At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the State, by Eli Sagan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 421 pp. $22.95. Living in a more complex and uncertain era, we are inclined to admire those splendid 19th-century scholars who propounded with such confidence the origin of the species, the withering away of the state, and the role of the unconscious and infancy in determining man's nature. It is unusual, therefore, to come across a book like Eli Sagan's ``At the Dawn of Tyranny,'' which makes almost as bold and sweeping a claim to explain the origins of individualism, political oppression, and the state.
Societies, sociobiologists like to tell us, are as much organic units as individual members. Sagan, in developing his hypothesis, describes the evolution of civilization from primitive societies based on kinship, to complex societies ruled by kings. Such complex organizations have been an essential step in the formation of all great civilizations. Only the complex society, with its emphasis on individuality, on hierarchy in government, and on specialization in employment, could give the impetus to
As Sagan sees it, Western society has arrived at the later stage in which democracy has replaced father, king, or emperor. But if democracy permits the most freedom to the individual, it also, in Sagan's opinion, generates ``an unusual share of anxiety, paranoia, and the need to express aggression outward, toward the world.'' There is also a corresponding desire in democratic societies for a return to the constraining but protective paradise of authoritarian nationalism. Thus he believes that while a so ciety that represses expressions of individuality remains primitive, a society that represses the sense of community to the extent we do is in danger of breakdown. The modern world, therefore, has potential for greatness but also for world struggle.
To illustrate his theory, Sagan begins the book with the study of three kingdoms -- Hawaii, Tahiti, and Buganda (a powerful kingdom in East Africa which was abolished in the late 1960s and became a part of Uganda). These kingdoms existed recently enough for anthropologists to be able to collect reasonably reliable data about their evolution and structure. These kingdoms had made the transition from the family to the tribe and finally to the autocratic king ruling over a large area of territo ry.
Having explained how this process occurs, Sagan then gives his explanation of why it occurs. It is an explanation that owes most to psychology, chiefly to that of Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mahler. His thesis on the development of society and culture is akin to theories on the development of the human psyche. Just as the infant identifies completely with the mother and then begins to develop a sense of self and a need for independence, Sagan says, society evolves with drives, anxieties, and fears that are responsible for much that is irrational in human behavior.
It is a provocative thesis, and Sagan quotes widely from Judeo-Christian writings, histories, political theorists, psychologists, scientists, anthropologists, and the diaries and journals of individuals who first visited the three sample kingdoms. Perhaps the most appealing of these sources are the diaries of missionaries, sailors, and explorers, which are refreshingly free of cant, and record in closely observed detail what was actually seen. Their speculations reflect a curiosity about the new phenome non rather than any desire to construct elaborate theories.
Sagan is an erudite and thoughtful man concerned with what he sees as ``the force of the psyche struggling to fulfill its developmental destiny.'' That struggle is against repression, he says. ``Our understanding of our present situation could be greatly enhanced, if we would consider two questions about our society: What human drives and needs does it satisfy? And what needs and drives does it repress?'' Both are questions that all major religions and systems of political thought have addressed at one time or another, and Sagan's analysis, however open to criticism, is serious and profound in intent. It may be ultimately a flawed analysis, too, dependent on the interpretation of unverifiable psychoanalytic data.
The book also evokes another reflection. There seems to be a lamentable tendency among academicians of the more pedestrian kind to think that the energetic use of jargon ensures respectability. Like accents that establish class, jargon confers if not distinction, at least a certain acceptability -- a tepid sort of acknowledgment of one's status. Sagan, who begins the book with admirable grace, seems to feel that his conclusions must be as heavily encrusted with jargon as the crown jewels of some u surping emperor. ``The Dawn of Tyranny'' should be read for its ideas, not for its conclusions.