important ones has its own name, and history of former owners) – only to hold it briefly, then pass it on again to a different expedition from another island. Heirloom treasures circle the island chain eternally, crossing hundreds of miles of ocean, arm-shells and necklaces in opposite directions. To an outsider, it seems senseless. To the men of the Massim it was the ultimate adventure, and nothing could be more important than to spread one’s name, in this fashion, to places one had never seen. P. 22-2.

That’s just cool.


1. The discussion of inequality in Chapter 1 reminds me of the work of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson which I discussed in this series. Anderson identifies several forms of equality that go beyond mere material measures. She help us see why material equality is an inadequate measure of equality. In short, we are much more than merely homo economicus. We want more from life than piles of stuff.

In my series on the work of Pierre Bourdieu I discuss his ideas about how dominant class reproduces itself. If the dominant class has the ability to convert material wealth into political and social power, we can see that the dominant class can use its material capital to push people into working really hard to preserve the wealth of the rich, to increase it, and to remove restraints on the use of wealth and power.

2. John Maynard Keynes agrees with Graeber and Wengrow that material wealth is the primary organizing principle in current social arrangements. This is from his 1926 essay On The End Of Laissez-Faire, which I discuss here in another context. Here’s a link to the essay. Section V is particularly relevant.

In Europe, or at least in some parts of Europe – but not, I think, in the United States of America – there is a latent reaction, somewhat widespread, against basing society to the extent that we do upon fostering, encouraging, and protecting the money-motives of individuals. A preference for arranging our affairs in such a way as to appeal to the money-motive as little as possible, rather than as much as possible, ….

Maybe we should think about whether we’d like to reduce the role of the money-motive in our lives. We can’t do it alone. But if all of us were to decide to do that, our lives might be more interesting.

Introduction And Index To New Series On The Dawn Of Everything

Enough With Hobbes And Rousseau
Symbolic Violence In Politics
The Origins Of European Thought On Inequality
Attitudes Toward Freedom And Equality
The Insights Of Kandiaronk
A Brief Introduction To The History Of Early Modern Humans
The Sophistication Of Forager Societies
Cultural Differentiation In Non-Agricultural Societies
Women Led The Move To Farming
The Rise Of Cities In Eurasia
Egalitarian Cities In Early Central America with a side note on the rise of religion
The Search For The Origins Of The State

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow is an effort to evaluate and replace a fundamental set of ideas about human history.

The Authors. David Graeber was an American anthropologist, famous partly because he’s one of the few academics who identify as anarchists. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2005 but was denied tenure for obscure reasons having nothing to do with his anarchism, I’m sure. He took a position at the London School of Economics where he taught until his untimely death in 2020. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. I’ve read Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He also wrote Bullshit Jobs.

David Wengrow is an archaeologist at the University College of London. Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

The Subject of the Book. Since the mid-18th Century, people have thought that human beings of more than 10,000 years ago lived in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, small groups that foraged for nuts and berries, and hunted for small game and fish. Eventually they developed agriculture and stopped their nomadic life-styles. This led to the idea of property, and as populations increased they began to live in small settled groups, then villages, then towns, and then in cities. Hierarchies arose to deal with the ensuing complexities, and bureaucracies and rules enforceable by state violence, and all this led to civilizations as we know them in all their hierarchical splendor. It’s an inevitable process, repeated around the world.

Graeber and Wengrow attribute this story to Rousseau, in an essay entitled Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, written in 1754. and to other Enlightenment thinkers of his day. It’s a pervasive story, one we all learn as if by osmosis. There is no alternative. This book is a first step towards a different origin story, one with much wider potential for human societies.

The authors explain that they set out to write about the origins of inequality, making Rousseau’s essay a good starting point. But they realized that wasn’t a very smart question, and that there are better questions, starting with why is that the question everyone asks, and moving on to other questions, such as:

1. Why are we stuck in a single social structure, repeated with minor variations everywhere?

2. Why are we satisfied with living in a society in which the interests of some people are considered sacrosanct, while the interests of some other people are not entitled to any consideration whatsoever?

3. Why do we claim to be free, when almost all of us are forced to work for and be bossed around by someone who has vast material wealth, or face starvation?

4. Why should economic power be convertible into political power?

5. Why don’t we ask any of these questions?

That last one is mine, of course. We’ll see if there are answers in this book.

Background. I’ve written about several of these questions in other posts. My series on Pierre Bourdieu, index here, explains how the dominant class preserves its status. I describe Elizabeth Anderson’s work on freedom in another series, index here. We’ll see how Graeber and Wengrow compare; they don’t mention either.

Most of the books I’ve discussed at Emptywheel were written by mainstream Western thinkers. They generally work from a common history, and a common understanding of how we should think about our history. This means that the factual, evidentiary, basis of these books is more or less common knowledge. When new information is added to that store, we understand how to approach it, how to evaluate it, and we can usually integrate it into our existing picture.

For example, I have a general grasp of the history of Imperialism in the 19th Century, so when I read that extended chapter in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism, there was information new to me, but it fit nicely into my general picture. Consequently I was able to follow along with Arendt’s thinking on the issue, and how it connected with her theory of the rise of Nazism.

This book isn’t like that at all. I don’t know much at all about the data I’ve encountered so far (I’m on Chapter 3). I knew about Rousseau’s essay generally, but knew nothing of the context. This makes it impossible for me to evaluate any of the data. I don’t know if things are being taken out of context, or how pervasive knowledge of Native American politicians was among French thinker of the Enlightenment. I can’t read all the original works myself, and don’t want to. I don’t know any anthropology, and my knowledge of archaeology is at the Discovery Channel level.

As a result, I can’t really do much more than repeat the evidence given by the authors, which doesn’t seem useful or even sensible. Instead, I’m going to state certain points from Graeber and Wengrow for discussion and give a flavor of the evidence. I’ll let everyone see the detailed backgrounds for themselves. That seems like the best way to spell out their ideas. For myself, I can say that the evidence is fascinating, and totally new to me.

Graeber identified as an anarchist. The book makes room for anarchy as a possible form of social organization, but that’s not the subject matter. The theories laid out here will support many different forms of social organization. The authors just want us to throw off the depressing idea that the only way to structure a society is in terms of property, with protection of property rights by hierarchies and bureaucracies as the only organizing principle. Our ancestors seem to have tried numerous forms of social organization. So can we.
Featured Image by Ed Dunens via Flickr.

What Have We Been Reading?

I’ll go first.

1. The Constitution Of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch. It’s a practical discussion of epistemology, the philosophy of how we know stuff. I’ve discussed it in several posts, notably here. The second half discusses his suggestions for dealing with lies, disinformation, trolls and generally with the Insurrection Party led by TFG. I haven’t read it because it seems hopeless. See No. 7 below.

2. The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’ve just started this book, and it’s fascinating. The story we are taught is that human societies evolve sequentially from small bands of hunter-gatherers to agriculture to small trading towns to cities to states, with more and more complicated governmental structures. This is called progress. The authors say this story comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau, and has colonized our minds.

They claim that we have learned a lot since the early 19th C., and it mostly contradicts this story. They call on extensive research in archaeology, Wengrow’s primary area of study, and anthropology, Graeber’s, to draw a completely different picture. There are a number of ideas like the following, ideas that offer a different way of imagining the possibilities of an advanced technological society:

Back in the 1960s, the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres suggested that precisely the opposite was the case. What if the sort of people we like to imagine as simple and innocent are free of rulers, governments, bureaucracies, ruling classes and the like, not because they are lacking in imagination, but because they’re actually more imaginative than we are? We find it difficult to picture what a truly free society would be like; perhaps they have no similar trouble picturing what arbitrary power and domination would be like. Perhaps they can not only imagine it, but consciously arrange their society in such a way as to avoid it. As we’ll see in the next chapter, Clastres’s argument has its limits. But by insisting that the people studied by anthropologists are just as self-conscious, just as imaginative, as the anthropologists themselves, he did more to reverse the damage than anyone before or since. P. 73.

This idea resonates with me. I’ve seen the art produced by our ancestors from 25,000 years ago, in caves like the Font de Gaume in Southern France. It’s near Les Eyzies-du-Tayac-Sireuil, which is home to The National Museum Of Prehistory, and several reconstructions of the living quarters of the Magdelanian culture. From the mouth of the Font-de-Gaume even today you can see walnut trees and, I imagine, wild asparagus, berries, and small game in the underbrush. The Dordogne River is nearby, full of fish. There are large abri, cut-outs high up in the cliffs, which make decent living quarters. I’m not sure what more they needed to live pleasantly. Why would they submit to domination by one of their band? Why would they follow some loudmouth who wants to take over some other abri in some stupid war?

There’s a review of the book by William Deresiewicz in the Atlantic. If you need encouragement to read this book, here it is.

3. Pride, Prejudice, And Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. This novel centers on a family descended from royalty in India. The parents immigrated to the San Francisco area, and did very well indeed. It’s loosely modeled on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, a particular hero of the author. The “flavors” come from Indian cuisine as practiced by a chef raised in England and trained in Paris. He comes to the area to take care of his artist sister who has a brain tumor that only the surgeon daughter and protagonist can hope to eradicate, and only at the cost of her sight.

The connections to Pride and Prejudice are well adapted to current times. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth forms a prejudice against Mr. Darcy because he rejects her at a dance. Besides that, he behaves like he’s better than everybody else, which she attributes to his wealth and his arrogance. Consequently she can easily use him as the object of her wit. In Dal’s retelling, this plays out between the surgeon and the chef in a more complex ways, involving both both their histories.

As an aside, I also like the Bollywood flic, Bride And Prejudice, which is set in the India of today; it’s a lot of fun.

4. Reputation by Lex Croucher. This first novel is set in Regency-Era England. It imagines the lives of 20-somethings from the upper class, free from parental supervision, and freed from all constraints by the wealth and power of their families. The protagonist is a well-read, well-educated, and thoughtful young woman of the middle class, caught up into the lives of the rich young. It’s a life filled with parties, drugs, liquor and even a bit of sex. For me the sensibility of the novel is so 21st Century that it didn’t work as a period piece. It will be published in the US next year.

5, The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This is an extraordinary novel. Barbery studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud in Lyon (I think) and taught at Université de Bourgogne. There are a number of themes in the book, but one that stands out for me is the effort to put the ideas of philosophy into action in the lives of the characters. For example, one character is a 12 year old girl of extraordinary intelligence, who has decided that there is no point to living so she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The meaninglessness of life is a concern of the main character as well. This is a nod to The Myth Of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, in which we are asked why we don’t commit suicide in the face of the absurd.

There are discussions of some of my favorite things, food, music, and art. As to music, the use of Mozart’s Confutatis from The Requiem is hilarious. I love Dutch still life paintings; here’s the subject of that link. I’ve always liked philosophy, some of which is powerful, and some of which, like Barbery’s description of the a philosophy dissertation on William of Ockham, seems ridiculous.

The author doesn’t think much of upper middle class French society, and it shows. That’s fun. It’s fun to think how these criticisms would work in US society.

I refuse to acknowledge any flaws in this book. And the translator, Alison Anderson, is dazzling.

6. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. This novel is grounded in the life of Erdich’s grandfather, a Chippewa leader who was instrumental in preserving the reservation and way of life of his Turtle Mountain Band. Most of the book describes the lives of the members of the Band in the mid-50s. Perhaps the most valuable part for me was the way visions work for the characters. At one level if felt like magical realism, but it seems so grounded in their lives that I felt an intuition about how it might work in my own life in our hyper-technical society.

7. Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I took up this book at the suggestion of commenter Epicurus. I’ve just started, and perhaps I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. In the meantime, two observations. First, the book is beautifully written. It’s easy to follow the argument; the examples are clear and precise; and the introduction shows how he came to think about things as he does.

Second, the idea of two systems of cognition is intuitively appealing. Years ago I read a book about epistemology that used the terms intensive and reflexive to describe two separate ways of thinking. I’d guess we’ve all had the experience of self-checking that goes on when we think of something we might say, or write something, then a separate voice in our heads pipes up with objections. So is the idea that we don’t know much about what lies below either of the two systems. Studies of vision show that much of the computation is done before the image reaches the brain, so it seems reasonable to think there’s a lot of pre-computation in each of the two systems. Things are happening in our minds we can’t perceive.

That’s most of what I’ve read over the last few weeks. So, what have you been reading?

Update: Thanks to everyone for the marvelous array of books and the discussion. I hope everyone found something they’re excited to read.

And Happy Holidays to all!
Image by Janne Poikolainen, creative commons license.