The Civilizing Sermon

Photograph Source: Thomas Geersing – CC BY 2.0

Discourse: communication in speech or writing; a speech or piece of writing about a particular, usually serious, subject; spoken or written discussion – from the Cambridge Dictionary, online.
Sermon: a part of a Christian church ceremony in which a priest gives a talk on a religious or moral subject, often based on something written in the Bible; a long talk in which someone advises other people how they should behave in order to be better people; a lecture – from the Cambridge Dictionary, online.
Doxa: a Greek word meaning common belief or popular opinion or, as Allan Bloom explains in his notes to Plato’s Republic: “what is popularly held and is based upon the appearance or seeming of things, as opposed to their reality.

The civilizing discourse which, like all discourse, expresses itself almost exclusively as a sermon, urges us relentlessly and in every sphere to believe that humans have developed – rather than lost – skills for social organization. In our very language ‘primitive’ means backward, ‘savage’ means brutal, ‘uncivilized’ means barbaric, ‘simple’ means less intelligent, and ‘non-literate’ means ‘uneducated.’ There is no word or phrase for a society that is not a State that doesn’t define that society in terms of its existing at ‘a lower stage of development,’ whether it be the whole of humanity prior to five thousand years ago or those peoples outside States now. There is also no word for the time before written history that doesn’t define that period by its incompleteness. We are trapped by the discourses that generate our language.

The term ‘discourse’ was embedded in academic jargon – ‘understood’ is another matter – after Michel Foucault ruminated on the limits and possibilities of thought in the late 1960s. Foucault argued that a ‘discourse’ consisted of a series of “statements” that provided a broad rationale within various intellectual, academic, or scientific fields. But he also warned that these discourses are – following Nietzsche’s work on the genealogy of morality – “from beginning to end, historical” and that we who participate in them are “governed by rules which are not all given to [our] consciousness.” Foucault was arguing that we are functions of our time and environment, and he suspected that, although many scholars and activists formally went along with this materialism, they didn’t actually understand its proper implications. So, there are a multitude of discourses that reflect and shape our views of the world, one of which is the civilizing discourse. Marx had already written – somewhat obliquely, it turns out – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Foucault, channelling Nietzsche, took it to another level: we are functions of the society we are born into and any notion that one can, as an individual, alter the discourse with “a fresh word” that only we are able to impart… is a fanciful dream.

More than this, Foucault insists that it is our body – above, beyond, and deeper than our ‘intellect’ – that is formed by the epoch and environment we live in. Our very bodies constitute the discourses of our particular history: “We believe that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too is false. The body is moulded by a great many distinct regimes; it is broken down by the rhythms of work, rest, and holidays; it is poisoned by food or values, through eating habits or moral laws; it constructs resistances. ‘Effective’ history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man [sic] – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men.”

Gilles Deleuze sums it up: “Foucault’s key historical principle is that any historical formation says all it can say and sees all it can see.” So, although I am going to be critiquing ‘the civilizing sermon’ below I am in no way claiming that my words and my life are not part of the civilizing discourse, since if they were outside of that discourse then they would be out of our history and they would be unhearable. My ‘opposition’ to the civilizing sermon should therefore be viewed as something inside the civilizing discourse – since though my words may say one thing every bodily action I perform, every ‘work’ that I do, is in full support of civilization. You may be thinking that I haven’t quite worked out how to put this succinctly… and you are right. I can, however, offer an analogy: the workers movement against capitalism expressed its highest achievement in the formation of Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks could do nothing else but accelerate the establishment of industrialization in Russia. The worker and peasant movement against capitalism, harnessed by ‘revolutionaries,’ was formed by capitalism – it was part of the discourse – and ended up, unavoidably, creating an industrialization in Russia that remains unequalled in speed and scope.

The civilizing sermon, the dominant flow of the civilising discourse – which is one of our modern doxas – can also be referred to as the notion of human progress: ‘Thank goodness, dear, that we no longer live in caves.’ The immediate and real danger of the civilizing sermon and discourse is that with political leaders such as Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro the eradication of the cultures of tribal peoples (and the ‘uncontacted tribes’) is quickened and intensified.

It seems to be a given in our universities and amongst our intellectuals that human society has proceeded through a series of stages to get where we are today. We have gone from ‘hunter-gatherer’ (a term I replace with ‘wild-fooder’ in my book), to tribes with powerful chiefs, to kingdoms, to empires, to representative democracy. The early anthropologist, Lewis H. Morgan, defined three broad stages of human development. He wrote that we have stepped up from Savagery, to Barbarism, to Civilization.

This precept of stages in human development is so ingrained in our consciousness that academic after academic, historian after historian, social commentator after social commentator, and so on, continue to submissively and dull-wittedly repeat it. Let’s take three examples.

In psychology professor Thomas Suddendorf’s, ‘The Gap – The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals,’ he writes: the abandonment of “a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of a sedentary agricultural existence… enabled rapid population growth and was a catalyst for development… Those who have continued to pursue a hunter-gatherer lifestyle have increasingly been marginalized.” Listen to the words used here: ‘enabled,’ ‘rapid,’ ‘catalyst,’ ‘development’ – all these words make the abandonment of a ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle something positive and necessary for the flourishing of humankind. ‘Thank goodness, dear, that we no longer live in the trees.’ Maybe Suddendorf did not intend to write such a pejorative analysis of those ‘increasingly marginalized’ peoples… but he did.

Stephen L. Sass, in ‘The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon,’ expands this narrative in a way that reflects back to us what we really think about ‘early humans.’ He writes: “Early humans faced overwhelming obstacles to survival. They needed food for sustenance, weapons against predators – both animal and human – and shelter from an often brutal environment.”

Have a look at that again. Is he putting forward the idea that ‘early humans’ were kind of ‘just like us’ – as if we were suddenly transported back to the distant past and had no idea how to live properly without our technology? ‘Let me tell you, dear, life without a refrigerator is absolute hell, and people in the past had to wait a long time for one to be invented.’

He continues: “The transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary existence was crucial and first occurred, so far as we know, in the Near East.” Crucial, huh? Crucial for whom? Crucial for creating the ecological collapse of the planet that we are now facing?

Sass’s argument is that “materials guided the course of history”: “Because materials and their uses have evolved, they lead us back to the foundations of human society, and map the movement from a hunter-gatherer style of life toward a more sedentary existence centred around cities. Dense areas of population develop as the materials that foster them become more sophisticated; the denser the population, the more sophisticated the building blocks. So, too, the higher we go literally (airplanes, skyscrapers) the more complex the substances that take us there.”

I do not want to appear mean to Sass here, what I am trying to demonstrate is that he speaks for most of us. He is certainly in good company. The materialist conception of history, as developed by Marx and Engels, provides a similar narrative. They also find that technology and production are the keys to changes in “legal and political superstructures” and the transformation of “social consciousness.” Of course, Sass came along long after Marx, and may not consider himself a Marxist, but he is iterating a materialist view of human history. Other writers who have mined the idea that technology is the motor for human ‘progress’ are the archaeologist Ian Hodder, who argues interestingly that it is our ‘entanglements’ with things – and the fact that these things create problems that need to be solved, usually by the invention of other things – that has driven and continues to drive human history, and historian Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari, in ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ finds the origin of human flourishing (read: civilization) in something more specific than does Hodder. He argues that people became enslaved to ‘wheat’ and it was the growing of this crop that enabled the rise of civilization. But these, essentially Marxian theories, were pre-empted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1754 when he wrote: “For the poet, it is gold and silver; but for the philosopher it is iron and wheat that have civilized men and sealed the fate of the human race.”

With Sass we can see that an aspect of the civilizing sermon is a universalization, or casting back over all history, of the ‘modern human’ – the civilized creature. This trans-historical universalization has enabled thinkers in the area of evolutionary psychology, such as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham to validate the notion that humans need a State and civilization to control their violent, ‘chimp-like’ irrationality and curb the ‘eternal’ phenomenon of the “demonic male.” (For a good, beginning-rebuttal, of their position see R. Brian Ferguson.) One can also see, in the quote above, how Foucault blasts the evolutionary psychologists – with their view that modern human psychology was formed before civilization from the desperate imperatives of ‘survival’ and ‘reproduction’ – out of the water before they had even got started. It is important to understand where one sits in such a debate. If we are to seriously imply that ‘uncontacted tribes’ are stuck hopelessly in an eternal misery of grindingly violent just-post-chimp survivalism and reproductionism… then we had better, if we care about people, liberate them from their plight as soon as possible.

Harari goes even further than Sass in his depiction of ‘early humans’ being just like us modern folk when he writes: “On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all.”

I find this paragraph from Harari immensely amusing: a famous historian projecting back through two million years of time the image of a modern family. As if humans behaved and organized themselves in the same way as they do now… through every different condition of human existence. One might wonder how someone can write something like this – which transposes a modern family from, say, Los Angeles, to essentially another world and in the manner of Fred Flintstone – and actually have a PhD. Maybe Harari didn’t mean to push a sermon upholding the fantasy of the eternal immutable nature of the human being and the positive values of civilization… but that’s what he did. And Pinker would be glad.

The affirmation of ‘progress’ is effectively a knee-jerk reaction. But with recent ecological events making a nonsense of ‘history’ perhaps we can control the impulse… or must we continue to listen to the civilizing sermon at almost every intersection of methodology and logic, in all spheres of life, in all discussion?

References and further reading:

Bloom, A. 1991, Prefaces, Notes and Interpretative Essay, in The Republic of Plato, Second Edition, Allan Bloom (trans.), Basic Books, New York.

Clastres, P. 2013, Society Against the State, Robert Hurley with Abe Stein (trans.), Zone books, New York.

Deleuze, G. 1995, Negotiations,1972-1990, Martin Joughin (trans.), Columbia University Press, New York.

Foucault, M. 1984, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (1971), in The Foucault Reader, Paul Rabinow (ed.), Pantheon, NY.

Foucault, M. 2002, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Routledge Classics, London.

Harari, Y. N. 2015, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, New York.

Harrison, P. 2017, The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control, TSI Press, Fair Lawn, NJ.

Hodder, I. 2012, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.

Marx, K., A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Rousseau, J-J. 2011, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Basic Political Writings, Second Edition, Donald A. Cress (ed. and trans.), Hackett, Indianapolis.

Sass, S. L. 1998, The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon, Arcade Publishing Inc., New York.

Suddendorf, T. 2013, The Gap: The Science Of What Separates Us From Other Animals, Basic Books, New York.

R. Brian Ferguson – articles online and a forthcoming work.

Survival International dot org.


Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: