U.S. Intellectual History Blog

[Guest Post] The Ideal and the Material in Morgan’s Ancient Society

[Today’s post comes Coline Ferrant, a student in the Dual PhD in Sociology between Northwestern University & Sciences Po (Center for Studies in Social Change). Ferrant is also an Associate Fellow with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (Food and Social Sciences). This post outlines ambiguities in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, particularly its handling of the ideal and the material. Ferrant relays that Ancient Society traces a grand human evolution from the material to the ideal by developing a materialist analytical framework. Morgan’s work purports to theorize about all humanity by generalizing practical findings about particular human groups. Its lofty intellectual endeavor includes emotional considerations about the endangered Iroquois’s concrete existence. The author would like to thank Robert Launay for commenting and Maggie Monahan for copyediting. – TL]


Western thought has historically conceptualized human life through overlapping dichotomies: ideal and material, theory and practice, abstract and concrete, subject and object, intellect and emotions, mind and body, and the like (Wuthnow, 1987). In this post, I draw attention to the ambiguities surrounding these binary oppositions in one canonical source: Ancient Society, published in 1877 by American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (Morgan, 1985 [1877]). I develop my argument using selected extracts from this source, and referring to its later scholarly reception.

First and foremost, Morgan’s era and personality value the abstract over the concrete. The leading questions formulated by 19th century thinkers were the promise of human intellectual progress, the demise of old ideas and the proliferation of new ones. Morgan emphatically praised this advancement of mind: “Morgan was not merely a man with intellectual interests; he valued the intellect itself.” (Tooker, 1985: xxiv). Ancient Society thus sketches the grand progress of mankind from the stranglehold of material subsistence to the ether of ideal free will:

An attempt will be made in the following pages to bring forward additional evidence of the rudeness of the early condition of mankind, of the gradual evolution of their mental and moral powers through experience, and of their protracted struggle with opposing obstacles while winning their way to civilization. It will be drawn, in part, from the great sequence of inventions and discoveries which stretches along the entire pathway of human progress; but chiefly from domestic institutions, which express the growth of certain ideas and passions. (Morgan, 1985 [1877]: 4)

Morgan breaks down this overarching evolutionary scheme in a series of theoretical frameworks, all grounded in the thesis of human progressive liberation from material constraints. First, Morgan identifies “facts [that] indicate the gradual formation and subsequent development of certain ideas, passions, and aspirations” (Morgan, 1985 [1877]: 4): “subsistence,” “government,” “language,” “the family,” “religion,” “house life and architecture,” and “property”. Second, he singles out “periods” and “conditions” that pave the path from “savagery” to “civilization,” each one witnessing a growth in human intellect. At the outset is the “older period of savagery” and the associated condition of the “lower status of savagery”. The ultimate stage is the “status of civilization,” whose condition ranges “from the invention of a phonetic alphabet with the use of writing, to the present time”.

Yet, in depicting human mental advancement from savagery to civilization, Morgan outlines technical and productive factors, “inventions and discoveries” in his own terms, and describes material objects and activities in great detail. Picture, for instance, the Iroquois’ mundane routine in the Lower Status of barbarism:

When discovered the Iroquois were in the Lower Status of barbarism, and well advanced in the arts of life pertaining to this condition. They manufactured nets, twine and rope from filaments of bark; wove belts and burden straps, with warp and woof, from the same materials; they manufactured earthen vessels and pipes from clay mixed with siliceous materials and hardened by fire, some of which were ornamented with rude medallions; they cultivated maize, beans, squashes, and tobacco, in garden beds, and made unleavened bread from pounded maize which they boiled in earthern vessels; they tanned skins into leather with which they manufactured kilts, leggins, and moccasins; they used the bow and arrow and warclub as their principal weapons; used flint stone and bone implements, wore skin garments, and were expert hunters and fishermen. They constructed long joint-tenement houses large enough to accommodate five, ten, and twenty families, and each household practiced communism in living; but they were unacquainted with the use of stone or adobe-brick in house architecture, and with the use of the native metals. (Morgan, 1985 [1877]: 69-70)

Somehow ironically, Morgan uses a materialist explanation of human elevation from the material to the ideal. Herein lies Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s surprising interest in Morgan’s works (Engels, 2010 [1884]; Marx, 1974 [1882]): “In this way American practicality and Marxian praxis – American and historical materialism – reinforced one another.” (Jessop and Wheatley, 1999: 688). Likewise, American Marxists such as Daniel De Leon (De Leon, 1905) have appraised Ancient Society as a classic.

Ancient Society theorizes the foundations of human evolution. However, its theoretical framework is rather an awkward generalization of scattered findings about specific human groups (Hirst, 2010; Vogel, 2013). In that sense, Ancient Society‘s purpose is theoretical, yet the very roots of its intellectual construction are practical.

Morgan documented Iroquois material culture in The League of the Iroquois, published in 1851, and gathered a collection of more than 500 Iroquois artifacts (Tooker, 1994). In a similar vein, Ancient Society is peppered with emotional vows to document Iroquois’ concrete existence before they disappear under the yoke of “American civilization”:

While fossil remains buried in the earth will keep for the future student, the remains of Indian arts, languages and institutions will not. They are perishing daily, and have been perishing for upwards of three centuries. The ethnic life of the Indian tribes is declining under the influence of American civilization, their arts and languages are disappearing, and their institutions are dissolving. After a few more years, facts that may now be gathered with ease will become impossible of discovery. These circumstances appeal strongly to Americans to enter this great field and gather its abundant harvest. (Morgan, 1985 [1877]: xxxii)

On the substantive front, Morgan prizes the ideal over the material; on the analytical front, he privileges materialism over idealism. Ancient Society is theoretical in nature, but its mode of theorizing consists in practical generalizations. Within Morgan’s grand, abstract, intellectual project lurks an emotional concern for leaving a trace of the Iroquois’s concrete life. Ancient Society‘s interest is more multifaceted than its later scholarly reception could suggest. Although posterity has retained a theoretical evolutionary scheme of all humanity and society from beginning to end, the reader may equally appreciate Ancient Society for its practical hints of human groups grounded in time and space. While Morgan scholarship sets apart Ancient Society as a general theoretical treatise, from specific practical investigations (especially The League of the Iroquois), I thus highlight his intellectual coherence. Finally, by outlining the complex, multiple meanings of the ideal and the material in Ancient Society, I hope to suggest an original lens to read and study a founding text of American studies and anthropological theory, and to pique the reader’s imagination with the core binary oppositions that shape Western thought.

References Cited

De Leon, Daniel. 1905. Morgan and The “Federalist”. Daily People. September 6, 1905.

Engels, Friedrich. [1884] 2010. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. London: Penguin Classics.

Hirst, Paul Q. 2010. Social Evolution and Sociological Categories. London: Routledge.

Jessop, Bob, and Russell Wheatley. 1999. Karl Marx’s Social and Political Thought: Critical Assessments. London: Routledge.

Marx, Karl. [1882] 1974. Marx’s Excerpts from Lewis Henry Morgan Ancient Society. In The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, Lawrence Krader, pp. 95-241. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. [1877] 1985. Ancient Society. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

———. [1851] 1984. League of the Iroquois: A Classic Study of an American Indian Tribe With Original Illustrations. New York: Citadel Press.

Tooker, Elisabeth. 1994. Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

———. 1985. Foreword. In Ancient Society, Lewis Henry Morgan, pp. xv-xxviii. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Vogel, Lise. [1983] 2013. Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1987. Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.