NL XLI: What Barbarism Is

Index to this series

Civilization being agreement, barbarism has no chance in the long run (41. 67):

41. 76. For barbarism implies not only a quarrel between any barbarist and any civilized man; it also implies a quarrel between anyone barbarist and any other; and that any state of harmony between them is merely this quarrel suspended.

The barbarist is somebody “who imitates the conditions of an uncivilized world” (41. 53); but an actual attempt to bring about those conditions will need cooperation, and this will be a step towards civility. Here perhaps we should distinguish cooperation from the kind of coerced organization seen in a fascist state. Specific examples will be considered in the later chapters of Part IV of the New Leviathan. We are now considering “What Barbarism Is,” in general terms.

The idea that barbarists as such cannot work together is found in Collingwood’s first published work, “The Devil.” This is a chapter in a collection called Concerning Prayer, published during the Great War in May 1916. Collingwood observes (pages 462–3),

The Devil is generally regarded as being not only entirely bad, but the cause of all evil: the absolute evil will, as God is the absolute good will. But a very little reflexion shows that this is impossible. Good cannot contradict good, just as truth cannot contradict truth; but two errors may conflict, and so may two crimes. Two good men can only quarrel in so far as their goodness is fragmentary and incomplete; but there is no security that two absolutely bad men would agree. The reverse is true; they can only agree so far as they set a limit to their badness, and each undertakes not to thwart and cheat the other. Every really good thing in the world harmonises with every other; but evil is at variance not only with good but with other evils.

The Devil is neither an absolutely nor an entirely evil will, but a myth (page 470):

He rebels against God and sets himself up for worship, because all evil is rebellion against the true good and the worship of false ideals, of counterfeit goods, of idols. He rules over the kingdom of darkness, and yet his rule is only a mockery, because there is no real unity in evil, though there is a fictitious and spurious unity. He is a laughing-stock to the saints, because evil once seen as evil has no more power over the mind; it only controls those who worship it, who reverence it as good.

The worshipping of evil as good takes effort. In the New Leviathan, being a barbarist takes conscious effort (41. 53), while civilization can happen unconsciously (41. 5). As “evil once seen as evil has no more power over the mind,” so barbarism, once seen as barbarism, has no more power over civilization:

41. 7. What ensures the defeat of barbarism is not so much the enormous diversity of existing civilizations, too numerous for any conqueror to dream of overcoming; it is the literally infinite possibility of varying the nature of the thing called civilization, leaving it recognizable in this diversity; a possibility which will be exploited as soon as success in a barbarian attack stimulates the inventive powers of civilization to look for new channels of development.

The things that barbarism destroys, be they “in brick and mortar, in paint and canvas, in human customs and institutions” (41. 71), or be they fertile fields (41. 72), “are not civilization itself, they are only examples of what it can do”—and can do again.

The blithe assertion that we can always restore wasted fields to fertility may not be so reassuring, when the waste is wrought by global climate change, and the response of the rich is to dig a bunker in New Zealand, or take a rocket to Mars. When he was invited to speak about “the future of technology,” for half his annual salary, with “five super-wealthy guys—yes, all men—from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world,” Douglas Rushkoff found that:

Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.

This is from a remarkable memoir, “Survival of the Richest,” Medium, July 5, 2018. It is about one of the new types of Yahoo that the world is always breeding (30. 86). Rushkoff himself has a civilized response:

Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the individual consumers and proles that our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.

Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

To return to Collingwood, he may not be aware of the similarities I observe between “The Devil” and Chapter XLI of the New Leviathan. Each new book is for him a starting over. Apparently he bound together the proofs of “The Devil” and Religion and Philosophy for his own use, and concerning the former, he added the comment that it

represents the breaking point of my earlier philosophical beliefs. It is still realism, sharpened and hardened: The doctrine of God is not thought out: the general position is one of transcendence, and the coarseness and clumsiness of the work reflects the influences of the environment in which ‘Prayer’ was written. The flagrant superficiality of it, I think, drove me back upon my real convictions, and led to a year of negative criticism (1916) and the building-up of a new dialectical idealism in 1917.

My source here is the Editors’ Introduction, by James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro, to the 2005 Revised Edition of Collingwood’s Essay on Philosophical Method.

The concept of dialectic is not to be found in “The Devil.” Though it is a theme of the New Leviathan, it is not found explicitly in Chapter XLI either.

As Plato does not attempt to maintain a consistent technical vocabulary throughout the Dialogues, neither does Collingwood attempt to do so throughout the New Leviathan.

In Part II, “Society,” a terminology of contradictories and contraries is established. In our Heraclitean world, “Change implies a pair of contradictories (call them x and not-x) so related that the positive term is gradually gaining on the negative term” (24. 64). Hobbes rediscovered this:

24. 68. According to Hobbes (though Hobbes seems hardly to have recognized Plato’s work on the subject) a body politic is a dialectical thing, a Heraclitean world in which at any given time there is a negative element, an element of non-sociality which is going to disappear, or at least is threatened with abolition by the growth of the positive element; and a positive element, an element of sociality.

It is affirmed later that the positive and negative elements are contradictories:

29. 52. Dialectic is not between contraries but between contradictories (24. 68). The process leading to agreement begins not from disagreement but from non-agreement.

Here we are still in Part II, where we have been working out the implications of the classical politics, initiated by Hobbes, based on the notion of a society in Roman law (19. 5).

In Part III, “Civilization,” we make a fresh start, looking now at civility, which has two components:

  1. Since the Romans (35. 42), a respect one another’s feelings (35. 41).
  2. Since the Renaissance (35. 55), also scientific exploitation of nature (35. 54).

Civilization is, fundamentally, the process towards civility; barbarism (34. 78) is the reverse process (34. 57), tending towards barbarity. We make a connection with Part II only when we observe that civilization is socialization (37. 22).

Meanwhile, in Part II itself, savagery is the opposite of civilization, considered distinctly from society:

33. 2. Rousseau’s German readers were so far from understanding what his difficulty was that they agreed to mean by ‘the natural condition of mankind’ not the nursery, but the cave; not the opposite of society, but the opposite of civilization. Naturmensch is the German for ‘savage’.

In Part III, this understanding is more or less confirmed. With thoughtless labor, animals can get what they need from the world, and:

35. 53. The same is to some extent true even of man, in so far as he is what we call ‘savage’ or devoid of civilization. What we mean by a ‘savage’ community is one which can only get out of the natural world what it can extort thence through sheer labour unmitigated by thought; one which has not learned to save its muscles by using its brains. To learn that lesson, piecemeal as alone it can be learned, is to become civilized relatively to the world of nature: to progress in the second constituent of civilization.

In “The Devil,” evil is found to be neither the negation nor the opposite of good, but the counterfeit of good.

There are different ways of not being something, depending on what that thing is. We have certain ways of saying that something is not something else; but as Collingwood says concerning the word civilization itself,

34. 26. Etymology, in fact, is a good servant to the historical study of language; but a bad master.

Since I have been noting correspondences with “The Devil,” let me note another, at least in the use of the figure of the good servant and bad master (page 459):

Causation has doubtless its proper sphere. In certain studies it may be true, or true enough for scientific purposes, to describe one event as entirely due to another. But if the Law of Causation is a good servant, it is a bad master. It cannot be applied to the activity of the will without explicitly falsifying the whole nature of that activity.

As an act of free will, evil is explained by no cause, such as the Devil.

In Part IV, “Barbarism,” of the New Leviathan, savagery and barbarism are “two ways of being uncivilized” (41. 1). We saw above the distinction between non-agreement and disagreement (29. 52); but there is now no attempt to distinguish between, say, being uncivilized and being non-civilized. However, the latter term might fit the so-called savage:

41. 11. Savagery is a negative idea. It means not being civilized, and that is all. In practice, I need hardly say, there is no such thing as absolute savagery; there is only relative savagery, that is, being civilized up to a certain point and no more (34. 52).

Savagery would seem to be the contradictory of civility, while barbarity is the contrary,—if one is bent on using this terminology. Collingwood is not:

41. 12. By barbarism I mean hostility towards civilization; the effort, conscious or unconscious, to become less civilized than you are, either in general or in some special way, and, so far as in you lies, to promote a similar change in others.

Collingwood does not dwell on savagery, though he does dwell on how verbs in “-ize” properly indicate acting like something (41. 13). There are derivative abstract substantives in “-ism,” and concrete substantives in “-ist” (41. 16). Collingwood decries the term “scapegoatism” as not falling into this pattern (41. 17). The unnamed coiner of the word was thinking in German, a language “no longer capable of accuracy” (41. 18).

Being civilized and uncivilized are correlative ideas (41. 2), like self and not-self, which were seen in Chapter X as derived from reflection on a passion (41. 21), such as anger (41. 22). To make the correlative ideas more determinate (41. 23), one must examine the anger (41. 24) or, in the case of the civilized and uncivilized, “the sentiment of approval or disapproval” (41. 3).

A sentiment begins as an emotion, in this case an impulse towards or away from certain persons (41. 31). The sentiment may become rationalized, in the sense of being provided with reasons (41. 32); this must not be understood as a suggestion of illegitimacy (41. 35).

Our concern is with social sentiments; we do not care whether there are any others (41. 39).

41. 42. Sentiments make it their primary object to reduce the actions done in common by the societies in which they exist to the type of free and moral activities; that is to say, to civilize them.

This kind of sentiment can remain unconscious (41. 43). Collingwood does not actually name a “barbarous” sentiment as such, though it seems to me that such a sentiment could be described as the “counterfeit” of a social sentiment, as evil was the counterfeit of good in “The Devil.” Barbarism cannot be unconscious; for the barbarist “must remember, if not what civilization is, at least what the destruction of civilization is” (41. 53). Civilization as such need not know itself (41. 55), but the barbarist attacking it knows it and can thus feel intellectually superior (41. 54). However, by having to know the enemy, the barbarist loses the initiative (41. 61).

By attacking an unprepared civilization, the barbarist may “score” at the beginning (41. 62) and continue to score, “for as long as he can keep the situation fluid” (41. 63). Collingwood does not spell out this fluidity, but examples may include the shocks described in the title of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), and the destruction that Trump is working while he distracts the public with his stupid tweets and other public statements.

As time passes, the barbarist’s chance of winning approaches nil, as we said. Collingwood introduces an allegory in which civilization is a dolphin, and the barbarist an eagle (41. 8).

  1. The dolphin cannot attack the eagle directly (41. 83).
  2. Nonetheless, as we have said (41. 61), the eagle has surrendered the initiative (41. 84).

41. 85. Both statements are true; the two together constitute a criticism of war as waged by the barbarist.

“It is the eagle’s persecution-mania that drives him into prosecuting a hopeless war” (41. 88).

Before trying to work out more of the obscurities of Collingwood’s presentation, it may be better to wait and see how he works out the examples of the remaining chapters: the Saracens, the “Albigensian Heresy,” the Turks, and the Germans.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By NL XLIV: The Turks « Polytropy on February 20, 2019 at 7:47 am

    […] New Leviathan (Oxford, 1942) is “Barbarism.” The first chapter of the part is “What Barbarism Is”; the remaining chapters describe examples of barbarism in turn. The fourth and last example […]

  2. By Pacifism « Polytropy on October 29, 2020 at 9:19 am

    […] found reason to quote 29. 52 when taking up Chapter XLI, “What Barbarism Is.” Meanwhile, according to Kendi in a tweet (dated September 21, 2020) that I happened to […]

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