I can remember first buying Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization history bookset back when I was a teenager. I tried reading it back then, but Durant’s vocabulary was beyond me, and I wasn’t getting much out of it. Now it’s been some fifteen years or so, and I’ve went back to reading them again. Well, actually I’ve been listening to the entire set from an audiobook on my mp3 player while I’m in the gym. What an absolute delight!
He begins his first volume with a summary of all the elements of civilization and how they’ve evolved over thousands of years. We’re greeted with a cursory overview of the origin and development of governments, their laws, courts, family structure, economic systems, cultural values, morals, religions, science, art, and other ways of life. You really are left with the impression that people have lived every possible way you can imagine, and that our culture and values are rather arbitrary. That’s not to say that some ways of life aren’t better and more conducive to happiness. I’m just saying that there are many ways to live our lives, innumerable methods to share the Earth’s resources, and as many philosophies and outlooks about our place in the universe as you could possibly imagine.
In this post, I’d like to highlight a few interesting things I came across when studying the evolution of the family, the institution of marriage, and sexual morality.
In personal conversation among friends, I’d often argue that marriage is primarily a system of managing private property. It’s for the government’s convenience, a sort of default system to distribute the property upon divorce, handle custody of children, deal with death and inheritance, etc. That’s not very romantic, I know, and that leads people to scoff at me, even pity me, like I don’t understand love, but just sit and think about what marriage is. Think about all of its restrictions, barriers, and complex ties to religion.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in love and commitment in relationships. But when people talk about marriage, I’m thinking of the social institution itself. The religious side of it, the legal side of it, etc.
Prior to reading the first volume of this set, my views on marriage were primarily just based on intuition. I’d read some history and thought about it quite a bit, and that’s the answer I came to. It turns out that Will Durant completely agrees with me, and I was left surprised. As he went through the evolution of the institution of marriage throughout the ages, one thing totally jumped out at me. It all comes down to private property. We’ll have to step outside of our Western culture and look at how relationships between men and women have taken place throughout the ages, over thousands of years. I obviously can’t tackle that subject in any depth, but I’ll highlight some interesting things to consider.
Many cultures and tribes have lived as a common group, sort of like a big family. They have no private property. Nobody starves. There’s no homeless among them. They hunted together, lived together, and died together, as one unit.
Why am I bringing them up? Well they have no private property, so what happens to marriage, relationships, sexual morality, and all of that, once you get rid of private property? Everything, and I mean everything changes.
The first thing you notice is that nobody is possessive. People fall in love, but if a guy’s girlfriend goes off and sleeps with some other guy in the tribe, getting her pregnant, nobody cares. You may think to yourself, “What? I don’t believe that. Jealousy always exists in relationships!” But no, that’s actually a consequence of private property!
This is deep, so brace yourselves. Think about a world where you’re all one big family. Think of the types of arguments people get into over pregnancy, child custody, etc. What’s it all about? It’s pretty much all about raising the child, who’s going to provide, paying bills, etc. None of that exists in their society, so none of it matters.
Who will raise the child? Everyone will. Children are just sort of born and then they’re raised by everyone there, and they’re given a place in the tribe. Nobody owns anything or anyone, so it doesn’t even cross their mind to care about who got who pregnant. They don’t have these isolated little “family” units which all compete with one another for jobs, income, money, and all that. It doesn’t work that way.
Food is shared with everyone after a hunt. People need shelter? They all come together and would build huts. Job training? Just join the guys in the next hunt, or stay back with the women and gather berries. It didn’t matter who was the father because there are no individual providers or private property owners.
In this sort of world, women and men just sort of drift among partners. Young teenagers were often found that had four or five husbands, all still living. Sometimes a couple may bond for life, but very often everyone sort of slept around with everyone else and nobody cared who was pregnant with who’s child. Who’s the father? Who cares. Why would it matter? What difference would it make?
In fact, these cultures sometimes had group marriage systems. This would happen when one tribe would ally with another tribe. One group of brothers would end up collectively marrying a group of sisters. They all sort of cohabited together. You can even read about remnants of this in the Jewish people during Biblical times. A man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow.
Their societies are really interesting to me. I had always believed that man is a greedy creature, always out for himself or herself. I realize that that’s not true at all. We respond to incentives and the culture around us. Western explorers would find these tribes living all over the world, and they’d ask the people, “Are there any homeless among you?” They’d reply, “Why would there be homeless among us? Do you not have wood, mud, and grass to build a hut where you come from?” Greed didn’t exist at all in those societies.
Our culture comes from a religious heritage, where chastity and virginity are looked upon as a virtue. Women who sleep around are viewed as whores, and men who live that sort of lifestyle are frowned upon as unfaithful and unreliable. If you get rid of private property, all that goes away.
People in these tribes viewed things very differently. Many would ask outsiders and strangers to sleep with their wives. They often had taboos against spilling the blood of fellow tribesmen, and oftentimes the woman would release blood during their first time of intercourse, and they didn’t want to have that blood on their hands, so to speak. Even in tribes with differing degrees of private property, men would hire outsiders to sleep with their wives to take away their virginity.
Considering all of this, prostitution never existed in these societies. There was no need of it. Even children were encouraged to have sex as early as they could. Virginity was actually a bad thing as it indicated unpopularity. Mothers would be scolded if their daughters were brought up virgins.
And how about modesty? Think about women and men wearing revealing clothing. Or what about a man looking at a woman’s breasts? “My eyes are up here!” Even to this day, there are tribes all over the world which have no shame of completely baring all at all times. They laugh at us and how silly we are about clothing and showing our bodies.
How far do we go with this? Think about how uptight we all are about sex. In these societies, people have sex out in the open for all to see and watch. There’s an old woman weaving clothing and some elders nibbling on dried beef jerky while a young couple gets it on just a short ways away by the river. Nobody cares.
And another thing which always baffled me. Why is kissing the way we show affection? Is there something special about putting our mouths together? No, not at all. Most societies disconnected from Western influence have no conception of kissing. In fact, many of these tribes and cultures look at kissing with scorn. Our obsession with it is completely cultural and arbitrary.
It’s also very interesting to note that these societies had no romantic love at all. Most of them lacked a word for love in their vocabulary and translators struggled to even impart the idea to them. They were all very poor and life was hard. Men and women were valued if they could secure food, find water, cut wood, and carry belongings when following the herd. The origin of romance is fascinating, though it’s all too complex to get into.
While beauty was appreciated, women weren’t valued for their looks. It was more about being industrious and useful. This whole idea of women as weak, pretty objects to be protected by men is peculiar to the Western world. Throughout many ancient societies, men and women took life on side by side. We tend to think of ourselves as progressive and modern and the ancients primitive. But even if you look at the Egyptians, they had female pharaohs and there was no significant differences between men and women. It makes you wonder, why are women even today still struggling for equal placement in our world? All of this is fascinating, seeing how it all unfolded over the centuries.
Even as private property developed, women in these societies actually preferred polygamy. They would encourage their husbands to marry other women as well. You see, children were economic assets and men often died during their dangerous and violent hunts. There were a lot of widows. Men didn’t live long as their lives were far more threatened and short-lived. This led to a large excess of women, so polygamy was the natural state of affairs.
Women figured that the more children they had in their family, the more likely they were to be protected. Also the children gave the family more hands to work, and subsequently more wealth came into their household. Only poor, undesirable men practiced monogamy. It was a shameful position to find yourself in. This might surprised you, but these women viewed monogamy as unnatural and immoral.
I could easily write a whole series of posts on how our institution of marriage evolved, how women were subjected under men, how we became sexually prudish, etc., but I don’t have the time right now. I’m pretty busy with school work. Still, I wanted to write this quick post. I find it all really interesting.