For the old order always passes, thrust out by the new, and the one has to be made afresh from the other . . . and so, no less than you, those that went before have passed away, and will continue to’. These lines from Lucretius, from which the epigraph to Tristes Tropiques is drawn—Nec minus ergo ante haec quam tu cecidere, cadentque—could be said to sum up Lévi-Strauss’s attitude to history.footnote1 In his philosophical poem about the nature of the universe, Lucretius refers to a world in perpetual change and movement. According to Lucretian physics, atoms fall, swerve, collide and amalgamate to constitute the objects of the phenomenal world, which in turn exist, persist and finally disintegrate, rejoining the infinite cataract of atoms. In the Lucretian universe, human existence and experience are both relative—epiphenomena of the physical world—and transitory (like the physical world). Moreover, the essential tendency of human affairs, like that of atoms, is downward: the world is in decline, and human history itself participates in a kind of universal decadence.footnote2

The quotation of Lucretius’s verse at the beginning of Tristes Tropiques alerts us to the philosophical attitude that informs the text. On the one hand, from a macro-historical perspective, there is a recognition of the ephemeral nature of human constructions, of the perpetual crystallization and dissolution of civilizations. On the other, Lévi-Strauss’s interpretation of history, like that of Lucretius, is catastrophic; that is—reading the Greek word etymologically—it takes historical becoming as a sort of perpetual fall. What comes after is always an inferior image of that which preceded: the true grandeur, Lévi-Strauss tells us in Tristes Tropiques, is that of beginnings.footnote3 Historical development is thus subject to a sort of entropy: the diversity of cultures that is presented in Race and History as an essential component of the survival of the human species, is reduced in Tristes Tropiques to a global ‘monoculture’.footnote4 This is the meaning of the word triste in the book’s title: the melancholy sense of the mortality, dispersion and disappearance of cultures, the loss of cultural diversity.

If Lévi-Strauss’s thought on history consisted solely of this variation on the Lucretian theme of the ephemeral and the decadent, it would be of little interest. Yet there is another aspect to Lévi-Strauss’s philosophy of history—and it is indeed, I think, a kind of philosophy—insofar as he sees the historical process not simply as decline and deterioration, but also as a series of turning points. For him, history has taken a wrong turn, or rather several wrong turns, in various ways and in different places. At each turning point, each bifurcation—and even if in some respects historical development may represent progress—something essential gets stolen from humanity, such that by the time of Lévi-Strauss’s writing, in the middle of the twentieth century, everything seems to have gone wrong. The goal of this study will be to identify the historical turning points whose cumulative effect has been to create the present state of the world—for Lévi-Strauss, the essential pathology of modern civilization—and to inquire into this philosophy of history, attempting to situate it in Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology. For purposes of analysis, I shall identify three types of historical turning point articulated in Lévi-Strauss’s work.

The first type concerns science, scientific progress and, more precisely, techno-science. Here, the first significant stage identified by Lévi-Strauss is located not in written history, but in human pre-history—in what archaeologists have called the ‘Neolithic Revolution’. Lévi-Strauss emphasizes this on several occasions: the advances of the Neolithic era represent the scientific and technological capital on which the edifice of contemporary world civilization has been built. In this respect, the Western or European Scientific and Industrial Revolutions are relatively less significant in comparison to the great leap forward represented by the Neolithic. But from the perspective of the catastrophic interpretation of history, the decisive turning point came after the Neolithic. According to Lévi-Strauss, the advances and achievements of the Neolithic era—agriculture, the domestication of animals, pottery—were sufficient: they satisfied humanity’s basic needs. Small-scale societies are the contemporary analogues of Neolithic civilization: the intermediate stage, designated by Rousseau in the Second Discourse, between the state of nature and the state of society.footnote5

One technology not included in this representation of prehistory is writing, which was not necessary either for the survival or for the happiness of Neolithic humanity. As Lévi-Strauss puts it elsewhere, the lack of writing—or rather, the state of pre-writing—was neither a defect nor a privation.footnote6 As he notes in his discourse on the subject in Tristes Tropiques, what writing gives with one hand it takes back with the other. On the purely intellectual level, its contribution is incontestable, allowing the liberation and extension of a human memory that had previously been doomed to finitude. On the sociological and political level, however, this advance came at a cost. Writing set mankind on the path toward the capitalization of knowledge and scientific abstraction; but it also permitted the formation of large, highly centralized and hierarchized states, and ensured their perpetuation. Writing also brought the distancing of the self, the alienation of the individual. It was certainly necessary for what Lévi-Strauss identifies as the next great stage in the history of humanity, ‘the expansion of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’; but ‘although a necessary precondition, it is not enough to explain the expansion.’ The presence of writing as a strategic technology did not prevent human knowledge from ‘fluctuating more than it increased’ between the Neolithic Revolution and the eighteenth century.footnote7 Later, in The Naked Man, we read that ‘the human condition underwent greater change between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries than it did between the Neolithic period and modern times.’footnote8