Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Evolution of Democracy is Natural But Not Inevitable: Locke and Sagard on the Huron in the State of Nature

To explain the history of democracy, it is often said that it was invented in ancient Athens.  After it died out in ancient Greece and Rome, democracy vanished from Europe for over a thousand years.  It then reemerged in early modern Europe, in some of the Italian city republics and in England.  In England and the United States, it eventually evolved into the modern form of democracy with competitive elections and universal suffrage.  This modern democracy then spread around the world. 

In The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (2020), David Stasavage denies this story by arguing that democracy did not need to be invented by Europeans because it has arisen naturally in human societies throughout the world over thousands of years.  This became clear, Stasavage observes, when Europeans first explored the Americas and discovered that some of the native Americans were living in democratic political systems.  For example, in North America, the French saw that the Huron Confederacy was ruled by a system of councils with broad popular participation.  In Mesoamerica, the Spanish discovered that the people of Tlaxcala were ruled by what looked like a democratic republic that had resisted conquest by the Aztec Empire.

The Huron and Tlaxcala illustrate how democracy has evolved naturally throughout history around the world: whenever the circumstances are such that those trying to rule over a society are compelled to seek the consent of the people they govern, then democratic practices are likely to arise.  Stasavage admits, however, that this is not inevitable, because whenever the circumstances are such that rulers can govern a society through a state bureaucracy without the direct consent of the people, then autocratic institutions are likely to arise.  In the Americas, the Aztec and Inca Empires were illustrations of such autocracy.  So autocracy is also natural but not inevitable.

Stasavage thinks that all governments depend either directly or indirectly on the consent of the governed.  But that consent can be either the express consent of the people through some kind of popular council or assembly in a democracy, or it can be the tacit consent of the people to an autocracy by their not revolting against it. 

In contrast to the early forms of democracy that have arisen in many regions of the world throughout history, Stasavage contends that modern democracy--with representatives chosen in competitive elections with universal suffrage--is a European invention that arose from the particular historical circumstances of modern Europe that led eventually to modern democracy in England and the United States.

I find most of Stasavage's reasoning persuasive.  And yet I would put more emphasis than he does on two points--that democracy first arose among our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that the political ideas of thinkers like John Locke have been crucial for the history of democracy.


In only one sentence (p. 34), Stasavage mentions the possibility that some form of democracy appeared among early hunter-gatherer societies.  In fact, that would explain why democracy is natural for human societies, because it arose in our earliest evolutionary history in Paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands, so that it is part of our genetically evolved human nature.

This might seem odd if we identify foraging bands as anarchistic societies, because being "stateless societies" (as anthropologists call them), they seem to lack any governmental rule at all.  But as I have argued in a previous post, if "anarchy" is taken in its literal sense of "no rule" or "no governance," then foraging societies are not anarchic, because they do have some form of governance, even if the governance is informal, fluctuating, and decentralized.  Pure anarchy is a fiction, because no human society can endure as a social order without some governance.

Some anarchist theorists have implicitly conceded this point.  For example, the best history of anarchist thinkers and movements is Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (2010).  Anarchists begin by distinguishing between society and the state, he indicates, and then they argue that a society can be a self-regulating order of governance without a state.  He writes: "Pure anarchy probably never existed.  Stateless societies and peasant societies employ sanctions of approval and disapproval, the offer of reciprocity, and the threat of its withdrawal, as instruments of social control.  But modern anthropology confirms that in organic or 'primitive' societies, there is a limited concentration of force.  If authority exists, it is delegated and rarely imposed, and in many societies no relation of command and obedience is in force" (12).

If the minimal requirement for a democracy is having the people of a society actively consenting to their governance, then a stateless society of a foraging band in which the people employ "sanctions of approval and disapproval" to control their leaders so that there is "no relation of command and obedience" would seem to be democratic.

I have written about how John Locke saw this in the state of nature in America from his reading of Jose de Acosta's report in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies.  In the Second Treatise (par. 102), Locke quoted Acosta's claim that in America there were many societies with "no government at all" and "no kings," but with "captains" or "chiefs" that the people chose to lead them when they needed leadership in war or peace.  

It seems confusing or even self-contradictory to say that while there was "no government at all," the people chose those who governed them.  But there's no contradiction if we understand "no government" to mean no centralized bureaucratic state in a hunter-gatherer society that does have some governance by leaders chosen by the people and a system of customary laws enforced by public approval and disapproval.

This is the first of three levels in the history of government that Acosta saw in America.  Acosta assumed that the first settlers in America who crossed over from Asia to North America lived in hunter-gatherer societies (Acosta 380-81).

The second stage came later in history when some groups lived in "free associations or communities, where the people are governed by the advice of many, and are like councils.  In time of war, these elect a captain who is obeyed by a whole tribe or province.  In time of peace, each town or group of folk rules itself, and each has some prominent men whom the mass of the people respect; and at most some of these join together on matters that seem important to them to see what they ought to do" (359).

Acosta's third stage is that of autocratic monarchy or empire--like that of the Incas or the rule of Montezuma in Mexico.  Originally, this was a "moderate rule" that is the best, in which the kings and nobles acknowledged that their subjects were "equal by nature and inferior only in the sense that they have less obligation to care for the public good."  But later this monarchic rule became tyrannical as the rulers treated their subjects as beasts and treated themselves as gods (346, 359, 402).

In some passages of his book, Acosta combines the first two stages and suggests that even the most primitive hunter-gatherers had some informal leadership by which prominent people could mediate disputes and lead them in war, but always constrained by the informal consent or resistance of the community.  The one passage quoted by Locke is an example of this, as though Locke figured out that even primitive foragers would have some episodic and informal structure of rule in which some individuals would have more influence than others, although excessive dominance would be checked by popular resistance.

In other words, politics is constant in all human societies, in that some individuals will be politically ambitious in seeking the support of others in becoming leaders, and there will be political rivalry in the competition for positions of leadership.  The many other individuals who do not wish to rule will defer to those who lead them, but they will also resist oppressive dominance by their leaders.  Human beings really are political animals by nature.

Acosta's three levels of political order corresponds at least roughly to what some modern political anthropologists have identified as a four-leveled typology of preindustrial political systems: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state (Flannery and Marcus 2012; Service 1971; Lewellen 2003:15-41).  In bands and tribes, political power is decentralized and egalitarian.  In chiefdoms and states, political power is centralized and inegalitarian.  In bands, people live by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  In tribes, people continue hunting and gathering, but they are also horticulturalists who engage in some small-scale farming of domesticated plants and pastoralists who herd some domesticated animals.

Locke identified both bands and tribes as societies in the state of nature, because people in these societies are naturally free and equal in that all adult individuals are free from any coercive subordination to anyone else.  They live by customary rules of good conduct, and each individual has the right to enforce those rules by punishing those who violate them.  No adult individual feels compelled to take orders from anyone else, although people will voluntarily consent to informal and situational leaders.


One of Locke's sources for information about tribal societies in America was Gabriel Sagard's Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons, which was first published in French in 1632.  Locke bought this book during his stay in France, 1675 to 1679.  His notes on the book date from 1679, when he had returned to England, in the midst of the Exclusion Crisis.  Anthony Ashley Cooper, the First Earl of Shaftesbury, was leading those members of Parliament who wanted to exclude James, the Duke of York, from inheriting the throne from his brother King Charles II, because James was a Catholic; and Shaftesbury's group feared that a Catholic king of England would promote the royal absolutism of the French Catholic monarchy.  Locke was associated with Shaftesbury and his group, which would become the Whig party.  Their opponents would become the Tory party.  According to Peter Laslett, Locke began writing his Two Treatises on Government in 1679, in response to the Exclusion Crisis, although it would not be published until after the Revolution of 1688.

In Locke's notebook, his notes on Sagard are under the heading Immitanda, indicating that Locke regarded Huron society as worthy of being imitated.  And, indeed, much of what Locke says about the state of nature as the original condition of humanity was shaped by his reading of Sagard (Talbot 2010: 27-44).

In 1610, the French exploring Canada began to visit the four confederated Iroquoian-speaking tribes they called the Huron, who called themselves the Wendat.  The French found their settlements scattered across a peninsula located between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe northwest of Lake Ontario.  Some of these settlements had as many as 2,000 people.  The total population for about twenty settlements was about 30,000.  The larger settlements were surrounded by palisades to protect them from attack, because the Huron Confederacy was often at war with the Iroquois Confederacy of five tribes settled south of Lake Ontario.  The Huron were a horticultural society based primarily on the cultivation of corn, but also beans and squash.  The women did most of the farming work.  The adult men brought in other food from hunting, gathering, and fishing.  The men were also warriors who took pride in their courageous fighting against the Iroquois.  The men also engaged in extensive trading networks.  Political alliances were built around trading relations.

The French descriptions of Huron culture are found mostly in three sources.  The first was Samuel de Champlain's account of his visit to the Huron between may 1615 and May 1616.  Champlain was an explorer, a soldier, a cartographer, and a trader who worked for trading companies involved in the valuable fur trade.  He supervised the development of the French colony along the Saint Lawrence River.  

The second source was Sagard.  He was a lay brother of the Recollects, who were a branch of the Franciscan order.  He went to Canada from Paris to promote missionary work among the Huron.  Before leaving he studied the Huron language, and he later published an important dictionary of the Huron language.  He arrived in Huron country in August of 1623 and stayed there until May of 1624.  At this time, he saw Huron society at its peak of development.  Beginning in 1634, the Huron were decimated by epidemic diseases passed to them by the French--particularly the smallpox and measles.  Over two-thirds of the Huron people died.  Then in 1649, the Huron were devastated by an invasion of Iroquois warriors fighting with firearms acquired from trading with the Dutch colonists.  Those of the Huron who survived were forced to abandon their villages and leave their native territory.  So Sagard's reports are a valuable record of what Huron society looked like before this collapse.

The third source for studies of the Huron is the Jesuit Relations.  The Relations were annual reports published in Paris by the Jesuits to chronicle their activities among the Huron from 1634 to 1650.  They were filled with detailed descriptions of Huron life and culture.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Tooker has paraphrased much of what was written in these three sources in writing her Ethnology of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649 (1964).

In taking notes on Sagard's book, Locke was relying on some of the best anthropological ethnography available to him.  Anthropologist Bruce Trigger is one of the leading scholars today of Huron history, and he has praised the work of Sagard and the other French observers of the Huron in the first half of the seventeenth century.  He notes that they saw the Huron before the extensive contact with the Europeans had altered their way of life.  "Unlike most modern anthropologists, these visitors did not find themselves living among groups who had long been influenced by Europeans and who were under the surveillance and control of a colonial administration that had altered their way of life to accord with European standards of propriety" (Trigger 2002:1).

The archaeological evidence for the earliest human occupation of southern Ontario suggests that the first humans there were foragers who lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing (Trigger 2000:105-176).  Fluted spear points associated with mammoth and mastodon hunting have been dated between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C.  Later, the principal game animals were deer, moose, and caribou.  Around 500 A.D., corn was introduced, and slowly horticulture became more important.  This confirms Acosta's insight that the first human societies in the Americas were hunter-gatherer bands, long before horticultural tribes.

Locke's notes on Sagard (found in Oxford University's Lovelace Collection of Locke's Papers) have never been published.  But Ann Talbot has published some extracts from these notes in her book (Talbot 2010:27-44).

By comparing Locke's notes, Sagard's book, and Locke's Two Treatises and Letters on Toleration, one can see at least nine elements of Locke's account of the state of nature that he could have taken from Sagard:  (1) the law of nature, (2) the state of war, (3) natural punishment, (4) rulers by consent, (5) council governance, (6) religious toleration, (7) marriage and divorce by voluntary contract, (8) property, and (9) egalitarian hierarchy.

(1) The law of nature.  Sagard noted how hospitable the Huron were in their treatment of the Franciscans, freely sharing their lodging and food.  "For they hold it proper to help wayfarers and to receive among them with politeness anyone who is not an enemy, and much more so those of their own nation" (1968:88).  When the Franciscans decided that they needed to build a church to facilitate their mission of teaching Christianity, the Huron helped to build it.  When one young man complained that he did not want to do such work for those who were not his relatives, he was reproved for being so unfriendly.  Sagard observed how remarkable they were in showing themselves "so full of human kindness" in helping in the building of the church (1968:78).

Locke's notes show how impressed he was by this description of the friendly sociability of the Huron.  He noted that they were "merry and even tempered grave and serious but not sullen nor melancholy."  They were "lovers of order."  They "quarrel not with their neighbors."  They were "friendly, liberal, and charitable to all strangers as well as acquaintances except enemies."

In this way, the Huron showed Locke how people in a state of nature without any centralized governmental rule over them could live sociably together according to customary rules of good conduct.  In his Second Treatise, Locke concluded that this showed how the state of nature "has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions" (par. 6).  In the Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke said that the American Indians were "strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and of the Law of Nature" (Goldie ed., 40). 

If there is such a law of nature in the state of nature, then Thomas Hobbes is wrong in asserting that the state of nature must always become a state of war--a war of each against all--because as Locke says, the state of nature can be "a State of Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation" (par. 19).

(2)  The state of war.  Notice, however, that the Huron were friendly with everyone "except enemies."  Sagard described their frequent wars with the Iroquois and other tribes.  Usually they went to war to avenge the killing of someone by an enemy.  The young men were eager to go to war so that they could win the glory from fighting courageously.  When they defeated an enemy, they took prisoners and brought them back to their villages where they were tortured in the most brutal ways.  They did their best to prolong the torture over many days.  

Sagard saw warfare among the Huron as rooted in their culture of blood revenge and feuding:

"There is scarcely any nation that is not at war and dissension with some other, not for the purpose of possessing their territory and conquering their country, but solely to exterminate them if possible and to take revenge for some slight wrong or unpleasantness, which is seldom a great matter.  But their misgovernment and the want of police, which leaves their wicked fellow-citizens unpunished, is the cause of all this evil. . . . And thus it happens most frequently that for the fault of one man alone two entire tribes make war very cruelly upon one another, and are always in continual dread of being surprised the one by the other" (1968:163-164).

So among the Huron, the state of nature often became a state of war, just as Hobbes warned.  Consequently, it seems that Locke in the Second Treatise must concede this point to Hobbes: "To avoid this State of War (wherein there is no appeal but to Heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no Authority to decide between the Contenders) is one great reason of Mens putting themselves into Society, and quitting the State of Nature" (par. 21).

Here we see what William Batz (1974:667-68) has called an "anthropological ambiguity" in Locke's historical anthropology.  On the one hand, Locke says that the state of nature was not a state of war, as Hobbes claimed, but rather a state of peace.  On the other hand, Locke says that the state of nature could easily become a state of war, and that's why people consented to leaving the state of nature and establishing government to pacify social life.  This is why scholarly commentators on Locke have debated whether or not Locke was ultimately a Hobbesian.  

The reason for this confusion is that the anthropological reports about native American peoples available to Locke disagreed about whether these people in America were peaceful or bellicose.  They were peaceful insofar as they could live by customary rules of cooperation within each society, and they could even enforce rules for peaceful trading between different societies.  But they also engaged in homicidal violence both within and between their societies.

This anthropological ambiguity continues today in the intense debate among anthropologists about the evolution of human warfare.  The Hobbesian anthropologists argue that our evolutionary ancestors living in stateless societies--bands or tribes--were often at war, and that the establishment of bureaucratic states had a pacifying effect on human life.  The Rousseauian anthropologists argue, on the contrary, that our prehistoric ancestors were peaceful, and that warfare was a cultural invention that arose after the emergence of settled agrarian societies and bureaucratic states.

Often the anthropologists assume that the debate is between two alternatives, represented by Hobbes and Rousseau, and they ignore Locke as taking a third position.  Consequently, I have argued, they fail to see that the evidence supports the conclusion that Hobbes was partly right about the state of nature, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  

The evidence shows that Hobbes was right about the state of nature being a state of war, and therefore Rousseau was wrong.  But the evidence also shows that Hobbes was wrong in claiming that life in the state of nature was a perpetual war with no peaceful cooperation.  In fact, people in foraging bands and horticultural tribes  have lived in communities with norms of peaceful cooperation that included intertribal cooperation such as networks of trade.  And they sometimes had long periods without intertribal war.

Locke was right to see that the state of nature is a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war: establishing government can therefore have a pacifying effect through the rule of law to settle disputes that easily become violent feuds in the state of nature.

Some of my previous posts on this can be found herehereherehere., and here.

(3)  Natural punishment.  The persistence of war in Huron society arises from each individual having the right to seek revenge against any perceived wrongdoer.  This is what Locke in the Second Treatise called "the Executive Power of the Law of Nature"--that "every Man hath a Right to punish the Offender, and be Executioner of the Law of Nature."  Locke concedes that this must seem a "very strange Doctrine to some Men," And yet he argues that the law of nature, like all other laws governing human conduct, would be "in vain" if there were no one with the power to execute that law, which must include the power to execute any murderer (pars. 7-8, 11).

Paradoxically, this natural right to punish that enforces social peace under the law of nature also provokes social conflict when the right to take revenge creates unremitting feuding.  Here we see the "inconveniences of the State of Nature, which necessarily follow from every Man's being Judge in his own Case," and we can see why people sought a remedy for these inconveniences by having each individual give up his executive power of the law of nature and resigned it to a governmental order with the power to make, enforce, and adjudicate standing laws of justice.  Here is how centralized political power originates by popular consent to leave the state of nature (pars. 87-89).

Nevertheless, if a monarch is unrestrained by law in exercising arbitrary, absolute power to oppress the people, he has thereby put himself into a state of nature in relation to his people, and they can reclaim their natural right to punish him as they would anyone who aggressively attacks them (pars. 91-93).

It should also be noted that in the state of nature, the natural right to punish has two levels: there is a natural right to punish with physical force those who inflict physical harm on others, and the people must give up this right to public institutions with the establishment of government and civil law; but there is also a natural right to punish with social disapproval those who have engaged in blameworthy conduct, and this right is retained by the people even after the establishment of government and civil law.  This second kind of natural punishment is called the "law of reputation" in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  I have written about this in an earlier post.  Sagard saw this in the Huron because they were generally motivated to win social approval and to avoid social disapproval, and that's how the customary norms of their society were enforced.

(4) Rulers by consent.  In his reading of Sagard's book, Locke saw how a tribal people in a state of nature could establish government by their consent in selecting their rulers.  In his notes on the book, Locke observed that "their kings are successive only when they are heirs to their father's virtues and are obeyed rather by persuasion than by force," and that the Huron "choose for officers those who upon trial they find fit" (Talbot 2010:36).

In his notes on Sagard's History of Canada, Locke wrote under the heading Politia: "The kings of Canada are elective, but the sons never fail to succeed their fathers when they are heirs to their virtues, otherwise not, and their kings are rather obeyed by consent and persuasion, than by force and compulsion, the public good being the measure of their authority.  Sagard, p. 418.  And this seems to be the state of regal authority in its original at least in all this part of the world" (Locke 1997:274).

The reports from Sagard and others about how the American Indians selected their rulers influenced what Locke said in the Second Treatise about the beginning of political societies in the state of nature.  He claimed that the American Indians "by consent were all equal, till by the same consent they set Rulers over themselves.  So that their Politick Societies all began from a voluntary Union, and the mutual agreement of Men freely acting in the choice of their Governors, and forms of Government" (par. 102).

Locke identified the need for military leadership in war with other societies as the primary reason for people in the state of nature consenting to rulers.  

"Since then those, who liked one another so well as to joyn into Society, cannot but be supposed to have some Acquaintance and Friendship together, and some Trust one in another; they could not but have greater Apprehensions of others, than of one another: And therefore their first care and thought cannot but be supposed to be, how to secure themselves under a Frame of Government, which might best serve to that end; and chuse the wisest and bravest Man to conduct them in their Wars, and lead them out against their Enemies, and in this chiefly be their Ruler" (par. 107).

"Thus we see, that the Kings of the Indians in America, which is still a Pattern of the first Ages in Asia and Europe, . . . are little more than Generals of their Armies; and though they command absolutely in War, yet at home and in time of Peace they exercise very little Dominion, and have but a very moderate Sovereignty, the Resolutions of Peace and War, being ordinarily either in the People, or in a Council.  Though the War it self, which admits not of Plurality of Governours, naturally devolves the Command into the King's sole Authority" (par. 108).

(5) Council governance.   In saying that matters of war and peace were decided "in the People, or in a Council," Locke was reporting what he had learned from Sagard about how the Huron confederacy was ruled by chiefs with the consent of popular councils (Sagard 1968:148-166).  The accuracy of Sagard's description of the Huron council system has been confirmed by Bruce Trigger (2002:80-96).

This Huron government by councils was organized at four levels: the clan segment, the village, the tribe, and the confederacy.  In each of the twenty villages (communities of up to 2,000 people), each clan segment had two chiefs, one for peace and one for war.  The civil chiefs managed the day-to-day affairs of the clan segment.  The war chiefs were prominent only in times of war.  The chiefs were influential, but they had no power to command anyone to obey their orders without the individual consent of every person subject to the order.  Sagard observed that "a chief has no absolute authority among them, although they pay him respect, and the tribe is led by entreaty, advice, and example rather than by commands" (1968:148).

The chiefships were hereditary in particular lineages, but there was no rule to decide which individual within a particular lineage would inherit the office.  A new chief was selected by the members of the lineage, with the older women of the lineage having the most influence.  They selected the person with the best qualifications for the office.  Chiefs who did not perform their duties well and who therefore became objects of public criticism could be dismissed at any time by the women of the lineage.

The primary duty of a chief was to announce the decisions reached through a process of discussion leading to consensus among all the adult men and women of his group.  Chiefs could not make decisions on their own.  Rather, they acted only as discussion leaders helping their groups to reach agreement, in which every individual had to consent.  Each clan segment was autonomous in making decisions for its group.  Above the level of the clan segment, the Huron had a system of representation in which chiefs represented their clan segments.

The civil chiefs of the clan segments met in a village council, along with the old men of the village.  This village council met frequently, often daily.  Although no chief was superior in rank to any other, one of the civil chiefs was recognized as the head chief or spokesman for the village.  The council met in the house of the head chief.  The head chief announced the topics to be discussed, and then everyone in the meeting expressed their opinions.  Proposals were changed until there was a consensus.  The head chief then announced the council's decision.  Everything that concerned the village as a whole was discussed in these council meetings.  All legal disputes between people in different clan lineages were adjudicated by the village council.

Occasionally, there were general meetings attended by all of the men of the village who were twenty-five years old and older.  No women or young men attended.  But the opinions of the women, particularly the older women, were conveyed through the men that attended.

Each of the four Huron tribes had a tribal council made up of the chiefs of the clan segments from the villages of the tribe.  One of these chiefs was designated as principal chief for the tribe based on his inherited lineage.  The people of each tribe saw themselves as a collection of clan segments, and so each clan segment managed its own affairs, and the chief of the clan segment was independent of the other chiefs.

Any chief could call for a tribal council meeting to deliberate about matters that concerned the entire tribe.  They would meet in the house of the principal tribal chief.  And as with the lower level councils, topics would be discussed until a consensus was reached.

Finally, there was a council for the entire Huron confederacy of four tribes.  This confederacy council was made up of all the civil chiefs who sat on the four tribal councils, who represented all of the Huron clan segments.  The confederacy council met once a year in the spring, and the meeting could last several weeks.  They deliberated about matters concerning the whole confederacy.  Special meetings could be called by any confederacy chief to deal with any problem involving the entire confederacy.

This council system of government for the Huron Confederacy was very similar to the government of the Iroquois Confederacy that united five Iroquoian tribes in northeast North America.  Some scholars have seen evidence that some of the American Founding Fathers--particularly, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams--saw the Iroquois Confederacy as a model for how to organize a federal republic with popular representation (Grinde and Johansen 1991).  Other scholars have argued that the evidence for this is not clear.  

Arguing against Bruce Johansen's claims about Iroquois influence on the Founders, Elisabeth Tooker objected: "The most glaring deficiency in Johansen's discussion . . . is one he himself admits to: a failure to consider the writings of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers, most importantly John Locke . . . . If he had done so, he might have realized that the image he holds of the Indian is a legacy from them.  If his account of Franklin's and Jefferson's ideas is correct, so also were theirs--like Johansen, they saw the Indian through Locke's eyes, not through Indian eyes" (1990:294).  Maybe so, but Locke's eyes were looking at the American Indians as presented in traveler's books like Sagard's.  She asserts that "ideas such as 'the state of nature,' 'natural law,' and 'natural rights' are like so many other ideas we hold, Western philosophical ideas, not empirical findings" (1990:296).  But this ignores the fact that Locke really did believe these ideas were "empirical findings" from the study of the Huron and other American Indian societies.

Stasavage has added to these empirical findings by showing that the council governance practiced by the Huron has been widespread in human societies throughout history.  Using data from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample of 186 societies that were representative of the best described societies for specific geographic areas, Stasavage found that for most of these societies there was some council governance, either at the local level or at the level of a central authority (Stasavage 2020; Ahmed and Stasavage 2020).  He also found, however, that autocratic political executives could sometimes develop rule by bureaucracy as a substitute for shared rule with a council.

(6) Religious tolerance.  From his study of the travel literature about the American Indians, Locke concluded that societies in the state of nature show religious tolerance.  He might have found support for this in Sagard's book, because Sagard reports that the Huron were remarkably friendly to the Franciscans, allowing them to freely teach Christianity in the attempt to convert the Huron and turn them away from their native animistic and shamanistic religious beliefs.

In his Letters on Toleration, Locke pointed to the American Indians as showing how people could "live together in Society, make one People of one Language under one Chieftain, who shall have no other Power but to command them in time of War against their common enemies, without any municipal Laws, Judges, or any Person with Superiority established amongst them, but ended all their private Differences, if any arose, by the extemporary Determination of their Neighbors, or of Arbitrators chosen by the Parties";  and in such a society the rulers had no power to use public force to compel people to profess belief in any religion. This should show us that "the Care of Souls does not belong to the Magistrate" (Locke 2010:26, 70).

I have written previously about the evolution of religious liberty in the state of nature.

(7)  Marriage and divorce by voluntary contract.  In the Second Treatise, attacking the idea that paternal power is the absolute right of a father, Locked asked:  "And what will become of this Paternal Power in that part of the World where one Woman hath more than one Husband at a time?  Or in those parts of America where when the Husband and Wife part, which happens frequently, the Children are all left to the Mother, follow her, and are wholly under her Care and Provision?" (par. 65).

Sagard was probably one of Locke's sources for this.  Sagard reported:  "If in the course of time husband and wife like to separate for any reason whatsoever, or have no children, they are free to part. . . . Hence it often happens that some woman spends her youth in this fashion, having had more than a dozen or fifteen husbands, all of whom nevertheless are not the only men to enjoy the woman, how much married they be; for after nightfall the young women and girls run about from one lodge to another, as do the young men for their part on the same quest, possessing them wherever it seems good to them, yet without any violence, leaving all to the wishes of the woman.  The husband will do the like to his neighbor's wife and the wife to her neighbor, no jealousy intervening on that account, and no shame, disgrace, or dishonor being incurred" (Sagard 1968:124-25).

Sagard also indicated, however, that if a couple had children, divorce was rare except for some important reason.  And if the parents did divorce, the children were usually divided up, the daughters going to the mother, the sons to the father, although this was not always the rule.

This supported Locke's claim that marriage was a voluntary compact that could be terminated by consent of the spouses, as long as they provided for the procreation and education of their children (par. 81).

It should also be noted that women had great influence in Huron society, because it was matrilineal (inheritance passed through the female line) and matrilocal (husbands joined the wife's family).

(8) Property.  In his chapter on property in the Second Treatise, Locke referred to the American Indians ten times (par. 26, 30, 36-37, 41, 43, 46, 48-49).  Most of what he said followed what Sagard had written about property among the Huron.

The foraging Indian claims property in his food by appropriating it to himself through his labor.  "The Fruit, or Venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no Inclosure, and is still a Tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his Life" (par. 26).  "Thus this Law of reason makes the Deer, that Indian's who hath killed it; 'tis allowed to be his goods who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before, it was the common right of every one" (par. 30).

The horticultural Indian claims property in the food he has grown, but his farming of the land is not intensive, and so he does not produce much surplus.  And so the Indians are "rich in Land, and poor in all the Comforts of Life," and "a King of a large and fruitful Territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England" (par. 41).

The American Indians had trade networks based on exchange through bartering.  But their commercial activity was limited by their not having invented money (par. 46-49).

(9)  Egalitarian hierarchy.  Locke could see in Huron society evidence for natural human equality, because the Huron asserted the equal right of every individual to be free from coercive dominance by others.  But he also saw that the Huron were not really equal in all respects, because some people had higher social status than others.  Locke had to admit that even the most egalitarian societies in the state of nature show some inequality.  Even if absolute equality is not attainable in any society, Locke suggested, we might expect to see in a free society like the Huron an egalitarian hierarchy.

Locke indicated that in the Second Treatise:

"Though I have said above, Chap. II, That all Men by Nature are equal, I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of Equality: Age or Virtue may give Men a just Precedency: Excellency of Parts and Merit may place others above the Common Level: Birth may subject some, and Alliance or Benefits others, to pay an Observance to those to whom Nature, Gratitude or other Respects may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the Equality, which all Men are in, in respect of Jurisdiction or Dominion one over another, which was the Equality I there spoke of, as proper to the Business in hand, being that equal Right that every Man hath, to his Natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man" (par. 54).

This could be a description of the Huron.  Age makes a difference, because adults have higher rank than children, and older men and women generally have the highest rank.  Birth makes a difference, because men born into certain clan segments have a greater chance of becoming a chief.  Virtue and merit are also important, because those selected for the office of chief must be judged to have the talents and traits of character required for being a good chief; and war chiefs must be judged to be courageous and wise in their military leadership.  Alliance, benefits, and gratitude are all factors that influence social ranking, so that chiefs are respected only as long as they are generous in giving away much of their wealth to others.  Sex differences are important, because the offices of government are held only by men, and yet women (particularly, in a matrilineal and matrilocal society) have great influence over social life.

In all of these ways, Huron society is hierarchical, in the sense that some people have greater power or status than others.  But then anthropologists have long recognized that all human societies are hierarchical in some manner, even those hunter-gatherer bands that are often identified as the most egalitarian of societies (Flanagan 1989).  As I have indicated in a previous post, all mammalian societies have some form of leadership.

Nevertheless, the Huron can still be understood as having an egalitarian hierarchy, in which their many forms of inequality are compatible with their equality in their natural freedom, so that no individual is forced against his will to obey anyone else.  Huron chiefs have no authority to force their will on anyone.  The chiefs can only announce the decisions that have been consented to by their followers.  Chiefs who become too arrogant in asserting their dominance over others will be criticized, ridiculed, or even deposed.  This is what Chris Boehm has called a "reverse-dominance hierarchy" (1999): although rulers might want to be dominant, and their followers might often defer to them, tyrannically dominant behavior will provoke resistance from those being exploited; and the ultimate punishment of the tyrant is execution.

In an egalitarian society, equality does not mean absolute equality of wealth and status; but it does mean equality in individual autonomy, so that no one can use greater wealth or status to gain power over another (Gardner 1991; Kelly 2013:243-48; Woodburn 1982).  People in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies have told anthropologists that "we are all headmen," and each person is "headman over himself" (Lee 1979:348).  Similarly, Locke said that in the state of nature, every person must recognize all others as his equal--"all being Kings as much as he" (ST, 123).

Previously, I have written about how it is now possible to calculate the Gini coefficients for inequality in human societies over the past 10,000 years.  The reputation of hunter-gatherers for being egalitarian is warranted because they have some inequality, but it is lower than herding and farming societies.  And among modern nation-states, those that have Lockean liberal social orders have lower inequality than in the illiberal societies.  The United States has a slightly lower Gini number than the small-scale herding and farming societies.  And the Nordic capitalist welfare-states have Gini numbers about the same as the hunter-gatherer societies.  

This suggests that modern Lockean liberal social orders can approximate the equal liberty of human beings in the state of nature.  As I have argued previously (here and here), there is inequality in a liberal order but it is a "good inequality."


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Barto of the Oratory said...

Homo sapiens are the biological being which have evolved "consciousness," giving homo sapiens the persistent perception of having free will, but in actuality no more having free will than does an amoeba, armadillo, or an orangutan.

But because homo sapiens believe in free will, and are not free to live as if they and others have no free will, but are compelled by the “consciousness” created by their biological brain to believe in free will, they philosophize.

Aristotle philosophized. Locke philosophized. Marx philosophized. John Rawls philosophized.

Homo sapiens tell themselves that, by means of philosophy, they can control history and even "end history" (Fukuyama).

But Darwin showed us that all biological beings, including homo sapiens, are at all times fully and completely under the governance of the laws of biology.

The second title that Darwin gave to his breakthrough book helps me see all this: “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

Homo sapiens philosophize about “self-government” or "government by the people," and so on, but homo sapiens are always under the totalitarian governance of the universal, ubiquitous, animalistic laws of biology that Darwin identified and described.

The Christian word "Gospel" means "good news," and many find it to be good news.

Others find a similar "good news" in the philosophizing of Aristotle, Locke, Marx, John Rawls, etc.

Some find "good news" in the methods that Buddhists teach for changing karma, for overcoming harmful attachment to the material world, and for escaping the cycle of rebirth.

What all these "good news" systems of thought have in common is that they envision Homo Sapiens as being or becoming liberated from the domination of the laws of nature, and from the dominion of the laws of biology, and (speaking poetically or mythically) from the dominion of the crushing, senseless, mindless, cruel Wheel of Fate.

But then came along Darwin, the anti-Moses, who proclaims that the Hebrews slaves will never be liberated from Egyptian oppression. Along came Darwin, the anti-Plato, who proclaims that the prisoners will never be liberated from the cave and its chains and shadows.

Darwin's "bad news" is just too horrible to be completely and persistently absorbed and accepted by the brain of Homo Sapiens, which has evolved to have a basic optimism to help it survive.

So, for the most part, the full import of Darwin's "bad news" is ignored. We all live as if Darwin’s message isn't true, just as we all live as if there is free will. We have no choice.

What does this mean for philosophy, then?

I think it means that all moral philosophy and all political philosophy is what Plato called a "noble lie." (I guess that’s the semi-hidden message of Leo Strauss.)

It means that all moral philosophy and all political philosophy are nothing more biological activities that fall within the scope of “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

As such, good philosophy is philosophy helps individuals and groups survive in the life-or-death struggle against other human individuals, against other human groups, and against non-human phenomenon.


Riggs, Jared, "A Nietzschean Diagnosis of Philosophers." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2016.

Rosenberg, Alex. 2018. How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Larry Arnhart said...

Why are you trying to persuade us to believe what you say, if you believe we have no freedom to choose whether or not we should be persuaded by what you say?

I have written many posts on the "free will" debate. See, for example, "Determinism, Free Will, and Natural Freedom in the Legal System" (October 15, 2017).

If "free will" means "uncaused cause," Darwin and I would say that we don't have free will. But we do have the natural freedom to think or act as we choose--regardless of the the cause of the choice. We can properly hold people responsible for what they do--praising them or blaming them--when they exercise that natural freedom, but not when they act under compulsion. That's the kind of moral freedom that Darwin affirmed.