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Title: Ethnography, philosophy and the rise of natural man 1500-1750
Authors: Rubiés, Joan-Pau
Issue Date: 2011
Publisher: EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste
Source: Joan-Pau Rubiés, "Ethnography, philosophy and the rise of natural man 1500-1750", in Guido Abbattista (edited by), Encountering Otherness. Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture, pp. 97-127.
In his still today indispensable The Fall of Natural Man, Anthony Pagden drew a distinction between a natural man ‘living outside human society’, as understood in the sixteenth century by those scholastic theologians and humanist rhetoricians he was concerned with, and the Enlightenment (or Rousseauian) view of natural man as a man stripped of the artificial trappings of civilization. If the history of the European intellectual encounter with the American Indian could be construed as the “fall” of the Aristotelian image of natural man as a man who had failed to fulfill its pre-determined social condition (a distinct theme from the Christian idea of the fallen condition of mankind into sinfulness), the early modern trajectory more generally is surely the history of the opposite process, the rise of natural man as a central concept of the Enlightenment. While, from the perspective of cultural and intellectual history, the rise of natural man to a position of prominence is beyond any dispute, its relationship to actual encounters and ethnographies of the savage is far less clear. In any case this rise, or any previous fall that we might want to talk about, can not be seen as relating to one single idea or interpretation. Rather, what needs to be emphasized is the plurality and even ambivalence of ideas of savagism and natural man in a variety of early modern anthropologies. In this essay I shall distinguish the role of three elements in the early-modern history of natural man: classical primitivism, with its often under-appreciated theory of the origins of civilization; ‘modern’ ethnographies of savages (more or less fictionalized), with their increasingly appreciated complexity; and theories of natural law, natural rights and the state of nature. The latter theories constituted in some respects a self-contained debate within a theological and juridical tradition mainly concerned with legitimizing power in European contexts, but often bore upon the question of the legitimacy of conquering barbarians or settling their lands, and had enormous implications for the emergence of a theory of universal rights in modern political thought. Although the uses of ethnography could be limited and highly selective, this political debate was at some crucial points either inspired, or informed, by empirical ethnographies of savages in America, Africa and the Pacific. However, both ethnographies of savages and classical accounts of the origins of civilization could be rather ambivalent in their assessment of the extent to which civilization involved moral progress from the savage condition or, rather, a moral loss, however partial. Any answer involved solving additional questions about the point where the three elements of this complex story met, that is, the point at which natural man ceased to be simply natural man: could humans be fully human – by which rational and moral was implied – without being to some extent civilized? Could they have rights before being fully civilized? And at which point was natural man no longer natural man, but at the bottom of a ladder that led towards a global civilization? Of course, given the context of early modern colonialism, in the background there was always another question: what were the rights of the more civilized nations to conquer savages or settle amongst them? The sixteenth century answer was conditioned by Christian universalism and was inevitably yes, Europeans have such a right, although one might deplore the manner in which the conquest of barbarians was being conducted. However, as the religious discourse of European Christendom became questioned within Europe, and as Europeans demonstrated their technological superiority in a variety of encounters, the issue reverted to a simpler question of whether civilization was such a good thing, and could be imposed without embarrassment.
Type: Book Chapter
ISBN: 978-88-8303-306-3
Appears in Collections:Encountering Otherness. Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture

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