My subject is Herman Melville, and more specifically Melville’s case for civilization, but I would like to approach his Typee (1846), where he makes that case, through a preamble having to do with the figure against whose arguments Melville stakes his own: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).
I. There is a shadow-side in the Western tradition that takes the form of a recurrent rebellion against reality. Already in the early Fourth century BC Plato identified an impulse arising from the matrix of civilized life that is wildly uncivilized and which expresses itself, in animosity that can be either generalized or narrowly focused, against civic order, technical achievement, and social distinctions arising out of a consensual recognition of merit. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the character named Callicles complains that the rule of law is tyrannical because it places restraints on strength and ambition and so protects the “weak,” as he terms them, from the “strong,” among whom he imagines himself. When the weak dominate the strong, Callicles argues, nature herself is offended because under her order the reverse is naturally the case. Nature, not culture, provides the authentic template of existence. When Socrates points out the verbal flimsiness of Callicles’ syllogism – that it juggles rather too freely with the terms strong and weak and sneakily makes the case for the tyranny against which it lodges its complaint – Callicles accuses his critic of thinking too much. Callicles warns Socrates that finding logical fault with people will land the philosopher in trouble. Perhaps someday it will cost him his life.
At the heart of Callicles’ pathology stands his aversion to reason and commonsense. Callicles’ denunciation of the civilized order stems from this aversion because it is the polity, as an expression of reason and commonsense – that is to say of human self-knowledge – that restrains his libido and forces him to respect the rights of others. When someone like Callicles determines to rise to power, he must begin by disarming reason and commonsense – he must evade human self-knowledge. He must also persuade others to join him in his distortion both of human reality and moral perception. A ritualistic, magical character pervades such activity, linking it to archaic, pre-civilized practices.