Quote of the Day

Prior to the miracle of Civil Society, human societies habitually lived under coercive and superstitious systems, and generally took such a condition for granted. They were right to do so. There was no alternative. Within such societies, the maintenance of the social order was normally quite properly accorded far more importance than any possible augmentation of the cognitive capital or of productive potential, if indeed those things were valued at all, or held to be attainable or even conceivable. All this was reflected in the values pervading agrarian societies; these values led to a reverence of martial and hieratic skills, a Rule of the Red and the Black. They did not lead to any great respect or encouragement of productive capacity or of intellectual innovation. The specialist was often the object of contempt or fear or both. This, once again, is the normal social condition of mankind. It is foolish to expect anything else.

Then, on one occasion, something strange and unusual happened. Certain societies, whose internal organization and ethos shifted away from predation and credulity to production and a measure of intellectual liberty and genuine exploration of nature, became richer and, strangely enough, even more effective militarily than the societies based on and practicing the old martial values. Nations of shopkeepers, such as the Dutch and the English, organized in relatively liberal polities, repeatedly beat nations within which martial and ostentatious aristocracies, addicted to the values of aggression and conspicuous display, dominated and set the tone.

Ernest Gellner, The Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals .

(Alan Macfarlane lecture on Gellner, speaking as if he were Gellner. Macfarlane’s review of Conditions of Liberty.)

5 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. It’s an interesting notion, but seems designed to underscore the political view that “violence is bad”. While it’s true that liberalization away from a feudal arrangement has generally been productive, a total purge of a warrior culture does nobody any good. The United States is not the power it is today by virtue of “soft power” alone.

  2. Bruce, I don’t think that is his point at all. As he notes, the so-called “nations of shopkeepers” (Netherlands, England, USA, to some degree Switzerland) turned out to be pretty good at war after all — enough to hold off their enemies, anyway. The point is that a society founded primarily on martial values, as a historical matter, did not achieve the breakthrough to political and economic freedom. The question is: What type of society was able to achieve political and economic freedom, free inquiry, scientific advance, and the transformation of the world that sprang from all this? Not the warrior-based societies. Those reached a plateau and stayed there, due to internal predation. So, I don’t see any kind of simple “violence is bad” message here — nor in the rest of the book which I am 1/4 done with. Free societies need to defend themselves. He was a Jewish guy from Czechoslovakia. He knew perfectly well what happened to people and countries that could not defend themselves. Sometimes violence is necessary. I don’t think Gellner would dispute that.

    Anyway, I am planning to get through a bunch of Gellner in the next year or so, which will allow me to make firmer statements on this stuff going forward.

  3. Also, when you look closer at the “nations of shopkeepers”, especially Britain and America, they were very adept at incorporating and using subcultures or regions with more warrior-like cultures for the close-in bayonet work — Highlanders and Ulstermen for Britain (and eventually Gurkhas), Scots-Irish frontiersmen for the USA. Combine this cutting edge with the shopkeeper gone to war, who knew how to equip and supply large numbers of soldiers and sailors effectively, how to invent the bigger and longer-range guns, and who could learn to fight tolerably well themselves when pushed to it. Since the Industrial Revolution either Britain or America, or some combination of the two, have kicked the ass of every aristocratic and/or warrior culture that has tried to challenge them.

    A freind and work colleague of mine had been a US Army engineer during World War Two. He liked to tell the story of a German officer POW, also an engineer, who had been working with him on the restoration of Marseilles harbor. One day they were looking out over the harbor, which was full of Allied ships unloading munitions and supplies, with a line of more cargo ships beyond the harbor lined up to enter. The German surveyed the whole scene and said “if we had only known!”

    Indeed. They always say that, after.

  4. I think the perfect example would be the Russians. They have a strong martial culture, a warrior race as I like how Lex put it. But they never developed the shopkeeper class. Consequently, their armies have traditionally had obsolete or inadequate weapons, offset by swarms of tough infantry.

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