Savages, philosophers and colonialism

Part 2

By looking at the arguments Vico advanced we concluded that those individuals with whom European explorers came into contact were not, in fact, a different (or inferior, for that matter, in some way or some other) kind of humanity from them, but rather people that stayed somewhat back compared to other groups that only now came into contact and interacted with them. European explorers were met with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to spy on bits and pieces of their own history through a window (of sort) in time and to witness the development of something acting not so different from what their European ancestors in times long past. The only primacy (if we can even speak of such a thing in this matter) of western civilization as such would be that of entering history long before other human groups. Where exactly all of this is leading us, though, is to a very specific argument: where the hypothesis of an Expanding Circle would have us see non-human animals as carrying interests worthy of care, we can only reach such a point through some preliminary work (a missing link of sort, if we want to put it that way): that being the expansion of the circle of individuals whose interests we are to take into account to other human beings first of all.


Having reached this point, we can move on to the second step of our discourse: Rousseau’s Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza (Milano, Bompiani, 2012, I edition, translation by Diego Giordano). Postulating that humanity and its customs have changed throughout time (as we have already stated by analyzing Vico, since the discovery of the American continent European had to come to terms with how it could be possible for people so similar to themselves to live beyond the Atlantic Ocean in the first place) and that natural principles would lead to stability and absence of change as custom consolidate themselves, it remains to be seen and accounted for of how inequality amongst humans came to be. Let us look to Rousseau himself for answers, allowing us to point out how what he calls uomo selvaggio (literally “savage man”) felt only his true needs by virtue of living without ingenuity, speech, home, war and bonds (amongst others); he looked only to what he believed interesting, and his intelligence would not move beyond the bounds of curiosity. Whatever invention or innovation this savage human discovered would die with him, having no way to share it with others of his kind. Centuries would grind on with humanity basically staying the same (Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza, Milano, Bompiani, 2012, I edition, translation by Diego Giordano, p. 165).


Inequality and civil society would have been born, Rousseau states, the moment the first human stated “this is mine” and managed to persuade others of such a state of things. To investigate how such a result was reached (and how it sprouted inequalities of far greater reach and scope, given some time) is not really of capital importance as far as the argument goes. Suffice to say that the process leading out of the primeval natural state is, according to Rousseau, caused by various and distinct factors come to act at the same time; the nature of such a move is casual by default, and as such it cannot be defined as philosophy of history. The end point of inequality, magnified and expanded throughout time, is the result of contingency and as such it could also not have been a thing. Inequality amongst humans happens, according to Rousseau, based on individual abilities and inabilities, upon which take root contingent differences based upon circumstance. Where exactly doesthe distinction between difference and inequality lie, though? The key feature is that the latter originates a hierarchy, and necessitates a continuous interplay: one cannot be of higher rank than someone else while also living in solitude, since the very notion needs a second element compared to which one is higher or lower. What began with a combination of natural differences and historical contingencies grew, in time, and crystallized itself as inequality proper thanks to the progressive disappearance of those causes and phenomena outside of human control. At the same time the hiatus between the two poles of the relation grew larger and larger, up to the point of subordination (Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza, Milano, Bompiani, 2012, I edition, translation by Diego Giordano, p. 99). The question then becomes: how is it possible for humankind to accept such a state of things, given their starting point was a primeval state in which the very notion of being subordinate to someone was absurd? The answer would be “through fear”, which is a byproduct of inequality itself and also a mean thanks to which it manages to persuades to give up freedom by promising security (Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza, Milano, Bompiani, 2012, I edition, translation by Diego Giordano, pp. 205-207). This is the very point upon which repetition can be grafted to: bonds of servitude spread far and wide in the name of an addiction to peace and quiet now consolidated (Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza, Milano, Bompiani, 2012, I edition, translation by Diego Giordano, pp. 227-229). In time humankind is brought to compliance and accepts to be yoked by someone without being able to bound in turn. At this point inequality and domination is actively desired with the hope of being someday able to retaliate and grow to be dominators in turn. An absurd point in reached: multitudes of oppressed vex in turn. The solution Rousseau offers to such a conundrum comes with the presence of a completely different viewpoint gazing at this whole from outside: a look that could, if anything, shake this system to its very foundations and (hopefully) stem some kind of change (Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza, Milano, Bompiani, 2012, I edition, translation by Diego Giordano, pp. 241-243).

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