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Oscar Avatare

Raimonda Modiano
Honors 251: Gift and Sacrifice
An exploration Mauss and Hobbes in relation to primitive death rates
Any discussion of anthropology must begin with an examination of Marcel Mauss’s
theory on the gift. As a pioneer in the fields of anthropology and sociology, Mauss revolutionized
how the gift in both these fields was examined. However, Mauss’s theory has plenty of critics
from those who claim he isn’t altruistic enough, to those who claim that he overstates the values
of generosity and spirituality in primitive society. Thus, as Mauss and Hobbes examines the
structures of what stops violence and causes social solidarity in primitive societies, Nemoianu
charts a middle ground and examines the gift in relation to a society defined by commodities. I
want to see how Nemoianu’s theory fits in between these extremes and how primitive death rates
either confirm or repudiate Mauss’s theory. Thus, I will critique Mauss’s theory, and examine
found four distinct possibilities:
1.
2.
3.
4.

Mauss’s theory is incorrect on the basis of the gift eliminating the state of nature
Mauss’s theory fails due to the self-imposed restrictions it puts on itself
Mauss’s theory of the gift only works in limited circumstances
Hobbes is correct with the assertion that the state, rather than the gift, cures violence

Therefore, to fully be able to examine these theories, I will critique each of these points and
see how well Mauss’s theory fits with each of these conjectures and see how primitive death
rates as well as Nemoianu’s theory fits in with them.

Before I critique these four points on the basis of their relative merits, it is important to
understand the ideological evolution of Mauss’s thinking as it reveals quite a bit about his
premises and conjectures. His thinking comes straight from the Enlightenment idea of the noble

savage and is based on the premise of Rousseau that humans are essentially good. Also, it must
be emphasized that Mauss is fundamentally against the idea of utilitarianism. Rather, he
approaches society from a collectivist point of view. Regardless of the merits of this theory, this
is at the base of his theory and it is impossible to understand Mauss without understanding this
point. Mauss also paints primitive society with broad strokes. What I mean by this is that he
takes an overriding, centralized theory of what stops violence in primitive societies. He also
attaches an importance to the spirituality behind giving and creates an idea of people who have
somehow been corrupted by modern society and alienated, just as the theory of the noble savage
emphasizes. Thus, keeping this background knowledge in mind, I will examine each of the four
points laid out.
1.

Mauss’s theory is intriguing, but there seem to be several flaws that are unaddressed by

Mauss over the course of his work. The first is that the fact that he romanticizes the very people
he is supposed to be studying in a rational manner. By doing this, he loses track of the horrific
violence that was so prevalent in primitive society. The graph below is a perfect example of this.

To not misrepresent the statistics or Mauss’s theory, I will only analyze the percentage of
male deaths caused by warfare from the societies in areas that Mauss studied. Mauss studied the
societies in Melanesia, Polynesia, and the American Northwest. Out of the nine civilizations

presented in the graph, four are in Melanesia. They are the Gebusi, the Huli, the Dani, and the
Mae Enga. As it is clear, the percentage of male deaths caused by warfare in those societies are
astronomical, even compared to Europe and the United States in the 20th century, which
underwent the greatest absolute loss of life due to warfare ever. Thus, it is hard to claim that the
state of nature was eliminated in these societies, even with the theory and practice of the gift. As
author Lawrence H. Keeley emphasizes in his book War Before Civilization, tribal warfare is on
average 20 times more deadly than 20th-century warfare, and had the same carnage taken place
in the 20th century, two billion people would have died. However, there was an established gift
practice in Melanesia, and examining the societies outside of Melanesia, death rates become
even higher. The Jivaro and Yanonamo civilizations are South America, and weren’t studied by
Mauss due to their lack of gift giving customs, thus suggesting that give giving does work on a
limited level in at least reducing the relative level of violence in prehistoric societies. This raises
an interesting proposition, perhaps implying that the gift did lessen violence, but not to the point
where the state of nature was eliminated. However, because of the precarious and dangerous
nature of the gift, it certainly seems that vicious warfare analogous to the state of nature took
place in primitive societies even where there was gift exchange.
2.

Another distinct possibility in critiquing Mauss’s theory of the gift is that it presents a

self-imposed conundrum due to the extremely limiting and difficult rules laid out in the Gift
Bible. This is seen especially in Rules 10 and 11 of the Gift Bible. They both essentially deal
with the main premise of the gift, which is that you must return a greater gift than you received.
This level of reciprocity could eventually prove to be impossible on a large level in primitive
society, especially due to the lack of materials or technology to be able to continue creating or
giving gifts of more value. Also, the issue of the Rule 9 might explain why violence rates were so

high in ancient society. According to Mauss, if two primitive societies met and tried to exchange
gifts with this resulting in failure, this would mean war. Thus, Mauss’s theory is extremely selfdestructive in the way that it is postulated due to the all or nothing nature that surrounds gifts.
3.

Yet it must be acknowledged that the gift works on a limited level. While Hobbes and

Mauss disagree on how the state of nature was eliminated, they both believe in a regulatory
method. To Hobbes, this is the monopoly on the usage of violence by the state, and to Mauss,
this is the forced giving of gifts. Both theories bond the participants in the relationship of a social
contract and create a certain form of trust. Therefore, before the advent of the state, I do believe
that Mauss is correct to a certain extent about the power of the gift. Once the Neolithic
Revolution occurred, it became vital for larger groups of people to establish trust amongst one
another. Therefore, I agree with the premise of Mauss’s theory, but not the method, on a small
scale. Yet this is where Nemoianu’s theory can come in and reconcile these two points of view.
Because he believes that everything is a commodity, and that there is no way to have a voluntary
unequal exchange of goods, he paints the gift as existing within a proto-capitalist structure even
from the beginning of civilization. As we can see with the famous example of the Maori and the
hau as demonstrated by Sahlin, the line between gift and commodity, spirituality and economics,
can blur very quickly.

4.

Finally, there is the issue of Hobbes to deal with. His axiom of a war of all against all

seems very true when examining death rates in primitive societies.

He also approaches the issue of curbing the state of nature in a manner totally different than
Mauss does. Instead of examining society and individuals in an altruistic manner, Hobbes takes
the opposite view in his magnum opus the Leviathan, asking if there is a greatest good or the
greatest evil. He comes to the conclusion that there is no greatest good, but rather a greatest evil
that should be prevented at all costs. This greatest evil is anarchy and can only be stopped
through preventing a war of all against all. Yet in bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all
against all, it is reasonable to assume that a man would preemptively attack another to increase
their chances of survival. Therefore, he envisions the state to come in and fill the void through
government and laws. And when examining primitive death rates he seems to be right. We often
delude ourselves into thinking our modern era is hyperviolent, when in the primitive world the
truth is it was much worse. This is further compounded by the intellectual tradition started by
Rousseau regarding the noble savage and the idea that society corrupts. The evidence all seems
to be to the contrary when examining death rates in the ancient world and violence as a fact has
decreased due to the advent of the state. While it is undeniable that the gift had some sort of role
in preventing violence, it seems that the state had a much larger role in preventing violence as the
graphs suggest. From the beginning of human history, we have given gifts and we will always
continue to do so, yet this was not the catalyst that prevented the state of nature from

overpowering us. It seems that it is a fair point to make that there has been a distinct diminishing
value of the gift as society has evolved. It is a paradox from Mauss’s point of view because on
one hand the gift means less, yet there is also less death. Mauss directly critiques capitalism and
the commodification of objects as causing alienation, when in primitive societies the percentage
of male deaths caused by warfare was extraordinarily high comparatively. Primitive society
implies political decentralization and as political centralization increased, death rates and
violence decreased. Thus, Hobbes would seem to be right based on newfound knowledge of
research done in 20th and 21st century.
While at this point it is clear intellectual and scholastic opinion that Mauss and Hobbes
are irreconcilable, it is a fascinating discourse to follow their theories and see which parts can be
reconciled. I will do this based off the Gift Bible and a general view of the theory of Hobbes. It is
a premise throughout Mauss’s theory that a gift essentially becomes obligatory. Yet for Hobbes,
there is forced giving as well. This is seen through taxation where people must give to the
sovereign in exchange for their protection, just like how in Mauss’s theory people give so that
the possibility of violence is lessened. They give up their total freedom to do what they wish in
exchange for the protection of the state. An analogy can be drawn to the giving of the gift with
the hau in it. While the hau is a spiritual concept and freedom is a physical concept, it is clear
that people are still ceding some aspect of themselves in exchange for some form of reprieve
from violence.
Both Marcel Mauss and Thomas Hobbes were both geniuses in their own right. Each man
approaches one of the most complex and controversial topics in existence, yet both manage to
make clear, concise points about how they feel we managed to abolish the state of nature. While
my essay was a critique of Mauss, I feel that it is important that I emphasize how important I

think his theory is. Mauss’s ability to interpret and create a theory about why humans were able
to abolish the state of nature without leaving his office is nothing short of incredible. In the same
way, Hobbes’s ability to explain the necessity of the state is amazing and the Leviathan deserves
to be one of the premier works in political philosophy. While the theories and the men couldn’t
be further apart from each other on an intellectual level, they provide a fascinating discourse into
different opinions of how we escaped the state of nature.
Bibliography
Smith, Steven B. "PLSC 114 - Lecture 12 - The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan."
Open Yale Courses. Yale University, n.d. Web. 14 July 2016.
Franson, Robert Wilfred. "War Before Civilization - Lawrence H. Keeley." Troynovant.
N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2016.
Boland, Joseph. "Rousseau and the Noble Savage Myth." University of Oregon.
University of Oregon, 17 Oct. 1995. Web. 14 July 2016.
Pinker, Steven. "A History of Violence: Edge Master Class 2011." Edge.org. N.p., n.d.
Web. 14 July 2016.