Primitivism is the subject of Alan Jacobs’ fine study on the New Worlds that emerged in some folks’ heads in the 18th Century (in Original Sin). In essence, we ask today just how innocent children are. There’s a noble, yea perhaps ignoble, history at work in this idea of primitivism.
Namely, that children are born innocent and good and that they are spoiled by other humans, by private property, by society, by political powers, by education, by the system, and by other elements of life for which they (the children) cannot be blamed. Poor kids. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Well, I’ve showed my cards. If only this idea wasn’t still alive, and I hear it quite often.
Here’s a good question for us to ponder: Where do we see some kind of belief in primitivism at work in our culture? Do you think “anarchism” today is primitivist? How do economic theories reflect a theory of original sin?
One of the responses in the 18th and 19th Centuries, as Jacobs points out, is the yearning to go back in time when things were so much better. (By the way, I hear this all the time in the way so many read the Bible — as if it was a Golden Age of glorious obedience.) He points to Rousseau, Montaigne, Rigoleuc, Samuel Taylor Coleridge — and before them Thomas Traherne. He’s got a wonderful study of Robert Owen, who devised social engineering projects that were rooted in one big idea: the pernicousness of original sin. And then engineered right off the map by education and the elimination of private property.
Ah, its the theory of the noble savage. Children and savages, each innocent and corrupted by contact with society and humans, are originally good. I sometimes wonder if such folks had children around.