Monday, October 18, 2021

Divine Revelation in "The Last Duel"--The Book and the Movie


                                                         Movie Trailer for "The Last Duel" 

The new movie The Last Duel has had its first general theatre release this past weekend.  It is a historical drama based on a book with the same name by Eric Jager.  It's about the last legal trial by combat in France in 1386.    

The film stars Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges, a knight who challenges Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver) to a legal duel after Carrouges's wife, Marguerite (played by Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of raping her.  Ben Affleck stars as Count Pierre d'Alencon, the lord to whom Carrouges and Le Gris are pledged as vassals.  The Director is Ridley Scott.

In the Middle Ages, in legal cases where it was difficult for the courts to reach a decision, one of the parties in the dispute could challenge the other to a duel, in which God would intervene to allow the innocent party to kill the guilty party, who would be condemned to eternal damnation.  In this case, Carrouges was fighting as the champion of his wife, so that if he were killed, this would show God's judgment that both he and his wife were guilty of lying under oath, and Marguerite would be immediately stripped naked and burned at the stake.  Both of their souls would be eternally punished in Hell, while Le Gris's soul would win eternal reward in Heaven.

The screenplay for the movie was written by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener.  The screenplay follows closely Jager's book The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat (2004).  Jager is a professor of English at UCLA who specializes in medieval literature.  Once he became fascinated by the story, he spent ten years researching and writing the book.  His research is meticulous, which required archival research in France and elsewhere.  Almost every detail in his book is supported by citations of his sources in the notes to the book.  But unlike most such works of historical scholarship, the book has such a vivid narrative style that it reads like a novel.

The movie is very good.  But as we often say, the book is better than the movie.  Most importantly, the book is better in provoking us to think about the religious beliefs that drive the drama of this story.  In at least one scene, however, where the movie's script follows the exact words of the book, the movie does force the audience to wonder about the religious beliefs of these people.

Here's how the book relates Le Gris's last words, after a long brutal fight in the enclosed field for judicial combat, just before Carrouges kills him:

"As the two men struggled, and the huge crowd watched the spectacle in fascinated horror, Carrouges began shouting at Le Gris.  His voice was muffled by his visor, but the nearest spectators could make out his words:

"'Confess!  Confess your crime!'"

"Le Gris shook his head even more violently, as if refusing to admit his guilt even as he resisted the knight's efforts to unlock his visor."

Finally, Carrouges broke the lock, and the visor sprang open, exposing Le Gris's face.

"Le Gris blinked at the light and at his enemy's visored face, which hovered just a few inches away."

"Carrouges drew his dagger, again shouting: 'Confess!'"

"Le Gris, pinned down by the relentless knight, shouted back, trying to make himself heard by all at the field:

"'In the name of God, and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent of the crime!'"

"'Then be you damned!' cried the knight" (178-79). 

Carrouges then plunged his dagger into Le Gris's throat and mouth up to his brain.

It is almost unbelievable that a man like Le Gris would have had the will and the strength to shout his sacred oath of innocence in these circumstances, because, according to the religious beliefs of the time, if he were really guilty, refusing to confess his guilt before he died would condemn his soul to eternal damnation.

Did Le Gris, Carrouges, and Marguerite really believe what they were professing about God's revelation of his eternal judgment of guilt and innocence?  Did God in fact miraculously intervene to give Carrouges the strength and skill to defeat Le Gris and thus show the innocence of Carrouges and Marguerite and Le Gris's guilt?  If God did this, how would anyone know this to be true?  Would it depend on whether we thought the evidence supported the case of Carrouges and Marguerite?  It was said that Carrouges was sick with a fever when he entered the combat, and Le Gris was healthier and stronger.  If so, does that suggest that only divine intervention could have given Carrouges the ability to prevail?

"Does he truly believe his innocence at the end?" Affleck said of Le Gris in an interview for the Los Angeles Times.  "They took the idea of damnation seriously.  They were very religious.  That was at the root of everything.  And that's one of the things we didn't focus as much on: They truly believed God would make happen whatever was the fair thing to happen, so it would be God's will.  And for him to have to invoke that at the moment of his death and to protest his innocence is interesting." 

If religious belief was "at the root of everything" in this story, then Jager's book really is better than the movie because the book says a lot about the religious beliefs in medieval France, even though Jager clearly suggests that he does not himself share those beliefs, and even though his historical narrative gives us reasons to believe that there was no Revelation of God's will in such a way as to resolve any of the moral and political problems of medieval France.


Jager draws our attention to the fact that in medieval Europe, there was no Revelation of God's truth to resolve the many conflicts in the religious communities.  By the fourteenth century, Christendom had faced the Muslim threat for more than six hundred years.  Ten years after surviving his duel, Carrouges was killed in 1396 while fighting in the Last Crusade against the Ottoman Turks in the city of Nicopolis, in present-day Bulgaria.  Both Christians and Muslims believed that they were defending the true Revelation against the infidels.  Either there was no Revelation, or there was, but it was not clear enough to settle this dispute.  

Christianity was even at war with itself over conflicting interpretations of Revelation.  From 1378 to 1417, Christendom was divided into warring camps led first by two rival popes (in Rome and Avignon) and then by three popes (with a third pope in Pisa).  Previously, in 1054, there was a split between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, which is today the separation of the Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Churches.  And, of course, in the 16th century, the Protestant churches would split off.  

These disagreements over Revelation threw Medieval Christian societies into violent conflict.  For example, in 1339 the English invaded France, initiating what came to be known as the Hundred Years War, in which Carrouges and Le Gris fought on the side of France.  By 1378, the Roman pope was blessing England's war of conquest in France, while the Avignon pope was blessing the French against the English.  This led to many atrocities, such as the English raid on Brittany in 1380, during which the English attacked a convent, raping and torturing the nuns.

Jesus prayed to God that all believers would be as one, that they would come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).  It seems then that Christians could give witness to the truth of Revelation by showing their agreement about that Revelation.

But in fact Christians have never achieved that goal of Christian unity in their interpretation of Revelation.  Previously, I have written about the failure of Revelation to bring Christian unity in the debate over creation and evolution.  As I indicated, there are three possible explanations for this.  Either there has been no Revelation of God's teaching.  Or there has been a Revelation, but it is so obscure that it conveys no clear teaching.  Or there has been a clear Revelation of that teaching, but human beings have been so blinded by biased thinking that they cannot see it.


If we cannot rely on God's Revelation of the truth, perhaps through a divine judgment revealed in a trial by combat, then we must rely on our human reason to search for the truth.  To decide whether Marguerite was telling the truth about Le Gris raping her, we must use our reason in examining the evidence to decide whether it is probable or not that she was telling the truth.

But can we trust reason without Revelation to lead us to the truth?  Some Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga would say no, because we must accept at least one revealed truth--that God has created the human mind in His image--if we are to trust our minds.  If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else.

As I have previously argued, however, the weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is his assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.  But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. Even Plantinga concedes (in his debate with Daniel Dennett) that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators."

In the case of judging criminal guilt or innocence, we must rely on our evolved adaptations for detecting and punishing cheaters.  As Morris Hoffman has said, "evolution built us to punish cheaters."

But even if that evolved capacity for judgment in criminal cases is reliable, it is not infallible; and in a case like Marguerite's accusation of rape, there can be disagreement over what counts as the truth.  Le Gris's lawyer--Jean Le Coq--kept a private journal where he wrote out his thoughts about the case.  At one point, he wrote: "No one really knew the truth of the matter."

The movie is divided into three chapters, suggesting three different points of view.  The first chapter is entitled "The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges."  The second chapter is "The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris."  The third is "The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges."  So there was a different truth for each of these three people.  And yet, immediately after the title for the third chapter has faded from the movie screen, "The Truth" is flashed on the screen.  So the script writers want the audience to see that there really is only one truth, and it's Margarite's.  

This third chapter of the movie was written by Nicole Holofcener, who invented many details for her story that are not found in Jager's book, which allowed her to turn this into a modern "Me Too" story of how women suffer from the patriarchal oppression of men.  Actually, Damon and Affleck allowed Holofcener to push the entire movie towards this theme.

When Jager has been asked about the historical accuracy of Holofcener's writing, he has said that it is at least 75% accurate.  Most importantly, he agrees with her conclusion that the evidence in the case favors Marguerite's story as most likely true.

In his book, Jager makes four arguments for why we should be persuaded by Marguerite's accusations.  First, some people have suggested that even if she was raped, she might have been mistaken in identifying Le Gris as the rapist.  Marguerite had met Le Gris only once, a little over a year before the night of the rape.  So she may have had only a vague memory of what he looked like.  And if she did not have a clear view of the rapist's face, she might have mistakenly thought the rapist looked like Le Gris.  But as Jager observes, this is implausible.  Marguerite swore in court that two men were responsible for her rape, and that she had a clear view of both men.  She said that Adam Louvel--a friend of Le Gris--helped Le Gris in holding her down on her bed, while Le Gris raped her.  She also said that Louvel was the first one to appear at her door, and that he specifically mentioned Le Gris by name before Le Gris entered her room.  This makes it highly unlikely that she was mistaken in identifying both men.

Jager's second argument concerns the story that sometime after Carrouges won his duel, a man later confessed to being Marguerite's rapist, which vindicated Le Gris's innocence.  Jager points out the implausibility of this considering that Marguerite had accused two men as responsible for her rape.

Jager's third argument responds to the claim that Marguerite knowingly lied in accusing Le Gris, either because she was trying to cover up her adultery, or because Carrouges forced her to fabricate this lie to get vengeance against a man he hated.  This was the claim made by Le Gris in his testimony.  Jager notes the obvious problem with this:  if she was lying, why did she include Adam Louvel in her charges?  Why would she add to her burden of proof by including Louvel in her charges?  If either Louvel or Le Gris had a good alibi, that would deny her story.

Jager's fourth argument is his strongest.  It is hard to come up with any good motivation for Marguerite to lie given that she had very little to gain from this and everything to lose.  She knew that if it was decided that she was lying, she would be executed; and according to her religious beliefs, her soul would be condemned to eternal punishment by God.  Surely the risk of such punishment would have deterred her from falsely charging Le Gris with rape.

There is another complicating factor in this case that I have not yet mentioned.  Marguerite and Carrouges had tried without success for five years to conceive a child.  But when Marguerite and Carrouges appealed their case to the Parlement of Paris, she was pregnant.  She had told Carrouges that she was pregnant at the same time that she told him about the rape, four days after it had occurred on January 18, 1386.  Jager judges that the child was born sometime between early September, nine months after Carrouges had returned from fighting in Scotland, and the middle of October, nine months after the rape.  The duel occurred on December 29, 1386.

Had she been impregnated by Carrouges or by Le Gris?  According to medieval law, if Le Gris was the father, that would prove that he did not rape her, because Galen had taught that sexual intercourse could not cause a pregnancy unless the woman's "seed" was produced by her orgasm; and if she had an orgasm that showed that she was not raped because she had enjoyed the coitus.

Now we know that if a rapist impregnates his victim, that does not show that she felt sexual pleasure, because a woman's orgasm is not required for ovulation.  This should be known by common-sense experience as much as by science, since many women have been fertile without experiencing orgasm.

It seems unlikely, however, that Marguerite was impregnated by Le Gris only four days before she told Carrouges that she was pregnant.

For all of these reasons, we can conclude that it is highly probable that Marguerite was telling the truth about her being raped by Le Gris.  We can reach this conclusion by using our reason to examine the evidence and then to logically draw inferences from that evidence.  Even if this is not a demonstrative proof, it is a probable truth beyond a reasonable doubt.

We can do this by reason alone without any need to appeal to some Revelation of the truth by God through trial by battle or some other means.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

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

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 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 (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 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 Johnsen, 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).

(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 societies will say that each person is "headman over himself" (Lee 1979:348).

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."


Acosta, Jose de. 2002. Natural and Moral History of the Indies, trans. Frances Lopez-Morillas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, Ali t., and David Stasavage. 2020. "Origins of Early Democracy." American Political Science Review 114:502-518.

Batz, William G. 1974. "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke." Journal of the History of Ideas, 35: 663-70.

Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gardner, Peter. 1991. "Foragers' Pursuit of Individual Autonomy." Current Anthropology 32:543-72.

Flanagan, James G. 1989. "Hierarchy in Simple 'Egalitarian' Societies." Annual Review of Anthropology 18:245-66.

Grinde, Donald A., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.

Kelly, Robert. 2013. The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, Richard. 1979. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewellen, Ted C. 2003. Political Anthropology: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Westport, CN: Praeger.

Locke, John. 1988. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 1997. Political Essays. Ed. Mark Goldie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 2010.  A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. Ed. Mark Goldie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Marshall, Peter. 2010. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Sagard, Gabriel. 1968. Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons. Trans. H. H. Langton. New York: Greenwood Press.

Service, Elman. 1962. Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Random House.

Stasavage, David. 2020. The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Talbot, Ann. 2010. "The Great Ocean of Knowledge": The Influence of Travel Literature on the Work of John Locke. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Tooker, Elisabeth. 1964. An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649. Washington, DC: Bureau of American Ethnography.

Tooker, Elisabeth. 1990. "Rejoinder to Johansen." Ethnohistory 37:291-297.

Trigger, Bruce. 2000. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Trigger, Bruce. 2002. The Huron: Farmers of the North. 2nd ed. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Woodburn, James. 1982. "Egalitarian Societies." Man 17:431-51.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

John Locke's New World of Liberal Evolutionary Anthropology: From the "Ancient Constitution" to the "History of Mankind"

John Locke's library of 3,641 books included 275 books that could be classified as travel or geography.  Remarkably, this is slightly more than the 269 books that could be classified as philosophy.  

Compared with other private libraries in late Stuart England, the libraries of Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle were probably the only ones with comparable collections of travel writing.  Significantly, Locke, Hooke, and Boyle were all members of the Royal Society of London.  For scientists in the Royal Society, the study of such travel literature was part of their Baconian project for collecting the factual data about human life around the entire world, including the New World revealed to Europeans after 1492, for developing a natural history of humanity that began in the original state of nature in which the first human beings lived as hunter-gatherers.  

Another significant feature of these collections of travel writing is that they included very few ancient or medieval travel books.  Locke and his colleagues in the Royal Society were constructing a new mental map of the world to replace the ancient and medieval world view like that displayed in the Mappa Mundi of Hereford Cathedral.  Over the past three centuries, this project has been deepened and elaborated by the Darwinian science of evolutionary anthropology (Batz 1974; Harpham 2018; Rogers 1993; Talbot 2010).

Locke's use of the travel literature to sketch a natural history of humanity shows that scholars like John Pocock are wrong in claiming that Locke moved "outside history" in developing a "non-historical theory of politics," although Pocock is right in saying that Locke did not understand English politics through the history of the "ancient constitution" of England (Pocock 1987: 236-37).  Locke's argument for the natural rights of every individual was rooted in what he called "the history of mankind" (Second Treatise, par. 175; Essay Concerning Human Understanding I.3.10; II.28.12).  But this was a universal history of mankind rather than a particular history of England, and it certainly did not appeal to any fictional conception of England's "ancient constitution."

The idea of the "ancient constitution" was that the English common law and parliament were the immemorial protectors of English liberty that had originated in Saxon times before the Norman Conquest, and that this remained even after the Conquest.  It was claimed that every monarch was bound by his coronation oath to uphold this ancient constitution of English liberty. This supported the English resistance to absolute monarchy in the 17th century, because royal absolutism of the Stuart monarchs could be condemned as a violation of ancient English liberties.  

Opposed to this was the claim that William the Conqueror had imposed feudal law on England, so that the kingdom became a feudal estate in which all relationships were determined by the crown, and that parliament originated as a purely advisory council created by the king.  It was argued that there was no historical evidence to support the assertion that an ancient Saxon constitution with a parliament limiting royal prerogative had survived the Norman Conquest.

Whig theorists such as Algernon Sydney and James Tyrrell appealed to the ancient constitution in their arguments against royalist absolutism. Locke did not.  He showed no interest in explaining English politics through the history of English law.  

Pocock says that Locke's lack of interest in the debate over the ancient constitution made him "an exception, perhaps the only one among the important political writers of the age" (237).  Oddly, however, Pocock says that the idea of the ancient constitution was "crude dogma" and a "logical absurdity" (235); and yet he does not consider the possibility that Locke might have agreed with him, and that this might explain why he had no interest in this idea.

Pocock is famous among historians of political thought for being one of the original proponents (along with Quentin Skinner and Peter Laslett) of the "Cambridge School" methodology for reading texts of political thought within their historical contexts, which determine the meaning of a political thinker's thought.  In every era of political thought, it is said, there are a few predominant "languages" or "grammars" or ways of talking about politics that shape the political debate of the time, and no thinker can transcend those historical contexts.  We cannot rightly see the history of political thought as a transhistorical debate among political philosophers speaking to one another across the centuries, which is the mistaken view of the Straussians.

And so, for example, when we study today the political thought of seventeenth-century England, Pocock insists, we must interpret it within the conceptual frameworks that were popular at that time and place, which included the debate over the ancient constitution and feudal law in English history.  We cannot judge the truth or falsity of what those political thinkers said, because what they said was determined by conceptual frameworks that we do not share.

I do not agree.  I do agree that historical context matters for interpreting the history of political thought.  So, yes, when we see seventeenth-century English thinkers debating the "ancient constitution" of England, we must understand what that meant for them.  But we must also see that it was possible for people like Locke to go beyond this fictional history in considering English history as part of the "history of mankind" that was revealed in the travel literature written in the 16th and 17th century.  Moreover, we can judge the truth of that universal history in the light of the evolutionary anthropological studies carried out over the past three centuries.

So, for example, we can understand how Locke's account of the state of nature was shaped by his reading of the travel literature.  And we can decide whether that Lockean view of the state of nature is confirmed or falsified by the anthropological record that we have today.

To illustrate that, my next post will be on how Locke's thinking was influenced by his reading of Father Gabiel Sagard's reports about his life among the Huron in Canada, and whether the modern anthropological studies of the Huron support confirm this.


Batz, William G. 1974. "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke." Journal of the History of Ideas 35: 663-670.

Harpham, John Samuel. 2018. "Locke and the Churchill Catalogue Revisited." Locke Studies 17: 233-241.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1987. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century. A Reissue with a Retrospect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, G. A. J. 1993. "Locke, Anthropology, and Models of the Mind." History of the Human Sciences 6: 73-87.

Talbot, Ann. 2010. "The Great Ocean of Knowledge": The Influence of Travel Literature on the Work of John Locke. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Footprints of the First Americans, 23,000 Years Ago

Fossilized Footprints, 23,000 Years Old, Found in New Mexico

Was Locke right to declare that "in the beginning, all the world was America," and it is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe"?

It depends on what we mean by the "beginning" of human life.  In one sense, the answer is no.  In another sense, the answer is yes.

If we're looking for the evolutionary beginning of humanity in its distinctive anatomical, cognitive, and behavioral traits, then the beginning is in Africa, probably 200,000 to 100,000 years ago.  Since then, our human ancestors migrated out of Africa to all parts of the earth, including the Americas.

But if we're looking for the original social life of human beings as living in hunter-gatherer bands, we can see evidence for that in Middle Pleistocene Africa; but we can also see it manifested in the foraging bands of Indians in the Americas that became known to the European explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which could be seen by Locke in his reading of their travel reports.  This was Locke's original "state of nature."

From his reading of Jose de Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Locke learned about Acosta's theory of the original human migration from Asia to North America over a land bridge connecting the two continents.  Over the past 150 years, the paleoarchaeological study of America has generally confirmed this theory, while providing precision in determining exacting when and how this migration happened, although there remains much uncertainty about the details.

In the 1930s, archaeologists excavating a site near Clovis, New Mexico, found some distinctively fluted projectile points--"Clovis points"--that came to be identified with a Clovis culture found elsewhere in America.  These Clovis points were associated with the bones of ancient mammoths and other large mammals now extinct, which suggested that the Clovis people were big-game hunters, who had perhaps hunted these animals to extinction.  These tools were identified at first as being at least 11,000 years old.  Later dating moved the estimate up to about 13,000 years old.

A Clovis Point

Supported by later research in the 1940s and 1950s, this led to what came to be called the "Clovis-first" model among archaeologists and anthropologists studying prehistoric America.  The Clovis people were thought to be the first human settlers in America, who entered North America from Asia through Beringia (the land bridge across the Bering Straits before it was submerged by rising sea levels) between 13,250 and 12,800 years ago (Meltzer 2015).  After entering North America, they could have migrated south through an ice-free corridor east of the Canadian Rockies that had been opened up by the melting of the glaciers.   During the Last Glacial Maximum (26,500 to 19,000 years ago), the time when the ice sheets were at their greatest extent over North America, ice covered all of Canada and extended south to the Missouri and Ohio rivers, which presumably would have obstructed any human movement from Alaska south into the continent (Clark et al. 2009).

Over the past 20 years, however, there has been growing evidence that people arrived in North America long before the Clovis people, perhaps during or even before the Last Glacial Maximum (Becerr-Valdivia and Higham 2020; Braje et al. 2020; Gruhn 2020; Meltzer 2021; Waters and Stafford 2007).  This week, scientists have reported the oldest human fossil evidence in North America--footprints found in the White Sands National Park in New Mexica that have been radiocarbon dated at 23,000 to 21,000 years old.  The dating came from ancient seeds of ditch grass.  The oldest footprints were located below a seed bed carbon dated at about 22,800 years (Bennett et al. 2021).

This still leaves open the question as to exactly when and how the ancestors of these ancient people in New Mexico migrated through North America.  One theory is that even when the glaciers were at their peak, people could have moved south along the western coastline.  Another theory is that the first people arrived more than 30,000 years ago, before the Ice Age glaciers reached their maximum extent, so that the people were able to travel inland through areas not yet covered by ice.

In any case, what we do know allows us to draw some important conclusions about the evolution of the first Native Americans.  We can infer that they must have been hunter-gatherers because there is no fossil evidence for horticulture, pastoralism, or farming, and because the domestication of plants and animals would have been impossible before the end of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) brought a warmer climate.

We can also say that the traditional assumption, based on calculations of Biblical history, that the world is no older than 6,000 years is wrong.


Becerra-Valdivia, Lorena, and Thomas Higham. 2020. "The Timing and Effect of the Earliest Human Arrivals in North America." Nature 584: 93-97.

Bennett, Matthew R., et al. 2021. "Evidence of Humans in North America During the Last Glacial Maximum." Science 373: 1528-1531.

Braje, Todd J., et al. 2020. "Fladmark + 40: What Have We Learned about a Potential Pacific Coast Peopling of the Americas?"  American Antiquity 85: 1-21.

Gruhn, Ruth. 2020. "Evidence Grows for Early Peopling of the Americas." Nature 584: 47-48.

Clark, Peter U., et al. 2009. "The Last Glacial Maximum." Science 325: 710-14.

Meltzer, David. 2015. The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meltzer, David. 2021. First Peoples in a New World: Populating Ice Age America. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Waters, Michael R., and Thomas Stafford. 2007. "Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas." Science 315: 1122-1126.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Is Trump No Longer God's Chosen One? Is America Returning to Nature's God?

Three years ago, I wrote a post on those Christians who believed that Donald Trump was God's Chosen One as indicated by the fact that his election in 2016 was a fulfillment of prophecy.  This was the argument of Pentecostal Christians like Stephen Strang, the publisher of the Pentecostal magazine Charisma.  Before the election of 2020, Strang publicized the new prophecies that God had foreordained Trump's reelection.  Last March, Strang apologized for this mistake.  "There were a number of prophets who were very certain that Trump would be elected," he explained.  He continued: "I hope that you'll give me the grace--and Charisma Media the grace--of missing this, in a manner of speaking."  As reported in The New York Times, Strang has written a new book--God and Cancel Culture--warning that "there are people who want to cancel Christianity," but the book is silent about his mistaken prophecies.

So where did Strang and the other fundamentalist Christians who believed Trump was ordained by God go wrong?  As I indicated in my post on Strang's book God and Donald Trump, there are two issues here--the interpretation of the Bible and the interpretation of the American founding.

Some of the Trump prophets saw a connection between the 45th chapter of Isaiah and Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States.  In that chapter of Isaiah, God spoke to the Persian leader Cyrus as His "anointed one," although God said "you do not know me."  They saw this as suggesting that just as God used Cyrus, He could use Trump to bring America back to God even though Trump himself is not a Christian believer.

There are lots of problems with this interpretation of the Bible.  For example, God used the pagan leader Nebuchadnezzar as "the servant of the Most High God" to punish Judah by taking them into the very Babylonian captivity from which Cyrus would later liberate them (Jeremiah 25).  So if God is using Trump, we can't be sure whether Trump is to be America's savior (like Cyrus) or America's punishment (like Nebuchadnezzar).

The second issue for the Christian Trump supporters is whether they are right in their interpretation of the American founding.  The idea that God would anoint Trump to save America assumes that God has taken America under His providential care as His Chosen People, just as He cared for ancient Israel.  The Christian Trumpists might argue that the American founders established America as a Christian nation specially chosen by God.  After all, the Declaration of Independence appeals to God as the Creator, the Supreme Judge of the world, and the Providential Caregiver for America.  So why shouldn't God miraculously intervene in history to support Trump?

But as I have noted in a previous post, Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence has only one reference to a deity--"Nature's God"--which is the naturalistic divinity of Lucretius, Spinoza, and perhaps Darwin.  This is the mysterious First Cause of nature, the ultimate source of nature's laws that never acts outside those natural laws to exercise any supernatural power.

If America's God is Nature's God, we can know that this God would never anoint Donald Trump to save America, because this God exercises no miraculous powers of providential intervention into history.

Against this, American fundamentalist Christians insist that America's God is the God of the Bible understood as the literal Revelation of God's will.  There is plenty of evidence, however, that most of the Americans of the Founding generation did not believe in this Biblical God.  There is also growing evidence that most Americans are moving back towards the deistic religion of Jefferson and the other Founders, a religion that explains the world as governed by the laws of nature that can be known by natural science, including the evolutionary science of human nature and human history.

Those who believe in Nature's God feel no need to participate in religious ceremonies of worship, to pray for God's providential care, or to expect eternal salvation or condemnation in the afterlife, because all of this falsely assumes a divine power--the Biblical God--acting outside of the laws of nature as known by natural science.

The number of Americans who believe in the Biblical God can be measured by tracking membership in religious bodies and participation in religious ceremonies.  Recently, Lyman Stone has published a report that surveys the data for this over 300 years of American history.  He shows that the percentage of Americans who are members of religious bodies hit a high of about 70% in 1720, declined to 20% to 30% in 1800, and then began rising over 150 years and hit a high of about 75% in 1960, but then has steadily declined to about 50% in 2020 (see page 12 of his report).  Notice that the lowest ebb of American religiosity was during the founding period (1770 to 1800).  So the recent decline in religiosity in America could be interpreted as a return to the Nature's God of the Founding.

Another piece of evidence for this is that as recently reported, the majority of Americans now believe that human beings arose by natural evolution from earlier forms of life, which denies the literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly Genesis 1-11.  The surveys clearly indicate this because the primary reason for Americans rejecting evolution is religious fundamentalism, which is measured by how people answer five questions.  (1) They agree that "There is a personal God that hears the prayers of individuals."  (2) They agree that "The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally."  (3) They report that they usually attend at least one religious service in a typical week.  (4) They report that they pray at least once in a typical week.  (5) And they agree that "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith."

Still, one might argue that it is possible to accept both the Bible and evolution, both the Biblical God and Nature's God, by saying that the God of the Bible has chosen to work His creative power through the laws of natural evolution.  That's the argument for "theistic evolution" or "evolutionary creation," the position adopted by people like C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, and Deborah Haarsma.  

But as I have suggested in a previous post, the problem with this position is that one is forced to distinguish between those parts of the Bible that must be read literally and those parts that are not literal.  So the evolutionary creationist will say that while the six-day creation story is not literally true, the Bible's teaching that God is our Creator and Savior who hears our prayers and who will resurrect us to eternal life really is literally true.  The fact that faithful Christians cannot agree about this--what is literal in the Bible and what is not--indicates the failure of Biblical revelation.

If the Biblical God has not clearly revealed Himself, then we are left with Nature's God, who has revealed himself through the natural order of things.