In his sweeping and masterful opus, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun identifies “primitivism” as a persistent theme in the West over the past half millennium:
The longing to shuffle off the complex arrangements of an advanced culture recurs again and again. It is a main motive of the Protestant Reformation, it reappears as the cult of the Noble Savage, long before Rousseau, its supposed inventor. . . . [H]ow does the historian know when Decadence has set in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths. . . . To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts: fighting nuclear power, global warming, and abortion; saving from use the environment with its fauna and flora; promoting organic against processed foods, and proclaiming disaffection from science and technology. The impulse to primitivism animates all these negatives.
The impulse Barzun describes springs from an observation, an instinct or an inchoate sense that at some point in the past something went terribly wrong. A turn back to what came before, or movement onto a different path, would therefore represent an improvement, giving rise perhaps to a sign showing us how we are intended to live. Barzun’s examples are predecessors of the current “simplicity” initiatives and the movement to eat locally grown produce. In the specifically American instance, from Thoreau at Walden Pond to the Southern Agrarians to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail today and the “back to the land” sustainable agriculture ideas of Wendell Berry, the theme is a familiar one.
The underlying notion in Barzun’s theme manifests itself not only in the primitivist search for alternative lifestyles or offbeat theologies. Perhaps the broadest and most intellectually rigorous example, not of primitivism but of a thinker who believes something has indeed gone wrong, can be found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, the distinguished philosopher whose 1981 book After Virtue traced the anti-virtuous nature of the large, modern state back to the deterioration of political and philosophical thought since the Enlightenment. MacIntyre argues for the rejuvenation of small communities, if not to replace completely the state then at least to permit a good life of classical excellence and truly human relationships to exist within it.
Another thinker who made an intellectually serious, yet much more popularly accessible, effort to describe what went wrong and what to do about it was E.F. Schumacher. In this centenary year of his birth, it is well that we should free him from what one Schumacher admirer calls the clot...