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

There is no doubt that the history of science and technology that Lévi-Strauss proposes here leaves much to be desired. Among other things, we might question the diagnosis of a relative stagnation of Western societies between the Neolithic and modern ages; the hasty, rather vague periodization that limits Western modernity to the last two centuries; or finally, the ambivalent role—both necessary and superfluous—allotted to writing in this history.footnote9 Nonetheless, beyond these weaknesses in the argumentation, Lévi-Strauss’s strategic aim is clear: the primary intention of his history of science and technology is to relativize the achievements of the modern world. This project is apparent in Race and History: faced with the dominance of ‘mechanical civilization’, with the flagrant inequality embedded within the diversity of human cultures, Lévi-Strauss stresses the need to explain that the present hegemony of Western civilization is actually the result of a ‘combination’ or ‘coalition’ of cultures—and, above all, to remember the debt that this civilization owes to its Neolithic prehistory. It is then necessary to show the extent to which the present state of the world is in fact arbitrary and particular. Firstly, the original combination that produced the Scientific and Industrial Revolution could very well not have happened. According to Lévi-Strauss’s explicit analogy—the roulette game—the history of humanity was ‘in play’ at this decisive turning point. It was on the basis of this Revolution’s qualitative leap that the exponential growth of mechanical civilization took place, a growth whose effects seem everywhere to be negative. The precariousness of these isolated technological leaps is underlined. Lévi-Strauss is categorical on this point: ‘Twice in its history, at an interval of approximately 10,000 years, mankind has accumulated a great number of inventions tending in the same direction. This process has so far occurred twice, and only twice, in the history of humanity.’footnote10

The second type of turning point in Lévi-Strauss’s macro-history is ideological in nature: the role of religious representations. In his work, Lévi-Strauss has relatively little to say about Christianity, even less about Judaism, but it is clear that he attributes to Christianity a determinant role in the evolution of the Western mind that is far from innocent: the Christian conception of the universe is responsible for a kind of repression of nature. In Totemism, he subjects the category of the totemic to a rigorous critique, denouncing its various interpretations as so many constructions or projections of Western thought. Christian religion is an integral part of this, as Lévi-Strauss emphasizes in the book’s opening pages: ‘Totemism is firstly the projection outside our own universe, as though by a kind of exorcism, of mental attitudes incompatible with the need for a rupture between man and nature, which Christian thought has held to be essential.’footnote11 Unlike the ‘savage mind’, for which there is no fundamental separation between nature and culture, Christian thought privileges humanity’s relation to the supernatural, or to God—to the detriment of its relation to the natural world. This discontinuity between nature and humanity is reflected in an instrumentalism that ceases to see the supernatural in the natural. Historically, Christian thought and religion thus set Western civilization on a path running straight to the monoculture of mechanical civilization, which denies nature in order to stamp its own mark on the world.