Primitive Political Ideas. From the earliest times men have had ideas concerning the external control to which they submitted their lives and actions. While our knowledge of early thought is scant, yet certain principles that primitive men believed to underlie their political institutions may be discovered by reasoning back from later periods, by investigating the beliefs and customs of the earliest peoples of whom we have knowledge, and by observing the remnants of primitive peoples surviving today.
The most universal and striking feature of early political thought was the failure to differentiate religion, custom, and law. Divine prohibition or divine sanction accompanied almost every act, customary obligation regulated conduct, and the idea of change was abhorrent. The bond of unity within the group was essentially a religious one, and the ultimate authority behind every rule of action, whatever its origin, was the will of the gods.
Primitive law was purely negative in character. It consisted of a list of things that were forbidden or taboo. The origin of these prohibitions was ordinarily connected with the apprehension of danger. They resulted from the savage’s ignorance of natural phenomena and his general belief in malevolent spirits. Magic and ceremonial rites played a large part in primitive thought, and the power of the sorcerer or medicine man was enormous.
In addition to the religious bond, and closely connected with it, was the tie of kinship. The earliest social units were totem groups distinguished by the sign of some natural object, which was often worshiped. Within these groups intermarriage was forbidden, descent was traced through the mother, and definite rules regulated marriage outside the group and determined the system of relationships.
The next stage of social development, brought about largely by the domestication of animals and the rise of pastoral life, was the patriarchal tribe, a stronger and more permanent form of organization with more definite political ideas. In this system the woman became a member of her husband’s group, and descent was traced through the father, whose power became well-nigh despotic.
Authority within the group was personal, all members being connected by real or fictitious ties of kinship. In the patriarchal system, slavery appeared, since with the increasing food supply cannibalism became unnecessary and captives were kept alive to work for their captors.
Ancestor worship, arising from belief in the spirit world and from deference to parental authority, became the dominant religion and added its sanction to the power of the patriarch or chief and to the observance of law. The negative idea of taboo was replaced by the positive idea of custom. Law was not a thing to be made, but a thing to be discovered.
The practices followed in life by the revered ancestors were declared by the chief or elders, and those who refused to observe the customs were outlawed and banished from the tribe. Injuries to other members of the group were settled by the blood-feud or by money payments.
Under both of these systems of kinship organization there was need for a stronger and wider authority than the family could give, for the purpose of maintaining internal peace and order through the settlement of private disputes, and the guarantee of safety against external danger through united action in war.
These needs gave rise to the chieftain, sometimes the patriarchal head, more often a champion renowned for physical prowess, who exercised political authority within the tribe and whose right to rule received the sanction of his subjects as well as the support of religion.
Beginning with a jurisdiction that included little except authority in time of war and limited right of judgment in time of peace, the political organization of the tribe gradually increased its executive and judicial functions; later it assumed legislative power; and finally it developed into the sovereign body of modern times.
In this process the family, retaining its organization and a certain control over its members, was subordinated to the growing state. The most important steps in the increasing political power of the group took place when, with the growth of agriculture, the tribe became fixed upon a definite portion of the earth, with the result that its sovereignty became territorial rather than personal, and when it finally assumed the function through its rulers of creating new law.
Political units were formed in early times either by the disintegration of larger units or by consolidation resulting from force. Tribes divided when too large, or were conquered and their lands incorporated with those of the conqueror. Alliances were temporary and difficult to maintain, and permanent unions based upon consent were unknown.
Voluntary co-operation among groups required a considerable degree of political advancement. The Oriental empires were formed by conquest, not by confederation. Even the Hebrews, in spite of the unifying influence of their common faith, and the Greeks, in spite of pride in their common Hellenic race and culture, were not able to form permanent unions.