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 "Mumford’s Provocative Ideas on the Nature of Man",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, May 21, 1967,
of a book:
THE MYTH OF THE MACHINE: Technics and Human Development,
by Lewis Mumford.
New York: Harcourt Brace, & World, 1967



"Mumford’s Provocative Ideas on the Nature of Man"



THE MYTH OF THE MACHINE: Technics and Human Development.
By Lewis Mumford.
Harcourt Brace, & World. 342 panes, index and bibliography. $8.95.


   This book represents a very great man, an outstanding idea, and a deeply flawed achievement.

   The greatness of the author is evident, not only in this volume but in the score or more of his earlier books. He is very informed: his judgment is independent, often unconventional, and usually correct; he is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, intense, and articulate. Above all, he has full awareness of the pitfalls of thought and communication — the selectivity of human observation, the ways in which conceptualization can falsify actuality, and the risks of applying thought to experience. Indeed, few men are so well equipped to deal with very complex social problems.

   The problem studied in this book is a very complex one. It is nothing less than the question: What is the nature of man? Mumford rejects the usual assumption that man is a "tool-using, animal" whose nature developed under pressures of competitive survival. He would replace that picture with another showing man as a symbol-making animal full of creative drives which are, as yet, only partly realized. The accepted version of human evolution assumes that man evolved from a primate which adopted an upright, bipedal posture, thus freeing its forelimbs from the task of locomotion, and then, more or less accidentally, became a tool-user, an activity which gave rise, in turn, to improved stereoscopic vision and an enlarged forebrain. 

Improved Relationships

   This theory, however generally accepted, has little evidence to support it and rests on a number of unproved sequential relationships. Mumford rightly rejects it and, instead, believes that man has always possessed unused psychic capacities (mental, emotional, spiritual, and imaginative) and that his earliest and most significant inventions were not in the area of tools and technology but were of organizational, ritual, symbolic, and imaginative character, a fact which has not been recognized by most archaeologists simply because evidence of these things does not survive as evidence of tools and weapons does. Mumford points out, for example, that natives with the most impoverished material cultures and technology, such as the aborigines of Australia, have the most elaborate and complex languages, social organizations, myths, and rituals. He argues that the almost unchanging material equipment of palaeolithic man, over hundreds of thousands of years, remained static, just as it did in Australia, because man's elaborate and dynamic non-material culture, during that period, was so absorbing of primitive man's time and energies and so satisfying to his psychic needs. On the other hand, contemporary man is so absorbed and engulfed in machines and technology that he is spiritually stunted and frustrated, a psychic cripple, alienated from nature, society, and his fellow man. Instead of becoming the independent autonomous personality which his potentialities make possible, he has tended to become a cog in a meta-machine.

   I have no doubt that Mumford is correct in his essential argument: Man is a symbol-using, verbalizing, conceptualizing, mythopoeic, creative, animal. As he says, "The dominant human trait, central to all other traits, is his capacity for conscious, purposeful self-identification, self-transformation, and ultimately for self-understanding." One of the most valuable suggestions of this work is that man's intellectual and creative capacity was always far in excess of what was necessary for his survival under any given conditions, and that activities not essential to survival, either of the individual or the species, such as play, joking, storytelling, search for novelty, creativity, abstract, thinking, and the making of symbols and myths absorbed at least as much time and energy as the struggle for survival. As Mumford says, “the oversized brain of Homo sapiens cannot be satisfactorily accounted for, at the beginning, as an adaptive mechanism that contributed to man's survival and his increasing domination of other species. . . . For something like a hundred thousand years, the brain remained hugely disproportionate to the work it was called upon to do.” 

Primitive Magic

   Around this central idea Mumford has assembled a wealth of knowledge, ideas, and new interpretations. Many of these, such as the role of primitive magic in leading men toward the idea of natural laws and the need for precision in dealing with them are valuable. So too is his distinction between a fixed brain capacity and a constantly expanding mind, the one individual and the other social. But this volume as a whole is not likely to convince the skeptics, nor to impress the "establishment" of scientists, evolutionists, and technicians against whom Mumford's arguments are aimed. For his methods of demonstration are unconvincing and peppered with enough incidental factual errors and misinterpretations to seriously weaken his major argument, however true the letter may be.

   If Mumford had stated his conception of man's nature and capacities and had tried to persuade his readers to accept that interpretation by using evidence from the present or recent times (evidence with which his readers might be familiar, even if they had not recognized its implications), he might have been more persuasive. Instead, he has tried to convert the reader to his rather unorthodox view of human nature, and has done so, not on its merits or on the basis of familiar evidence, but by writing of man's development during the prehistoric and early historic periods up to 1500. In doing this he must persuade the reader to accept his version of history before he can get him to accept his version of human nature. In attempting this, he insured the failure of both tasks.

   This double failure is, I feel, unfortunate. I agree with Mumford's vision of human nature and accept, on the whole, his picture of prehistory. His version of the latter is more convincing than the conventional one advanced by contemporary archaeologists. But our knowledge of early history is so tenuous and so disputed that it can be used to prove almost anything. Ardrey, in his recent book "The Territorial Imperative," has gone to prehistory to portray a situation and a human nature different from those of conventional archaeology and totally antithetical to Mumford's view. Mumford is far superior to Ardrey in every way, but neither work will be very convincing either to the general reader or to the archaeologist, for the simple reason that any convincing demonstration of the nature of man cannot be based on disputable evidence of tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago but must be based on contemporary available evidence as is done, for example, by Bruno Bettelheim. The opposing views of Ardrey and Mumford on this matter carry on, or rather revive, a mid-Victorian method of argument and are, on the whole, not much more convincing than the controversy of two generations ago between Kropotkin and the social Darwinists going back to Herbert Spencer. 

On Sacral Kingship

   I say this with regret because I think Mumford is closer to the truth than most of the other "authorities" in this field. But Mumford is the chief enemy of his own argument. This can be seen most clearly on the essential issue of sacral kingship. Mumford uses this term and spends at least two of his twelve chapters on the subject, but he clearly does not know much about it, and his otherwise surprisingly good bibliography of 27 pages lacks some of the basic works, notably the papers of the Eighth International Congress for the History of Religions held at Rome in 1955, and published as "Sacral Kingship: Contributions to the Central Theme" at Leiden in 1959.

   On this issue Mumford destroys his own argument by accepting the opposition's erroneous view that early kingship was built on force, a theory which he supports with many irrelevant arguments concerned with the king as military leader, the symbolism of the mace, the role of "hunter's weapons" in early kingship, and even the suggestion that the community existed as an army before it existed as a working group (p. 192). He tells us (p. 178), "Everywhere war took precedence over even hunting as the main prerogative and the dominant activity of kingship." The amazing thing is that Mumford should, after all his reading, not only accept this lie but does not seem to realize that it makes nonsense of the whole argument of his book.

   The view that kingship originated with weapons and force is pure Ardrey and pure humbug, which violates all the fine insights of the first half of Mumford's book. Yet the author, unmindful of what he is doing, goes on to illustrate how his royal "machine," based on force, with a primitive technology consisting of little more than lever and inclined plane, could erect the enormous mass of the Great Pyramid.

   If Mumford had looked at Stonehenge, rather than at the Great Pyramid as a typical achievement of an archaic community, or at the many dolmen around Carnae in Brittany, or at the thousands of huge phallic menhir in Ethiopia, he would not have fallen into the trap of warrior kings, massed armies, and enslaved coolies. These things did not exist on Salisbury Plain or at Carnae about 1700 B.C., nor in Minoan Crete a little later, when the Labyrinth Palace of Cnossos was built. These structures, as well as the Great Pyramid, six or seven centuries earlier, were constructed, on a more or less voluntary basis, by communities obsessed with a pervasive religious idea which included "sacral kingship."

Religious Figures

   These earliest kings were religious figures whose chief tasks were to keep the universe in order, the sun rising, the seasons changing, the yearly cycle turning, the rains coming. and the crops growing. These tasks were achieved by a complex ritual in which the central element was the exercise of the king's personal virility. Mumford has some dim idea of this, as he says (p. 87) of an earlier period: "Among primitive peoples, anthropologists have discovered, the tribe feels that it has a heavy responsibility for insuring, by ritual and verbal spells from day to day, that the sun shall rise and the universe shall not fall apart." Sacral kingship was a development of these ideas, in which the king, as Mumford recognizes, came to personify the community and his virility became a central part of the community's ritual.

   It is a shame that Mumford failed in his project, for the point of view he advocates in his first seven chapters is one which must be propagated, not only because it is the historic truth, but because it must be accepted if our society today is to be saved from its growing unnatural violence and aggressions. Just as Herbert Spencer, a century ago, propagated the false idea that man was grasping, cruel, isolated, acquisitive, and competitive from his earliest origins, in order to justify the horrors and cruel selfishness of early industrialism, so today men like Ardrey are propagating the false theory that man was originally a violent, carnivorous, competitive individual in order to justify contemporary pursuit of private profit by purveyance of violence and military aggression, despite the fact that all the evidence shows that man, from the beginning was a cooperative, omnivorous (meat-eating chiefly as a scavenger), gregarious, and loving creature, who, nevertheless, possessed the potentialities to be almost anything from beast to god.



Scans of original review

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