Natural Disposition

What is the natural disposition of mankind? That is to ask what are the basic emotions that make people recognizable to one another and not the ones added on by the veneer of civilization. What, in a word, are our “true” or “truest” emotions? The great psychologist-philosophers all tried to answer this question. Aristotle thought there was a very long list of standard emotions. Hobbes thought that there was an evolution of emotions from the most simple to the most complex, the key being when people learned or came to think in practical terms. Spinoza thought that emotions changed into one another, as when love turned to hate, and dispensed with Aristotle’s notion that there was a Golden Mean, whereby the best emotions were the ones between their extreme versions. Another way to answer the question, rather than to arrange a gigantic table of emotions, is to look at the actual history of mankind so as to see what emotions were exhibited by primitive, and so presumably more natural people. Durkheim looked at Australian Aborigines and concluded, based on their funeral practices, that the most basic feeling of humanity was reverence for the ongoing community. Australian Aborigines are about as primitive as you can get on the ladder of cultural evolution. In his book “A Commonwealth of Thieves”, Thomas Kennelly supplies us with portraits of a few of the Aborigines encountered by the early English settlers in Australia, and so let us consider what Kennelly tells us about people in their full naturalness, though the consideration of different Aborigines might offer different readings. We should remember, however, that we often use people who seem lacking and insufficient in some way or another even if they are singular to tell us all kinds of things about the general human condition. Helen Keller showed that people bereft of sight and hearing could still think and Ishi and the wild boy of Avignon showed us how children raised in isolation were limited as human beings.

Kennelly first presents us with the story of Arabanoo, a native who was deliberately taken by force to serve as a hostage and a translator in that he could be taught English. A was certain at first that he would be murdered, and so was quite fearful. He calmed down and then ate eight pounds of fish because he was not certain when he would be fed again. But things settled down and he proved quite amiable, having his shackles removed and was tied to the colonists by his friendship with the man who was his jailor and friend. He quickly learned table manners when he ate at the Governor’s house, which meant being constrained from throwing plates out the window when he was finished eating. He cared for the Aborigine victims of smallpox in a touching manner and buried them and when he himself contracted the disease, submitted to the bleedings ordered by the British physician and died stoically, which had also been the temper demonstrated by when David Hume, that most civilized of men, when he died in Edinburgh not so many years before. Apogee had demonstrated a priority of concerns recognizable to anyone who sees people as both rational and sentimental, as David Hume did. He feared for his life, and once that was secured, for food, an obsession that passed when he knew this need would be regularly met. He practiced funeral rituals, just as Durkheim noticed, and gave in to disease and death, as we all do. He was known for his amiability.

Kennelly also shows us something of native political organization. Captain Phillips, the governor of the colony, had made contact with Bennelong, who was something of a chief of one of the many sub-tribes in the area. During a conference with Bennelong, Phillips had been deliberately wounded with a spear by one of the native warriors. The wound had not been intended to kill because the tip of the spear had not been poisoned and was shaped so that it could be removed. The intention was to punish Phillips for the various things that his sailors had done wrong: stealing fish and produce, spreading smallpox and syphilis, and occasionally killing Aborigines. The leader of the colony was punished for the actions of his men, treated as responsible for their misdeeds, and that punishment settled the score and so allowed for more harmonious relations to be established between the two peoples. That Phillips took his own wounding in this light spoke well of his enlightenment as well as the  practical foreign policy wisdom of his antagonists. What happened was that Phillips and Bennelong were able to arrange marriages between the Aborigines who had come to live with the settlers and people from the native villages, women apparently able to choose their favorites among suitors. Or at least that is what the records or Kennelly’s retelling of the story would lead us to believe.

But many things about the Aborigines remain puzzling. If they were so enlightened in their social policies, trying to establish equivalencies between transgressions and punishment so as to achieve social peace, and so not even seeming to indulge what would be, in the birth of Western Civilization, an unseemly disposition to revenge that is not readily displaced, how was it that they were so backward in other things, as in material culture or domesticated agriculture? How was it that they reached an Edenic idyll of social life and not a progressive economic and scientific life? One answer might be what students of early civilization have for a long time called “the Stone Age Eden”. People had arrived at a stage of human organization where they lived what seemed to them an abundant life. There was enough food to eat, a sustainable social peace, and a good relation between the sexes, all without any great social hierarchy of social class. What more could they want? More than they could eat? A better climate than they had? There was no incentive to push social life forward. And yet the Stone Age cultures of the Middle East did feel the need to originate new things: new inventions and new forms of social organization. Maybe that was because they needed to get organized to tame the Nile or because food supplies varied from year to year, or because there was something in their cultural development that made them into questors rather than satisfied with the way things were, there being only a spiritual reason to inquire whether God could stop the sun in its path or whether the moon was any larger than it seemed to be. If the gods were not intervening, then why was it that both good things and bad happened?

So the question becomes what was strange about the West rather than what was strange about the fact that there could be such uneven development among the Aborigines. And that, of course, has been a primary concern of Western historians: was it adjusting to the end of the Ice Age or the invention of domesticated plants and animals or was it something later on, such as the cultural invention of the invisible God of the Hebrews, or the cultural invention of Christianity, or the cultural invention of the Protestant Ethic, that led to the way the world now is? Or was it material inventions, such as a reliable clock, or the steam engine, that made the difference? Or was it social inventions, like the state or bureaucracy? These are thoughtful and fruitful inquiries, but they can never get past the question of how to decide which is crucial when all of them are crucial in forming world history from its point of origin, that origin point defined as when people had only their natural dispositions.

Perhaps the real wisdom of contemplating the Aborigines is to get past the question of what are the natural human dispositions in as much as those, even if they exist, are inevitably intertwined with “created” dispositions and there is no need to strip the layers back because the mixed types each become a fresh type, a new natural disposition, as if that were not an oxymoron. Think of smartphones. They have become essential to the postmodern consciousness. Maybe they are satisfying a natural disposition to reach out to others. Maybe, on the other hand, the desire to create a record of one’s life, something satisfied by smartphones, is only a modern or created disposition, not noticed among the Aborigines. Maybe smartphones are an obsession imposed on people to distract them or to give them a belief that they are in control of their lives. That is something people have always wanted to do, there having always been opiates for the masses, whether bread and circuses in Ancient Rome or comic books in the Fifties, ways to distract people from their miseries and their limitations. The Aborigines were not without miseries. They got diseases and died and they were covered with uncomfortable lice, something that British sheers cured to the delight of one Aborigine by cutting off his hair. But the Aborigines didn’t invent sheers. Were they more natural because they had lice and accepted that as part of the human condition?