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The Idea of the Savage

A UA law professor looks at almost 3,000 years of Western ethnocentrism

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In the Odyssey, part two of Homer's epic saga about the Trojan War and its aftermath, Odysseus, the conquering warrior-hero, experiences more than a few delays as he tries to get back home following the war.

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In addition to a 10-year sojourn with Calypso, an island-dwelling nymphomaniac, Odysseus is sidetracked by the Lestrygonians, a band of giant, stone-slinging louts; Scylla and Charybdis, two overly cranky sea monsters; and, perhaps worst of all, a drunken, one-eyed cannibal, Polyphemus the Cyclops. Odysseus, of course, escapes them all, eventually making it back to the relatively safe haven of Greece.

The lliad and the Odyssey—together, the "bible" of ancient Greece—are generally thought of as the literary foundation of Western civilization. However, according to UA law professor Robert A. Williams Jr., they are also a major source of Western ethnocentrism, having generated an archetypal concept of primitive humanity that has been used ever since to define non-Western populations. In his scholarly book Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, Williams, an indigenous-peoples'-rights lawyer, traces the arc and influence of this idea from the beginnings of Greek society to the present day.

The extreme creatures encountered by Odysseus were, undoubtedly, projections of Greek fears and anxieties about the unknown. However, Williams writes, over time, the Greeks began believing that these mythological characters were reflective of the largely unexplored world beyond their borders.

Diametrically opposed to all that was considered "grand and glorious" about Greek civilization, this vision of a world swarming with strange and barbaric beings played a major role, Williams says, in shaping the identity of Greece, legitimatizing its expansionist designs and validating the Greeks' sense of cultural pre-eminence. It's a view, Williams contends, that has deeply impacted Western civilization's perceptions of itself and the world, having passed down through successive stages of European culture as a set of remarkably durable stereotypes.

"From this point forward," Williams says, "Homer's defining categories of lawlessness, remoteness, habitual intemperance, primitive bestiality and sexual licentiousness will become foundational elements of the idea of the savage, applied to non-Westernized peoples by Western civilization for the next 3,000 years."

The paradox-loving Greeks, however, were seldom satisfied with one-dimensional propositions. Williams tells us that a countervailing view of the savage emerged from the pen of Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. In Works and Days, Hesiod, one of the West's first poets of protest, laments what he saw as the inexorable decline of Greek culture, and rhapsodizes about a golden, pre-civilized era in which natural man, untouched by the corruption and constraints of society, lived simply and virtuously in a Greek version of the Garden of Eden, free of war and "the desire for civilized refinements and luxuries."

Like its darker counterpart, this idyllic and equally mythological image of primitive mankind has been a recurring theme throughout the history of Western thought, primarily as a mode of social criticism. Williams devotes the better part of his book to the debate engendered by these two competing ideas among some of the West's most-noted thinkers.

In what amounts to a symposium on the Western intellectual tradition, Williams discusses a broad range of topics, including the elitist pronouncements of Aristotle (who believed that most of the world's people were too stupid to be anything but slaves); Lucretius' view that civilization's preoccupation with wealth and power is the major cause of human misery; the biblical "Wild Man," a concept central to medieval Christianity, which makes Homer's Cyclops seem like a Rotary Club member; Rousseau's Noble Savage; and the philosophical underpinnings of American manifest destiny.

Obviously, this book is not light reading. It will appeal primarily to those interested in philosophy. But for a book dealing with such abstruse material, it's surprisingly accessible. Witty and passionate, it encourages readers to explore a number of important issues, including questions regarding the ideal society and the true nature of man.

Citing the long history of shabby treatment experienced by tribal populations at the hands of Western powers, Williams writes that ancient, derogatory conceptions of native peoples have become "nearly ineradicable features of the way we see the world." He urges us to examine our own underlying assumptions, and to expunge dubious and outmoded ways of thinking.

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