recent email exchange which started with Kay's remark's about prostitution
and questioning essentially why it is judged so harshly in our culture;
has lead to a touching series of email exchanges which moved from the subject
of "prostitution" to male/female relationships in general and then on to
including questions of child support, women's liberation, and the 'need'
for male liberation. An increasing complex, intertwined web
of interests, beliefs, sometimes painful experiences, etc. started to emerge
which, at least in our culture, seems to have no immediately successful
answer which everyone can agree on.
Yet other cultures have seemed (prior to contamination by western "civilization") to have demonstrated much more success in these areas. Almost always, their cultural form was much more 'community like' than the stressed out & isolated life style we tend to live here in America. Here are what I believe are some pertinent examples of life lived more fully and richly. Things which present opportunities for us to learn from and perhaps in some ways, integrate into the life we wish for ourselves, our partners, and our children.
Scott Peck's opening remark in The Road Less Traveled,
is difficult." (taken from: "The first of
the 'Four Noble Truths' which Buddha taught was 'Life is Suffering.' ")
reveals a very often, unconscious "thought form" which permeates our culture
and tends to often create a cyclic self fulfilling, negative prophecy which
is not life affirming nor conducive to social evolution and the creation
of the "real" community which you and I value so much.
While this theme about the inherent 'negative' quality of life is certainly present in our Judeo-Christian background, along with the Hindu and Buddhist traditions; it is not universal in the human experience. If we are to truly touch into the essence of what it is to be human (and build from that foundation), I believe that "essence" must be present in all examples of humanity. The negative theme of "sin", karma, etc. is not universally present. Some striking examples of where it is not present (often with co-existing amazing degrees of 'community') exist in other cultures; ranging from some American Indians, to some South American tribes, and to some of the Polynesian cultures.
Here is one example from the south seas.
When Captain Samuel Wallis of the HMS Dolphinbrought news of the discovery of Tahiti in 1767 to England, the British believed that they had truly found a paradise.
"We have discovered a large, fertile, and extremely populous island in the South Seas.... 'Tis is impossible to describe the beautiful Prospects we beheld in this charming spot; the Verdure is as fine as that of England, there is great Plenty of Live Stock, and it abounds with all the choicest Productions of the Earth."
(1983: Out of print now, but if you are diligent you can
find it in a used book store or perhaps online)
'The Real Youth of the World'
IT IS EASY
ENOUGH to imagine a distant voyage from a European point-of-view: sea convention
produced the officers' logs and journals, and all sorts of people with
nothing much to do started to keep diaries. It is more difficult
to see things from the Tahitian point of view, but one can get some idea
of what Tahitians did, and what they thought, before the Europeans came
by putting together the observations of scores of people.
In European history, the day the Dolphin anchored was the start of an epoch that was not unimportant, but in Tahiti it was much more than that. History implies change, and until that day nothing had changed in Tahiti, certainly nothing in the Tahitians' memory and probably nothing in centuries. So it is no exaggeration to say that Tahitian history began that day.
After the Dolphin's fight there was mutual goodwill and affection, but hardly any mutual understanding. The fact was that nobody on either side could understand the other - even when he had learned a little of the language - unless he was willing and able to discard, for the moment, all his own ethical ideas and start again from the verv beginning. That was a feat of mental gymnastics that nobody in the eighteenth centurv could perform, except the most erudite theorists, and it is not perfectly easy even now.
But at least one can do one's best.
Tahiti and some of the other Polynesian islands had a combination of qualities that was unique. They had been left entirely alone since mankind first came to live in them, and they had all the needs of human life and comfort. So the people had an opportunity nobody else had ever had. Unthreatened and untaught, they created a society and a religion on the basis that there was plenty of everything for evervone, and nobody had to be either poor or rich. They were perfectly content with what they had, and never yearned for more.
made sure that everyone had what he needed by a custom of mutual giving.
It was not trade, because they had no money; nor was it barter. A
Tahitian would give anything to anyone who needed it, and expected nothing
in exchange except the knowledge that if he was ever in need himself, somebody
would do the same for him. As a matter of course, they gave food
to anyone who was away from his home and hungry, and with equal innocence
they gave the pleasure of sex to anyone who was hungry for that. If a man's
canoe was wrecked, his house blown down, or his net torn by sharks, his
neighbours would give him their own and set to work to help him build another
canoe or house or make another net.
Nobody thought of himself as the permanent owner of anything. They had never heard of private property, except perhaps family ownership of land. So they were never tempted into the sins of envy, selfishness, or avarice. Nor were they cruel or unkind, either by nature or example. Therefore, the religion they created did not have to assume that mankind was sinful, as European religions did. Apart from that, it was not entirely unlike them. It had one supreme god, called Te Atua, which simply appears to have meant the godhead, the concept of god. He could not be personified. There were also lesser gods who were known by personal names, and innumerable spirits. These were the spirits of ancestors, who were revered; people called on them for help or protection in special circumstances, much as some Christians pray to saints. Te Atua was the arbiter of life and death, but the only demands he made of mankind were reverence to divinity and kindness to each other. Lack of reverence he might punish by sickness, even mortal sickness. But he threatened no other punishment in life, and none after death. Tahitians conceived of heaven but no hell. Nor did they think of a devil. There were malevolent spirits, who prowled about in the dark in the form of mists and frightened people, but these were not symbols of temptation, like the Devil in Christianity.
Tahitians found it easy to satisfy Te Atua's
demands. Reverence was no trouble, nor was kindness to each other,
partly because they were made that way and it was the general habit and
partly because were very much like each other. They were uniformly intelligent,
althought their only education was gained by copying their elders. Some
Tahitians must have had better brains than others, but nobody's intellect
had to be trained or stretched above the norm, because society did not
evolve, and there was thus no call for innovation or inventiveness.
On the contrary, everyone's experience of life was the same, and everyone
could perfectly understand the environment and the place of mankind in
it. So everyone thought the same.
Some of course had special skills, in building canoes, for example, or navigating, but their only reward was in thanks and the pleasure of craftsmanship: their skill did not make them rich. They did not need to be told to love their neighbours: everyone did, and when they met strangers they expected them to be very much like themselves, and instantly lovable. An outsider might think such uniformity was dull, but no outsider yet had ever seen it, and it did not seem dull to the Tahitians, only natural. And dullness was relieved because every man and every woman had a 'best friend', called a taio - a word which also meant friendship in general. A man and his taio exchanged names and had a uniquely close relationship, and every attractive European was invited by somebody to become his taio.
Their laws and system of government were as simple as their religion, and as effective. There was no formal code of law, because they did not write; but there was a very strong tradition of what was right and what was wrong, based, like the religious rules, on whether an act was kind or unkind. Unkindness was taboo - one of the Tahitian words that crept into English. This law had the merit, unlike European law, that everyone could understand it. The people were loosely governed by their chiefs, some superior chiefs who ruled a number of districts, and some lesser chiefs, each of whom ruled a little district of his own; and some of the reverence due to Te Atua rubbed off on the chiefs and their families, because they were directly descended from gods.
But day-to-day legal decisions belonged to the heads of families. A Tahitian family was very large. It was not just a man and his wife and their children, but included all the aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, nephews, and nieces, who lived together in a group of houses. The family was so closely united that only one word existed for each generation; the word for 'mother' was also the word for all the aunts; 'father' also covered all the uncles; 'son' and 'daughter' included all the small nephews and nieces, everyone who has not quite grown-up; and bringing up the children was everyone's concern.
Each family chose one patriarch, or a council of patriarchs, to uphold the law. If anyone was decreed to have broken the law, his whole family was responsible and public opinion, or family opinion, was the strongest possible deterrent. To be arraigned by one's grandfathers, to disgrace and be held in disgrace by all one's relations, and to have to undo one's wrong or know that one's family had to undo it was enough to make crime very rare, and although other more drastic punishments were hinted at (taking a miscreant out to sea and drowning him, for example), no European ever reported that they were used.
The early reports of Tahitian life are often contradictory in detail. Visitors were inclined to think it was more highly organized and more homogeneous than it really was; so when they noticed some peculiarity of custom or behaviour, they reported it as a general rule. In fact, the only thing that was homogeneous throughout the island was religion. Since there was so little central government, and since the rules could never be written down and reduced to a code of law, in practice each chief and each head of a family interpreted the rules as he went along. What visitors observed might sometimes be a general rule, but more often was only the rule of one chiefdom or one family, and might be different on the other side of the hills or in a neighbouring bay.
Most of the early enthusiasts thought Tahitian society was democratic. They wanted it to be, but it was not. The Tahitians were as class-conscious as anyone in Europe, and their system of government was nearer feudalism than democracy. It was rather like the system of Saxon England before the Norman conquest, which had one supreme head, blessed by God, and under him earls who each ruled part of the country. Every man in the Saxon system owed duties to those above and below him: villeins owed produce and labour to thanes, who were the heads of villages, thanes owed military and other services to earls, earls owed the support of their armies to the king, and the king owed everything to God: and starting at the top, everyone owed protection, justice and help to those below. Two democratic institutions made the Saxon system work: there were moots, or committee meetings, at every level, which everyone had a right to attend and where everyone could speak his mind, or appoint a spokesman to do it for him, and there was always a possibility of rebellion. An earl or even a king who misused his power could be overthrown by the people he ruled.
Kind and Gentle and Astonishingly Generous
The eighteenth-century explorers reported the end-results of this unusual civilization, but never understood how it worked. They observed that Tahitians were kind and gentle and astonishingly generous, and above all that they were happy - always full of fun, always laughing - unless they were frightened or upset by a glimpse of cruelty, when they burst into tears. They always wept, men and women, when sailors were flogged, and begged the officers to forgive the offenders.
Sex became for Europeans the most astonishing and important thing about Tahiti, and the most discussed, so it needs to be specially mentioned and the Tahitian view of it made plain. Nobody had ever suggested to them that sex was ever sinful, much less a matter for salacity, secrecy, or self-restraint. It was simply a normal hunger, to be satisfied as naturally as eating, and the pleasure it gave simply one - though perhaps the greatest - of the shared pleasures of life.
Accordingly, from the earliest possible age, Tahitian children were taught its refinements by their elders, and as teenagers they were allowed and encouraged to practise it, in pairs or groups, whenever and wherever they wished. Any chance encounter of boy and girl was likely to lead to sex. As they were mentally so much alike, physical beauty and sexual skill were what they most admired, and these were also sources of pride for their parents. The more lovers young people had, the better their chance of making a good choice in the end - and better still if a young girl became pregnant, thought that seems to have happened less often than one would expect. It proved she was fertile. When she finally made her choice and married, her husband gladly accepted extra babies, and in the meantime there were plenty of parents, aunts and uncles all eager to help her.
They all married in the end, after eight or ten years of cheerful promiscuity. Marriage was normally monogamous, except for chiefs who needed an heir, but it was not exclusive or possessive: so although divorce was easy, it seldom happened. It was perfectly proper for a wife to have sexual relationships with her husband's brothers and cousins and best friend - she married the whole family - and likewise for a man; and for both, though more often the wife, sexual hospitality was an accepted obligation, unless there was a suitable teenager to take over. Only two things were banned: one was marriage across the class barrier, and the other was incest.
This curious system worked perfectly well. Sailors who encountered
it made an orgy of it, and others who heard of it, imagining themselves
in such a world, supposed that the Tahitians lived in a permanent orgy.
But they did not. People do not overeat when food is free unless
they are afraid that it will be rationed tomorrow, and Tahitians, with
perpetual plenty in food and sex, lived in perpetual mental and physical
health. Captain Cook observed them longer than anyone else and took
only a philosophical interest in their sexuality. With his usual
wisdom he remarked that 'it can hardly be called
a Vice, because neither the State nor Individuals are the least injur'd
The author, David Howarth, was educated
at Cambridge University in science and mathematics, but quickly turned
to writing as an editor and war correspondent for the BBC. During
World War II he was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer
Reserve. He has written or edited fourteen books, most of them about
turning points in history, and currently lives in Sussex, England.
Interestingly enough there is some rather insightful cross cultural work
which is also relevent here in the context of examining religious negative
thought patterns and violence. A Neuropsychologist at NIH (Institute
of Child Health and Human Development), James W. Prescott, wrote "Body
Pleasure and the Origins of Violence"
first published in The Futurist, April 1975 and reprinted (amazingly enough)
in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, in November 1975. Using
multiple works by cultural anthropologists, Prescott statisically correlated
the presence of violence in a culture (along with negative religious beliefs)
with the presence or absence of affectionate human touch (particularly
during child rearing, but extending into adolescent and adult life also).
The outcome of his work (with a statistical chance of error of 1 in 125,000)
was captured by: "We seem to have a firmly
based principle: Physically affectionate human societies are highly
unlike to be physically violent."
Often the south seas, polynesian cultures such as Tahiti; were prime examples of a non-violent, highly affectionate society without any traces of negative, religious thoughts such as "original sin", "karma", etc.
Return to top