A Flawed History of Humanity

Although Graeber and Wengrow concern themselves primarily with humanity’s early history, they begin by examining how Western thinkers have previously treated the subject, and in doing so they first turn to the French Enlightenment. This happens to be my own area of expertise, and I was curious to see what they would make of it. Quite frankly, I was appalled. Unfortunately, despite its promise, the work suffers from a slipshod and error-filled approach to this key moment in modern intellectual history.


Having read the article in Persuasion, I have the feeling that the whole controversy ain’t worth a hill o’ beans. We can wonder why the critiqued work would run up to the top of the NYT non-fiction list, and that might be significant if we believed that NYT best-sellers lists were worth a hill o’ beans. But they ain’t. So, the prominence of such a book is merely a reflection of what certain seekees are looking for as affirmation, and will devour hungrily.

The premised, that Rousseau should be considered a source of wisdom is just wrong. Yes, in his time, there was that attraction of primitive simplicity. But once we acknowledge that the greatest of the Pre-European empires in the New World, the Aztecs engaged in massive human slaughters, we should hardly look to the ‘aboriginals’ in general, as fonts of wisdom. The truth is very simple – in paleolithic societies where there are not an excess of consumable goods, nobody is wealthy for long or stays powerful for long. That time was a lost paradise, in which there wasn’t much happiness.

I understand the attraction of Rousseau’s view, the belief in the primitive paradise. But it was never so, and not much can be built from it. Marx’s views are definitely a better argument from the ‘left’, and they depend very little on Rousseau


Perhaps you should read the actual book before casually dismissing its argument? I haven’t read it myself, but I did read Graeber’s Debt: the First 5000 Years – he was an extraordinarily deep and iconoclastic thinker who deserves to be taken seriously.

Not surprising that the two of you are “friends.” You have very similar argumentative styles.