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October 12, 2006

A Natural History of Civilisation: How the Scottish Enlightenment Reconciled our Biology with our Progress

Posted by William Coleman

Invoking the example of the shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629, Dr William Coleman - Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics - comes to the defence of the Scottish Enlightenment vision that it is not Nature which is in conflict with Civilisation, but that it is the Unnatural which is in conflict with Civilisation.

The notion that Nature and Civilisation are in conflict is a popular one. And it is a fertile ground for contrary ideological offspring. For the presumption of conflict suggests that - since we cannot have both - we must choose between them. So we might side with Nature over Civilisation, and incline to an ethic of "Natural Barbarism". Or we might side with Civilisation over Nature, and favour an ethic of "Perverse Civilisation".

What this column wishes to press is that liberal conservatives of the Enlightenment - pre-eminently Hume and Smith - upheld a completely opposed conception of the relation of Civilisation and the Natural. In their mind the Natural and the Civilised were consistent. Civilisation does not erase, or block or dam human impulses - be they good or bad. Civilisations may channel impulses differently, but does not diminish their force. In the minds of the liberal conservatives of the 18th century the conflict lies not between the Civilised and the Natural, but the Civilised and the Unnatural.

The locus classicus of this position is Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1728). Human nature to Mandeville is not elevated - it is proud, covetous, guiltless, pitiless. And civilisation does not curb these sentiments. It merely has them expressed in a more sophisticated manner. So pride becomes less guileless in its presentation. Covetousness becomes less blatant. The love of victory and domination remains, and merely changes form, from gross physical combat to one-upmanship.

Vengeance, too, remains. It is no longer Odysseus bellowing, "You die in blood", but (say) the poison pen letter. Neither, in the Mandevillian vision, does Civilisation extinguish the passion for destruction and violence. It only sophisticates it; makes it more capital intensive, more technological, more planned, more efficient to a purpose, cleverer. This may be illustrated by the contrast between the warfare of the Romans with that of barbarians. Or the warfare of the western colonial garrison vs. that of the colonial insurrection. Chlorine gas is not nicer than the spear or the bayonet, but it can claim to be more sophisticated. Fritz Haber, the man who first weaponised gas, and who directed the first large scale release of chlorine gas at Ypres, France on 22nd April, 1915 declared, upon receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry 1919, that gas was "a higher form of killing". Higher, in one sense.

Evidently, Civilisation is at something of a discount in the Mandevillian vision. Civilisation is not the thing that preserves us from poison gas. Yet, all the same, Mandeville - like almost all of the lumières - emphatically believed in Civilisation. It is just that - and this is the point - he did not believe in Civilisation on account of its supposed reformation of an ugly human nature.

At the same time the Mandevillian vision puts Nature at a bit of premium. Not because it is elevated, but because Nature, at the very least, does not interfere with Civilisation.

Indeed, Mandeville and Smith believed that human nature and Civilisation were positively complementary. Thus "the propensity to truck barter and exchange" - on which all of Smith's vision rested - might be, in his view, "an original principle of human nature".

The complementarity of the Natural and the Civilised has a companion thesis; that the Civilised is offended by the not Natural. The unnatural and the Civilised are antagonistic. This hypothesis finds one expression in commonplace political rhetoric that has political adversaries painted, not just as adversaries, but as crooks or criminals. Deviants or degenerates. Drunks or "tea drinkers". They are, in one variant, sick in the head: they are "mad", "insane", "maniacs". This rhetoric lends itself well to the political cosmology of the Right, where the adversary is often identified as the outsider; the atypical "deviant". But the rhetoric is also deployed by the Left whenever it suits it (e.g. Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui).

It is not simple to decide the justice of the vision of the Civilised as menaced by the unNatural. This column simply wishes to offer up an anecdote that speaks to this thesis; a tiny pixel of the panorama of human experience: the wreck of the Batavia [See Batavia's Graveyard, Mike Dash, 2002; and The Wreck of the Batavia and Prosper, Simon Leys, 2005].

In 1629 the Batavia was dispatched by Dutch East India Company (VOC) to sail from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies. Aboard was one Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt apothecary, fleeing creditors and possibly the "Court of Holland" which was, in its bloody way, investigating the associates of Torrentius: artist, libertine, and suspected Anabaptist. "Anabaptism" comprehends many things in the "radical Reformation", but can include the doctrine that "killing infidel was pleasing to their God". Some have speculated that Cornelisz was a crony of Torrentius, and had been introduced by him to weird theories to the effect that "crimes committed by god's elect are not crimes at all" (see Leys, p. 18).

On 3rd June the Batavia was wrecked on the Houtman Abroholos; a group of tiny coral islands in the Indian Ocean. The wreck was not (immediately) the catastrophe it must have seemed. 300 persons survived the surf to struggle onto Beacon Island. There they found water. And there was food. And there was hope. For the Batavia's skiff had survived, and it now set out to brave the long sea voyage to Java to bring back a rescue party.

But, fatefully, in the skiff also went the captain and all the ship's senior officers. The elaborate rules of VOC required that there was always somebody in command of any group of VOC personnel. The rules stipulated, not surprisingly, that command was always invested in the most senior person present. The most senior person amongst the shipwrecked survivors happened to be Cornelisz, even though he had only just joined the company. "Cornelisz seemed to be the natural heir to authority" (Leys, p. 27). Cornelisz was also ‘a remarkable speaker; his eloquence exerted an almost irresistible power’.

A menace to Cornelisz's power lay in the fact that, before he was washed to shore, some soldiers had already "spontaneously gathered" round one of their own, a certain Wiebbe Hayes (Leys, p. 33). Therefore, Cornelisz had Hayes and his followers transported to a neighbouring isle, High Island, supposedly to allow them reconnoitre it, but with the real purpose of abandoning them on an island that Cornelisz was convinced was waterless.

Now (apparently) secure on Beacon Island, Cornelisz instituted a charismatic, blood soaked tyranny, of the flavour of the notorious "millenarian" Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster of 1534. All children were murdered, their mothers enslaved, and almost all adults killed in "aberrant atrocities" (Leys, p. 9). There is no need to rehearse the horrors that were involved in this deed. But the point is worth pressing that much of the violence on "Batavia's Graveyard" seems not to have been instrumental; it was pointless. Or, to put it another way, it had a "just for fun" motivation: the island had become a carnival of murder.

Some of the denizens of Beacon Island managed to escape to High Island, and alert the still perfectly alive Wiebbe Hayes. Hayes prepared High Island as a sanctuary for escapees, and an outpost of resistance. Cornelisz attempted to subjugate High Island, but was successfully resisted until the fortuitous arrival of the VOC's rescue ship from Java (at a rather critical moment, just like the arrival of the Royal Navy in the Lord of The Flies).

In accordance with the law, Cornelisz had both hands amputated, and was then "hung" (= strangled). His last words were "Revenge! Revenge!"

The key point is that the wreck of the Batavia is not a Lord of the Flies story; it is not a story of the constraints of civilisation wrenched off by circumstance; and then, being cast off, barbaric human nature - the stranger within, the ape beneath the skin, - emerging. It cannot be such a story because there are two islands; one on which there is a disaster, and one not. Further, it was Beacon Island - where the "social capital" of the VOC's rules of leadership had survived - that experienced catastrophe. A Lord of the Flies vision is inadequate to explain what happened on Beacon Island, and what did not happen on High Island.

The apparent explicatory difference between the two islands is that Beacon Island was ruled by a "criminal and pervert", and High Island was not. Thus Leys draws his lesson of The Batavia (Leys, p. 36):

a civilised society is not one in which the percentage of criminals and perverts is lower (the proportion must be about the same in all human communities); it is simply one that gives them less opportunity to indulge their inclinations.
We may query if the Batavia corroborates Leys' thesis that civilisation and "opportunity for criminals and perverts" are mutually exclusive. For it seems the greater survival of civilisation on Beacon Island (as manifested in survival of the leadership structures of the VOC) gave a greater opportunity to criminals and perverts. The complete, or more exact lesson of the Batavia, may be that damaged Civilisation gives an opportunity to criminals and perverts.

Modern times surely gives a resonance to the notion that a damaged civilisation gives to "criminals and perverts" a licence to practice crime. On occasion its historical substantiation has been attempted. Thus in Hippolyte Taine's analysis of the French Revolution, the Jacobin was [quoted in Donald Greer, The Incidence of the Terror During the French Revolution: a Statistical Interpretation, 1935, p. 5]:

intellectually an automaton energised by the ideas of Rousseau and Mably: but he was also a social delinquent, at best a small town failure, unstable visionary, clever rogue or charlatan; at worst - the majority - a cutthroat, vagabond, or jailbird.
Indeed, Taine could have put in service of his thesis much juicier cuts than the "vagabond, or jailbird". As is well known, the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille until July 1789, and released during the Revolution. What is less well-known is that in 1792 he was elected to the regicide National Convention, and there represented the far left. Donatien Alphonse François, le Marquis de Sade seems to constitute a spectacular corroboration of the incongruence of Civilisation and the Unnatural.

It is testimony to the power of intelligent men to use their intelligence to evade the obvious that Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation, saw fit to enlist de Sade for a contrary inference. Clarke saw fit to enlist de Sade in his effort to denigrate the Enlightenment's reverence for the Natural, and so bear out his own perception of a tension between Civilisation and Nature. De Sade, Clark tells us, "saw through the new god [of Nature] from the start!". To clinch the point he quotes from De Sade in 1792:

Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty.
Nature averse to crime? The Enlightenment thought so- and that crime was averse to Nature. For Clark to invoke de Sade to have us think otherwise is truly perverse.

Dr William Coleman is Reader in Economics at the Australian National University and the author of Economics and its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

To read William Coleman's earlier essays on the conflict between Nature and Civilisation, see: Perverse Civilisation and Natural Barbarism: William Coleman explores two doubtful moves in social theorising and examines Malthus's debate with Godwin over population - and the subsequent Benthamite libelling of Malthus and The Civilised Way of Death: Nature vs. Civilisation in the novels of Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and William Godwin.


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HELP ! - please, Mr. Coleman and others --> Where in deSade's writings is Lord Clark quoting from? [[--in the following as recited in your article above?]]
"It is testimony to the power of intelligent men to use their intelligence to evade the obvious that Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation, saw fit to enlist de Sade for a contrary inference. Clarke saw fit to enlist de Sade in his effort to denigrate the Enlightenment's reverence for the Natural, and so bear out his own perception of a tension between Civilisation and Nature. De Sade, Clark tells us, "saw through the new god [of Nature] from the start!". To clinch the point he quotes from De Sade in 1792:

'Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty.' "
My want of this source is itself perceived a form of cruelty lasting now many years! -

AGAIN -- please HELP !!? - Arnie

Posted by: arn moore at May 10, 2007 12:41 AM
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