January 22, 2012


Eli Sagan, At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individuals, Political Oppression, and the State (New York: Knopf, 1985) ("Tyranny is an abuse of hierarchy. . . . Social action in a society of any degree of complexity requires leadership positions, which are hierarchical by nature. There is nothing in the nature of hierarchy that inevitably causes it to degenerate into tyranny, although hat has overwhelmingly been the case in all societies since the primitive." "Political oppression is easier when there is a racial or cultural distinction between the masters and the oppressed. Tyranny will be harsher in a state established through conquest of one people by another than in a state where all share the same language, culture, and history. But such differences are not necessary for tyranny. . . . " "The forms of tyranny, once established, have remained remarkably unvaried over thousands of years. Capitalist enterprise, with landless free workers laboring in productive units not owned by themselves, was the first radically new form of tyranny since complex society. With that exception it was all there from the beginning." Id. at 277-278. "All martyrs give the sense of having bee betrayed. They act as if they were somehow promised justice but received instead a violation of their rights, as if somewhere they were promised love and received death. They are intent on converting those who hold power not only into something evil but into betrayers: those who promise benevolence and delivery tyranny. " Id. at 47 "Terrorists are not ordinary criminals, although they do most of the things criminal do, because they claim to act in the interest of an ideal. And the rhetoric of their idealism speaks often of great love for others. If the stated goal of terrorist activity is the independence of a homeland or the establishment of an egalitarian society, the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with large numbers of people is a proclaimed ideal. . . . And yet the terrorist cannot live without killing others, or, at least, thinking about killing others. The rage is enormous. And for many terrorists, the terrorist life becomes a means to suicide: through prison or execution or mishap with their own bombs or causalities caused by armed attack. Very few live to be old." Id. at 47-48. "We have reached the end of one the the world's greatest eras of individuals. What was at its beginning a progressive force has ceased to serve human kind. We cry out for the restoration of the sense of community. We long to live, once again, in a society that consciously moral people could love. We have grown lonely and frightened out there all by ourselves. Our task is to insist that the next turn will keep us ascending: that individuation, and the freedom it carries with it, are not to be rejected, but negated in a dialectical sense--incorporated and carried with us to enhance the restoration of the communal ideal." Id. at 276. From the bookjacket: "In this book . . . Eli Sagan looks for the origins of political tyranny that has haunted human society through the centuries. He does this by exploring three societies--Hawaii, Tahiti, and Buganda--whose ancient customs and institutions still prevailed when they were first encountered by Western travelers and missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a phenomenon that enables us to see at close hand the world of our own ancient past.").