How Advanced are “Primitive” Societies?

I have noticed in some history books that certain assumptions get made about the age of so-called developing societies.

Generally one sees an argument that goes something like this:

  • Most societies go through a stage where laws are not written for the public.  Instead law stays unwritten, in the hands of a priestly caste of some kind.
  • Without law as an observable guide for the public, they seek out oracles, who provide guidance, and give people direction and a measure of certainty.
  • This stage is supposedly evidence of a civilization in a early stage of development, which they then pass through to become more advanced.
  • In this advanced stage, they have written, public laws accessible to the people, which breaks the power of the once dominant oligarchic collusion.

I don’t deny that these phases exist, but as to how we label them, I’m not so sure.

Let us take the state of law in the modern day U.S., and for example of a law we’ll use the controversial health care legislation.

While technically this law is written and available to the public, is this true in a de facto sense?  Can you or I actually read and understand this law and its implications?  It is not written in English that the common man can understand.  It is demonstrably not written with the public in mind.

Ah, but there exists a certain priestly caste that does understand this strange language.  We call them lawyers.

And us, the citizen body, who have no real direct access to the law itself — we consult oracles to divine the law’s meaning.  Some of us seek out the CNN oracle, or Rush Limbaugh, or NPR, or Jon Stewart, or anyone else.  Many of us adhere to our oracles with a semi-religious fervor, which, as long as we’re dealing with oracles, is only appropriate.

The great thing about democracy is the proliferation of oracles.

But oracles they remain, for we cannot read and understand the law on our own.

Thousands of years from now if people write our history they might look back at us and say, due to the mystery and incoherence of our laws, that we were a “primitive” society.   Most of us would probably object to this, and argue that we are hardly primitive.  Look at our technology, our intricate power grids, and the abundance of bloggers!

Either we will have to change our concept of primitive societies, or our concept of ourselves.  Or, I’m wrong in my theory.

If I am right, then the news is bad for us.  We may be worse off than we imagined, and the problem won’t be located in either political party, but deeper, in the fundamental roots of our civilization.  But all is not lost.  This interpretation of our current state actually does provide a good bit of hope.

If what we called “primitive society” in the past was really an advanced stage of decay, those civilizations found a way to renew themselves.  By the grace of God, that option stands open to us as well.