restricted access 2. Some Figures of the Enlightenment
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Some Figures of the Enlightenment I. HUME AND THE INFERIORITY OF THE INHABITANTS OF THE TROPICS IT was unfortunate that out of the whole of Buffon's theory, so rich in motifs, so full of provocative suggestions and echoes of long-forgotten ideas, it should have been the very weakest part that his contemporaries chose to follow up, their appetite whetted by its facile moralizations, its verdicts of "better" and "worse." And while Buffon had left it as an implicit notion of secondary importance, the philosophers seized on it and lost no time in exploring all the possibilities of such a fruitful and colorful source of polemic and scandal. Observing a certain caution in his choice of words, Hume in his famous essay Of National Characters (1748) had suggested that "there is some reason to think that all the nations which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species." But he had immediately excluded geographico-naturalistic factors by adding that this could be explained by the "poverty" and "misery" of the inhabitants of the northern regions, and by the "indolence" of those of the south, "from their few necessities ... without our having recourse to physical causes."! Hume is referring to the inhabitants of the Arctic and tropical zones, not to the Americans in particular; to men, not to zoological species ; and to economic factors, although related to climate, not to a fixed and inescapable geographical determinism. Hume, in fact, anticipating in this particular instance his own radical criticism of the principle of cause, reexamines and revises the age-old tradition of ethnopsychology and its attempts to pass from a mere description and typology of the characteristics of the various peoples to a causal and thus by definition emphatically naturalistic explanation for such characteristics. 1. D. Hume, Essays (World's Classics ed.l, p. 213; his italics. Cf. on Hume's thesis A. J. Toynbee, A Stud\' oj History (London, 1935), I. 470 If.; Teggart, op. cit., pp. 180-83. 35 36 THE DIS PUT E OFT HEN E W WaR L D The theory goes back to the time of man's earliest and most ambitious strivings after scientific knowledge. Hippocrates, the father of medicine and mythical great-grandson of Heracles and Asclepius, saw a connection between alteration in climate or sudden seasonal change and the varied temperaments and physiological qualities of men.2 Socrates, in Plato's Republic (435e-436a), divides up the faculties of the soul among the various peoples, and assigns to the Thracians, to the Scythians, and in general to the northern races a strong passionality; to the Greeks the desire to learn, or philosophy; and to the Phoenicians and Egyptians the thirst for material profit. Similarly Aristotle, in his Politics (VII, 1327b), says that the peoples "in the cold countries and in Europe are excessively impulsive," but rather unintelligent, and of limited organizational capacity; they are independent , but incapable of true government. The peoples of Asia are intelligent and resourceful "but morally weak and thus habitually live in submission and slavery." The Greeks, on the other hand, in a geographically intermediate region, are at the same time brave and intelligent , and live in liberty and with good government. Polybius and Strabo are in agreement in explaining the temperament of peoples by their climates , those who are subject to severe conditions being warlike, and those who inhabit regions where nature is gentle and benign being peaceable .3 Among the Latin writers, Titus Livy repeats of the Samnites that the people are similar to their environment. Cicero, in his De Lege Agraria, develops the idea that customs are shaped more by a people's surroundings and means of subsistence than by heredity. And in Lucan one reads that the peoples of the north are fierce and warlike, while those of the soft Levant are mild and peace-loving.4 For the ancients the link between climate and spirit was almost a commonplace. II. BODIN'S THEORY OF CLIMATES But speculation along these lines had continued so feebly in the Middle Ages, stifled perhaps by the prevailing Christian doctrine of the universal equality of men (for which the sole remaining distinction was the 2. Trallalo delle Arie. Acqlle e Llloghi. sec. 24. quoted by Teggart. op. cit.. p. 174. 3. See quotations in Teggart. op. cit.. pp. 174-75. For Polybius see also Bodin. below. sec. 2. But of Strabo. Hume writes that in the second book he "rejects...


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