Privilege and Civilization

“…a person is by nature an animal that lives in a community [polis], and one who is by nature and not by fate without such a community [polis] is surely barely–or more than–human.”

[ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον, καὶ ὁ ἄπολις διὰ φύσιν καὶ οὐ διὰ τύχην ἤτοι φαῦλός ἐστιν, ἤ κρείττων ἤ ἄνθρωπος, Politics, 1.1253a]

So Aristotle says early in his Politics, a phrase that is often repeated, but usually truncated to “man is a political animal.” This observation comes only at the end of a passage where Aristotle analyzes human relationships, concluding that the polis is the highest form of community. He, of course, prioritizes free citizens and regards the civilizations of Asia as inferior on the grounds that they were slaves to the Persian king. A similar sentiment emerges in other Greek sources, such as Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaestus, which says:

“With gleaming-eyed Athena, he taught humans on the earth splendid crafts, men who formerly dwelt in caves in the mountains, like wild beasts. But now, through the famed-craftsmen Hephaestus, they have learned crafts and they live a peaceful life all year, easily and in their own homes.”

[ὃς μετ᾽ Ἀθηναίης φλαυκώπιδος ἀγλαὰ ἔργα ἀνθρώπους ἐδίδαξεν ἐπὶ χθονός, οἳ τὸ πάρος περ ἄντροις ναιετάασκον ἐν οὔρεσιν, ἠύτε θῆρες. νῦν δὲ δι’ ᾽Ἣφαιστον κλθτοτέχνην ἔργα δαέντες ῥηιδίως αἰῶνα τελεσφόρον εἰς ἐναυτὸν εὔκηλοι διάγουςιν ἐνὶ σφετέροισι δόμοισιν.]

Technically, this passage could apply to any group of people who live in man-made structures, but the progression from living like (and with) animals to a civilized, urban life appears is fairly common. In Arrian’s account of Alexander’s speech to his men at Opis says that Philip found the men “impoverished wanderers” (πλανήτας καὶ ἀπόρους), “dressed in animal hide” (ἐν διφθέραις) and “feeding a few sheep on the hills” (ἀνὰ τὰ ὄρη πρόβατα ὀλίγα) and made them civilized city-dwellers (πόλεων τε οἰκήτορας). It should not be a surprise that the common thread privileges what is considered a typically Greek way of life, nor that the Greek authors looked upon their own culture as the ideal arrangement of society. The people at the top have a tendency to think that way.

It is also notable how infrequently “non-civilized” people show up in ancient sources unless they a) pose a threat to more civilized people, b) are an object of curiosity, or c) is used as a contrast to civilized cultures as either c1) to demonstrate how far civilization had come or c2) to espouse the prelapsarian virtues of people uncorrupted by luxuries of civilization. Barring that they are invisible. For instance, Livy gives the briefest accounts of tribes of people living in the Alps only because they block Hannibal’s passage into Italy.

The phenomenon of privileging civilization is old, but it is not a relic of the past. In recent history, the Worlds Fairs put “exotic” humans, including eskimos, on display. Exhibits depicting “non-civilized” peoples tend to be relegated to Natural History museums, and they are studied in the context of anthropology museums–or, at least, in specialized history classes for, for example, Native Americans. Other peripheral communities of people are simply excluded from the narrative. That is a feature of narratives–there are those within the spotlight and those on the outside. Yet, there is also a privileging of those whose societies are in some sense structured like ours and those that are declared to be the ancestors in the truest sense, namely not just those that came before, but those that established cultures and civilizations that led to ours. Those on periphery are curiosities of secondary importance.

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