AT THE DAWN OF TYRANNY: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the Stae by Eli Sagan

AT THE DAWN OF TYRANNY: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the Stae

Email this review


An ambitious attempt to generate a theory of social evolution--long on hypotheses, metaphor, and assumptions. Essentially, sociologist Sagan has fastened onto three 19th-century cultures--the Buganda in Africa and two widely separated Polynesian societies, in Tahiti and Hawaii. All three groups achieved a complex, structured, nonliterate society approaching (or reaching) monarchy by the time of Western contact. The contact was late in the case of Buganda, and the information from travelers and scholars more complete. In the case of the Polynesian groups, meager data in the form of a shipwrecked sailor's account and missionary records are all that remain. With these, Sagan has constructed a theory of gradual social development from primitive society based on kinship and equality to what he calls ""complex"" societies characterized by the breakdown of kinship systems and the emergence of class structure. These societies, he believes, are ancestors to the ""archaic"" societies we venerate in Egypt or Greece. Personalities become important in complex societies, and the fate of the society may hinge on the cleverness, duplicity, arrogance, and aggression of monarch or prime minister. Human sacrifice is evident, as are music, art, dancing, etc. Sagan bolsters his theory with a largely Freudian view of human psychical development with its Oedipal conflicts, latency stages, and adolescent resolutions-of-conflict--concentrating here on youthful defiance of authority, suicide, and martyrdom. (The theme of martyrdom is frequent because of the extraordinary circumstances in Buganda which found Protestant, Catholic, and Moslem factions all vying to convert the people, and a king who vacillated--leading to wholesale executions in the late 1880s.) Grand theory, in the 19th-century tradition, with a flair for the dramatic--but questionable at several levels.

Pub Date: May 31st, 1985
Publisher: Knopf