Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, , at sacred-texts.com
To say this, however, is certainly not to endorse the surprising thesis latterly put forth by Dr. Frazer, to the effect that magic-mongering, after all, has been a great factor in human progress. 2 His first suggestion was, as we have seen, that a recognition of the inherent falsehood and barrenness of magic set the saner men seeking for a truer insight into nature. But after suggesting this "with all due diffidence," he has latterly come to hold with confidence that it was the clever impostors who, by obtaining monarchic power, were the means of breaking up savage conservatism, and so of making progress possible. It is a singular argument. The public sorcerer "may readily acquire the rank and authority of a chief or king"; and the ablest and most ambitious men of the tribe accordingly follow the profession. The most sagacious are the most likely to see through its fallacies, and, becoming conscious deceivers, will as such "generally come to the top." 3 Only the cleverest can survive: all sorcerers run a constant risk of being killed for their failures; and the honest men are likely to be soonest knocked on the head. "The general result is that at this stage of social evolution the supreme power tends to fall into the hands of men of the
keenest intelligence and the most unscrupulous character." 1 Once supreme, the clever rogue "may, and often does, turn his talents, his experience, his resources, to the service of the public." 2 Being a knave, he is not likely to miscarry: witness the contrasted careers of Augustus and George III. Thus magic makes the monarch: "it shifted the balance of power from the many to the one: it substituted a monarchy for a democracy, or rather for an oligarchy of old men." The custom-ruled savage in the free tribal state is utterly unprogressive, "and the ablest man is dragged down by the weakest and dullest." But the rise of one man to supreme power breaks the spell; and the tribe "enters on a career of aggrandisement, which at an early stage of history is often highly favourable to social, industrial, and intellectual progress." "The great conquering races of the world have commonly done most to advance and spread civilisation.....The Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, are our witnesses in the past......All the first great strides towards civilisation have been made under despotic and theocratic governments." 3 Great, therefore, was the service of the sorcerer.
Oddly enough, Dr. Frazer, whose outstanding merit is the fulness of his proofs for his theses, offers us no evidence whatever in support of this thesis beyond the perfunctory allusions to ancient civilisation just cited, which are wholly beside the case. He is severe on à priori theories of kingly origins, but his own argument here is almost wholly à priori. True, some savage kings are magicians = priests; but many are not; and the wide learning of Dr. Frazer evidently does not suggest to him a single case in which the clever knave who has achieved kingship performs the services he is supposed to be able to render. 4 On the contrary, we have the testimony 5 that "where the chieftaincy and priesthood meet in the same person, both are of a low order"among the Fijians. There is really no reason to think that early progress was made as Dr. Frazer suggests: his philosophic antinomianism is gratuitous. And it is not persisted in; for once more we find him reverting 6 to the view that, as the fallacy of magic becomes more and more apparent, it is "slowly displaced by religion: in other words, the magician gives way to the
priest." The two propositions refuse to quadrate. First, the great merit of the magician king was to break up custom; now he does but pave the way for the priest, who is custom incarnate; who, in point of fact, pursues the very researches which Dr. Frazer credits to the magician; and who, when the chief or king insists upon a humane innovation, makes it his business to poison the innovator. 1 It is time that the à priori method were abandoned, in this as in other fields of science. It can but yield us a crop of contradictions.
Looking in anthropology and history for the main factors of progress, we find them in very different directions from those indicated by Dr. Frazer. Our first traces of "civilisation," strictly speaking, are in townscivitates; and their civilisation consists largely in the development of the useful arts by division of labour. The primary determinants are physicalconditions of regular food-supply, as in the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Yang-tsze-Kiang; and the widening of knowledge was a matter of manifold development in which men of all classes must have taken part. To say, as does Dr. Frazer, 2 that the magicians "were the direct predecessors, not merely of our physicians and surgeons, but of our investigators and discoverers in every branch of natural science," is to impose a false symmetry on a vast, irregular process, and is an unwarrantable negation of faculty in all but one fraction of the human race. There is positively no ground for supposing that it was professed magicians or magician-chiefs who invented ploughs and bows and arrows, or tamed cattle, or developed agriculture, or began spinning and weaving and metallurgy. Neither is there reason to think that it was the "rain-makers" who developed irrigation, or the "medicine-men" who oftenest discovered the uses of herbs, whether or not they were the first regular observers of the stars. Neither positively nor negatively can they be shown to be the leaders in vital innovation. 3
The spell of custom, where broken at all, has been dissolved by the compulsions of need or the lure of gain: hunters and shepherds are turned into agriculturists by the bait of food or the goad of hunger. The masterful savage knave who breaks through primitive convention and gives a free run to genius is a creature of Dr. Frazer's speculative faculty, suddenly permitted to expatiate in an unwonted vacancy. Masterful primitive chiefs and kings we do indeed find at
times breaking down evil usages; 1 but this very service is by way of fighting the priest who (we are told) has supervened on the magician; and in no case, I think, can such a reforming chief or king be shown to have won his power as a sorcerer. As we have seen, the superseding of so-called magic by so-called religion is immeasurably slow; and the idea of taboo subsists in the historic religions to this day.
The things wherein men validly change in the savage state, if we can draw any conclusions from their remains, are the ways and means of living and fighting. Conditions of food-supply determine implements and methods. Weapons are slowly perfected; and if we may reason from the instance of the Romans, the primitive savage was most open to new ideas on that side. There, at least, fas erat ab hoste doceri. But the lift of the race is secular; not a matter of sudden impulsions and emancipations by clever chiefs, rascally or otherwise. Dr. Frazer appears to think concerning the rise of culture as so many theologians still think concerning moral progress. He seeks a "founder" as they seek a Moses, a Buddha, a Zoroaster, a Jesus, for the instauration of morals and of creeds. Whatever magicians might do, only with a vast inertia did the stone ages lapse on, from palæolithic to neolithic, from neolithic to bronze and to iron; and in savage Africa, pullulating with sorcerers, the trivial tribal cultures have exhibited but a futile fluctuation in five thousand years. Non quis sed quid.
The question of the political conditions of the spread of civilisation is another issue; and the conjoining of it with the first is a fresh proof of the fallacy of Dr. Frazer's new method. These à priori arguments for despotism are products not of induction but of presupposition. If we apply the inductive method which Dr. Frazer professes to follow, we find, for one case in which despotism evokes genius or progress, ten in which it paralyses the first and stifles the second. Under the imperialisms and theocracies of Mesopotamia and Egypt, mayhap, there were laid or retained the foundations of astronomy and mathematics and the beginnings of philosophy; and Greece came into the heritage. The mathematics and the philosophy were developed in democratic Greece as they never had been under the empires; and one of the few cases in which despotism did anything for science was at the later stage when the Ptolemies simply gave astronomy an economic endowment. On the other hand, great literature and great art, great poetry and drama, medicine and biology, were the creations of pre-Alexandrian Greece; and in
every one of those fields the human achievement sinks and dwindles after free Greece falls before organised militarism. As to religious literature, Dr. Frazer is not wont to represent the Bible of little Jewry as inferior to those of Assyria and Egypt. The whole Roman empire, finally, stands for one brief florescence of the secondary Roman genius, followed by the ruin of the whole antique civilisation which it absorbed; and the later cultures of the Saracens and the Renaissance were growths from the found seeds of Greek science, and from the assimilation of the remains of Roman culture in a turbulent world of free Italian cities, akin to that of dead Greece.
This digression, forced upon us by Dr. Frazer's resort to apriorism in sociology, may not be useless if it serves to put us on our guard against the risks of reactionary method within the proper limits of our problem. Away from induction there is no safety; and Dr. Frazer miscarries even as does Dr. Jevons when he neglects observation and gives the rein to presupposition. It is by reason of this swerving from his own principles that he finally fails to solve the problem of Christian origins, and remains stranded in a compromise between tradition and criticism. Vindications of despotism and primitive charlatanism are psychologically and logically on all fours with vindications of incredible creeds, cruel churches, and the sentimentalism of reaction. The business and the duty of the anthropologist as of the sociologist is to note determinants and trace sequences, neither letting his ethic obscure for him the natural processes, nor letting the recognition of that obscure his ethic, which is an act of discrimination and judgment, or nothing.
35:2 In his great work on Totemism and Exogamy (iv, 25 sq.) Dr. Frazer has recently argued, without any reference to the wider thesis here under criticism, that magic may be reckoned the nursing-mother of art, inasmuch as it moved early man to copy objectsa more plausible theory than the one here criticised. But it also is open to much objection.
35:3 Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship, 1905, p. 82.
36:1 Id. p. 83.
36:2 Id. p. 84.
36:3 Id. pp. 84-87.
36:4 Dr. Frazer does cite a story of a Masai magician chief who "actually discovered a mode of inoculation which protected the cattle against lung disease" (p. 114). "If this statement is correct," he adds, "we have here a striking instance......which illustrates what I have said." It will really not do. In this connection we may note the recorded fact that "The Masai at one time formed an immense and compact nation.....Their cohesion was due to the influence of a very celebrated sorcerer named Battiani. His death was followed by the epidemic of rinderpest which came from the north in 1891. Nearly all the cattle of the Masai perished......Finally, small-pox added its ravages......and, the nation was irretrievably broken" (Decle, Three Years in Savage Africa, 1900, p. 476, We here learn what the sorcerer can and what he cannot do.
36:5 T. Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, ed. 1870, p. 192.
36:6 p. 127.
37:1 Cp. Sir A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast, 1890, pp. 145-147.
37:2 Lectures cited, p. 92.
37:3 It is noteworthy that in his comprehensive and valuable survey of Totemism and Exogamy (iv, 17 sq.) Dr. Frazer expressly negates and confutes the theory that the rise of culture, animal-taming, and metallurgy is due to early totemism. Here he is carefully Inductive as against the loose speculation of others.
38:1 See below, ch. ii.