[I’m traveling today, so I took the liberty of pulling this comment by frequent poster Michael S. up to the front page. If you’re curious as to the context, see the Africa Addio thread. —MM]
I suspect that curious condescension and the myth of the noble savage flow from the most central beliefs of Universalism.
The original theological meaning of universalism was that, at the end of days, no one would be damned—everyone would be saved. This belief was closely associated with early unitarianism, for example that of the Socinians. Universalism is a way of denying that “in Adam’s fall/we sinned all.” If there was no original sin, there is no need for a Savior, hence unitarianism.
If not by original sin, how, then, are we to explain the moral failings of humanity? If, in a state of nature, man is naturally good, the reason must be (as Rousseau suggested) that the institutions of society are to blame. Get rid of them, and man’s inherent goodness will flourish.
The concept of the noble savage and of the corrupting influence of civilization is made much easier to accept by our intimate acquaintance with all the failings of our own social institutions, and our comparative ignorance of those of others. It is easy to see primitive societies as innocent, first because the wish is father to the thought, and secondly, because we don’t know that much about them.
Universalism inverts the thesis of Bishop Reginald Heber’s famous hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” In Heber’s lyrics, the lands of the heathen are described as places where “every prospect pleases/and only man is vile”—because ignorant of Christ’s promise to redeem vile men from the original sin that is their portion as heirs to Adam’s fall. But, since according to the Universalist view, man is not inherently vile, it is amongst civilized people that every prospect pleases, and only man is vile because of the perverting influence of civilization. Therefore we have a better chance of finding the good amongst peoples who have never been tainted by its poison breath.
The degree to which this view has persisted since the time of Rousseau, despite all the evidence to the contrary, shows the depth of the Universalist faith. The French revolution alone should have shown Rousseau’s theory that sweeping away the old corrupt institutions would inaugurate a return to the Edenic state was a fraud. Still, the same sort of people who pinned their hopes on the Jacobins later pinned them on the Bolsheviks, and on Mao Tse-tung; and they still think Castro’s Cuba is a promising experiment, if not a proved one (cf. Michael Moore).
Anthropology is merely another venue for such hopes. Consider how Margaret Mead’s Samoa, or the “gentle Tasady” or other false and romantic interpretations of the primitive. Even primate zoology does not escape this. For a long time, chimpanzees, we were assured, shared more DNA with humans than any other species. To be sure, baby chimps are cute and affectionate; but it did not long escape notice that adult ones shared, in addition to DNA, all-too-human tendencies towards territoriality, greed, and violence. Then the primatologists discovered bonobo apes, who supposedly were bisexual, had a communal economy (“it takes a village…”) and matriarchal social organization. What could more ideally answer Universalists’ fondest hopes? Unfortunately for them, this myth too is now beginning to crumble (see the most recent July 30 issue of The New Yorker).
Whatever may be said about some of the beliefs of orthodox Christianity, it seems to me that there is deep insight into the human character in the doctrine of original sin.
Pride, anger, avarice, envy, sloth, gluttony, and lust are fundamental and dominant aspects of human nature, semper et ubique et ab omnibus. They are innate, because they are all in one way or another assertions of self-interest. Consider the squalling infant, who is too young to be sensible to any moral instruction. He thinks only of his own comfort, and never mind his mama’s or papa’s inconvenience, he wants it NOW! The infant displays six of the seven deadlies—lust alone fails to appear until the onset of puberty.
All of the character traits we admire, such as kindness, honesty, and generosity, by contrast, ane not instinctual in this way; they have to be learnt. It is (among others) the job of civilization to teach them, and that point is one that Universalism fails to acknowledge. It may be the germ of its destruction.