Savages, philosophers and colonialism

Part 3



What we have stated thus far allowed us to look back with a critical eye, and acknowledge that differences between various human groups (as well as the power structures internal to each) are not the mark of different humanities but rather the result of historical contingencies.


We can now face the last step of our analysis, Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville (Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci) by Diderot. By means of analyzing reports penned from explorers, he states that the so-called “savages” are not even just part of a “primitive” humanity but rather become a window on a different world. Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville is built as a series of dialogues between the inhabitants of Tahiti and European explorers (contained in chapters III and IV), on the one hand, and an exchange between two figures simply called A and B (in chapters I and V) on the other. At the literal core of the book (that being chapter II) Diderot presents a monologue by an elder Tahitian, pronounced at the departure of a group of explorers. Despite its presentation as a supplement, the whole text has been penned by Diderot. The reality described within it is utopia, a self-contained and self-sufficient world deprived of history and variation. The same utopia is applied to the so-called savages, who become themselves both an unattainable ideal and a proposition others can aspire to and strive towards.


The text tackles a series of tropes that depict the so-called “savage” as inhuman (meaning physically imposing, as well as fierce and cruel) by sheer virtue of having to survive an hostile environment; such characterization describes it different from an accepted canon (one that Europeans probably embody) but no longer as an extraordinary phenomenon. What we are first of all interested in is how such diversity came to be. The juxtaposition between the inhabitants of Tahiti and the Europeans is, in such a context, described as that between simplicity, “youth” if you will, and freedom on the one hand and complexity, “oldness” of sort as well as tradition, constrains and dissimulation on the other (Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville, Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci, pp. 36-37). At a later stage, Diderot would postulate the existence of three distinct codes (natural, civil and religious) humankind could live under, and in perpetual contrast between themselves. It is not only apparently impossible to follow more than one of these laws at a time, but the very boundaries of each seem to be somewhat fluid and as such it is not guaranteed to be able to follow even just one of them. The only possible synergy possible between them would be the combination of civil and religious law, that would enhance the opposition with the natural code; the theological and political system derived by such alliance would present itself as anti-Nature and making the juxtaposition impossible to avoid: there is no chance, Diderot states, for the surplus law (or laws) to be simply cancelled. A couple of options remain at this point: to look at the religious and civil codes as products of the natural one, on the one hand (Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville, Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci, p. 76), or to separate each of them into its own strictly defined field of influence (Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville, Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci, p. 92), on the other. What would the inhabitants of Tahiti think of such solutions, though? Looking directly to the text for answers (Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville, Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci, pp. 54-55), specifically into an exchange between a chaplain and Orù (one of the so-called “savages”), it is stated that the conflicting directive between the various codes and legislations may stem situations in which a single object or course of action is praised or despised or demanded by the three different laws. “What would happen at that point”, Orù asks. In order to please one principle in such a situation, one would need to juggle the demands of all three resulting in very little results. The idea would be that limitations imposed on natural desires act in opposition to a propensity for change that is a characteristic of humankind.


Keeping the dialogue between Orù and the chaplain going, we reach a new point of interest (Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville, Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci, p. 65): it is now Orù’s turn to present the customs of Tahiti. What the priest judges strange and immoral is simply, on the contrary, disciplined by a different set of rules (and deprived of the claim to be eternal, that European customs and laws have). This is the loophole of sort that the inhabitants of Tahiti have developed to avoid open conflict between the three codes mentioned before, and their way seem to prove more effective at coping with the dissonance of the various principles than that adopted by the “civil” world. Such solution is not just made by adopting the code of nature, seen as nature is morally neutral: it does not move to reach a goal and it does not exist to serve humankind.


To conclude, a few more words: the codes civil and religious exist within the wider context of a nature that encompasses literally everything (even those ways of conduct oneself that could be called “sophisticated” or “civil”) (Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville, Roma, Editori Riuniti university press, 2012, translation by Antonio A. Santucci, pp. 78-79). There is no need to operate a return to nature, then, since no one ever truly abandoned it to go somewhere else and there is no need to take the civil and religious codes back into nature since nature itself stands as a framework for both. Division between those three principles simply ceases to be at this point: the various sources contaminate and permeate each other constantly. Assuming the goal of the whole system is to reach happiness, the ways left open to such an objective are not only multiple but subject to change brought in by time. The Tahiti described in Supplemento al viaggio di Bougainville is, as such, a mere example of an alternative quest for happiness; that it describes individual or collective happiness is of relative importance: it paints a scenery within which a great deal of people can pursue their own ideal and project for happiness.


The “civilized” world seems to play with a different set of rules, given what we saw analyzing Rousseaus’ Discorso sull’origine della disuguaglianza, and it also seems that to the lack of happiness of some individuals corresponds the active subordination of others. Before we move around expanding circles of moral consideration to the interests that non-human animals bear, then, it may be a good idea to begin looking up for our fellow humans and keeping their own desires into whatever picture we will paint with the colours of the wind.

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