The original political society (The 2016 Inaugural A. M. Hocart Lecture)

Marshall Sahlins


Even the so-called egalitarian and loosely structured societies known to anthropology, including hunters such as Inuit or Australian Aborigines, are in structure and practice subordinate segments of inclusive cosmic polities, ordered and governed by divinities, ancestors, species-masters, and other such metapersons endowed with life-and-death powers over the human population. “The Mbowamb spends his whole life completely under the spell and in the company of spirits” (Vicedom and Tischner). “[Araweté] society is not complete on earth: the living are part of the global social structure founded on the alliance between heaven and earth” (Viveiros de Castro). We need something like a Copernican revolution in anthropological perspective: from human society as the center of a universe onto which it projects its own forms—that is to say, from the Durkheimian or structuralfunctional deceived wisdom—to the ethnographic realities of people’s dependence on the encompassing life-giving and death-dealing powers, themselves of human attributes, which rule earthly order, welfare, and existence. For, Hobbes notwithstanding, something like the political state is the condition of humanity in the state of nature; there are kingly beings in heaven even where there are no chiefs on earth.


Hocart, the state, metapersons, “egalitarian societies,” animism

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.014