Barbaric vs Civilized

Mark Dunder

Conan is defined as a barbarian, and he is contemptuous of most civilized people.

Are the civilized people of Hyboria truely "civilized?" Are the barbarians of Hyboria truely "barbaric?"

Is doing what is right and honorable barbaric?

Is enslaving people and killing innocent people civilized?

What people consider civilized may have more to do with good manners, and being well dressed. Particularly in the Hyborian world.

We would rather be the barbarian, because he doesn't take any guff from anyone, and he doesn't back down from a fight, and he protects the innocent. That makes the barbarian more civilized to me. No wonder, Conan is contemptuous of the so called "civilized" people, wouldn't you be?
I guess that that's what Howard was trying to explain with his character. But it's a point to go deep in a "civilized" conversation, I've had some interesting talks with my friends about this. 8)
It could be argued that there are degrees of barbarism. Conan is a barbarian, sure, but he's more.... refined for want of a better term, than your average Pict.

Likewise, you might argue that there are degrees of "civilized," though those may well be cultrual differences as opposed to actual gradations.
dunderm said:
We would rather be the barbarian, because he doesn't take any guff from anyone, and he doesn't back down from a fight, and he protects the innocent. That makes the barbarian more civilized to me. No wonder, Conan is contemptuous of the so called "civilized" people, wouldn't you be?

I certain work to achieve this ideal. The only limits is that the people with more guns than me [i.e the police] have to worked around subtly.....
Conan is a civilized barbarian because he keeps to his own laws (code of honour) and show thus integrity that many people living in cities are lacking.
Though he follows his own goals of power he'd rather help a woman in distress throwing any jewels he might have in hands at the moment even if the woman means nothing particular to him but he knows from his god that life is sacred.
Lewis Henry Morgan:

Near the end of the 19th century, Morgan said that human societies "progressed’ through 3 stages: savage, barbaric and civilized.

1. Savage - The lowest stage, substinence on wild plants, no soil tilling or animal domestication.
2. Barbaric - Starting to use agriculture
3. Civilized - Begins with the art of writing, which binds together the past and the future.
There's more in his book Ancient Society.
No, what you are arguing here is the main theme in Howard's tales of Conan. But he is very clear, far from those mixed interpretations most of you are explaining. For Howard, Barbarian peoples are more honest and so on (check the Barbarian Code section in the main rulebook; Sturrock nailed it all there) because of their condition of people who must do everything for themselves in order to survive. Also, they must rely on working with the kinsman for the same reason, which makes them loyal and trustfull in their oaths and alliances. On the other hand, Howard's idea of civilization is that civilized people is indulgent, having most of their needs covered (unless you are poor, and even then REAL poor people are similar to barbarians), and for that reason the are childish and inmature. That gets logically to decadence and all the known vices of civilization: civilized people won't need to rely in loyalty to others for survival, hence they always will put their own good before the good of the group. So they are not to be trusted, etc.

I must add that for all we know, Howard was right in his view.
The American Indian was a prime example, when the colonists came over, of what a Barbarian was. The majority were honest and expected their word to be taken literally. They treated their women with respect, and sometimes the women ran the whole show. They were fearless in battle, and few colonist could face any of them one to one. The Apache were so feared, that even the women were sent far south to Mexico, or they would escape their captors and go home, killing anyone who tried to stop them. They were not savages in total (some were a little less "civilized"), they helped the first colonist survive the first few harsh winters, and then showed them how to grow the local plant life. I do not like the fact, that Picts are portrayed as if they were some form of American Indian. Picts, were savage, they have no agriculture, and sometimes kill just for the sport of it. No, American Indians were portrayed as Noble, so they fit the category of Barbarian much better.
That's because Howard lived in the '30s, and back then there were prejudices that weren't so obvious because they were "common knowledge". For example, Cimmerians are descendant of Atlantean peoples, and were the ancestors of the celtic peoples of Ireland. As you can see, all very "white and pure". Portraying picts as american indians were logical back them, even when we see now as plainly stupid and bigot, and likely very influenced by the still live propaganda.
Howard was riffing on the same idealistic "Noble Savage" myth that Burroughs was working with Tarzan and others. Any anthropologist can tell you that "primitive" tribal people are far more complex than this, and in fact one group might be "noble" in this, but not so "noble" in that, while an neighboring tribe might be exactly the opposite. It certainly does come from the group's environment and what stategies they use for survival in the wilds.

A good book to consult is The Code of the Warrior Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present by Shannon E. French.

From the point of fantasy, the facts matter little though, although it's instructive to see what waters REH was wading in. :) Conan in the stories seems to step outside the bounds of his code when passion overtakes him, but he doesn't seem to beat himself up for it afterward.
An unexpected REH statement about barbarism:

[About a boxer:] "His soul was abysmal. He was ape-like, primordial - the very spirit of that morass of barbarism from which mankind has so tortorously climbed, and toward which man look with so much suspicion."

REH, The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux (available e.g. in Boxing Stories), 2nd page of the story.

Not quite the positive only way he talked about barbarism in so many of his other tales, CONAN included.
In reality, the idea of a 'barbarian' is nonsense: it's just urban cultures looking down on rural ones. When you roleplay in the Hyborian Age, though, you have to recreate how Howard felt about history, and if you try to mix his terms with what they mean (a) to you and (b) in early-21st-century common speech or academic discourse, you'll get hopelessly mixed up. At times his uses of 'barbarian' and 'savage' are distinct, at others he seems to use them interchangeably.

Howard's view of 'barbarism' is not optimistic. It compares well to decadent civilization, but it's an inevitable fact to him rather than an idealized 'noble savage' thing to consciously imitate. As Werner Herzog said, 'Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.' (though this is a different, broader sense of 'civilization' than Howard's; encompassing Cimmerian civilization as well as Hyborian or Stygian)

Howard knew perfectly well that his Picts weren't those of history. They are like the American Indians of US frontier stories in the couple of Conan tales where they feature prominently because Howard was interested in the American frontier when he wrote them and his Picts were a hook to pin that interest on -- in most of his writings of Picts, such as the Bran Mak Morn stories (and "The Hyborian Age"), they aren't Amerind-like.
dunderm said:
Is doing what is right and honorable barbaric?

Is enslaving people and killing innocent people civilized?
Sure, in the context of the Conan stories, barbarism appears to be superior to civilization. Not only in moral terms, but also from raw strength.

In reality, doing what is right and honorable is not exclusive to barbarians, and enslaving and killing innocent people is not exclusive to civilization. Slavery, in particular, seems to be a habit that modern civilization attempts to get rid of.

So, what are we talking about? Reality or the Conan stories?

As a roleplayer, I like the definitions of cultures from RuneQuest 3 (I suppose they are based on what Orkin mentioned):
- If a culture has only hunter-gatherers and shamans, it's Primitive.
- If it has farmers, towns, priests, kings, professional warriors and craftsmen, it is barbarian.
- If it has large cities, a literate bureaucracy, and professional thieves, it is civilized.
Honourable behaviour or enslaving people has nothing to do with your culture. It can happen everywhere.
Raven Blackwell said:
dunderm said:
Rule is determined by strength of arms, if everyone is armed the same, then who will rule?

The one who can lead the most armed people and keep them happy.

and by happy...FED. Getting enough grain to feed the army was a huge concern according to Caesar.
Exactly. IMHO that's how civilization come about- they centered around creating the means for feeding the army. I'm sure there's more to it than that and I am sure someone here can provide the details. We are a group of knowledge geeks after all. 8)
Nope, that's about it. More civilizations have falled due to poor agricultural planning than out-right conquest. Think of all the countries we refer to as "third world nations" - crappy food conditions.

Who was it that said "An army marches on it's stomache?" A strong army has proved to be the best way to maintain dominance in the past, and that goes hand in hand with the strength of the civilization the army fights for. One awesome general isn't nearly enough (eg. Hannibal), but a series of them (eg. Rome, Dynastic China or Feudal Japan) leads to civic security which promotes growth.

Now, the philosophical quandry of whether that's "civilized" as opposed to your average concientious objector...that comes down to whether you thing carrying the big stick is always the better way to go or not.