Serious students of the Book of Mormon must reach James C. Scott’s The Art of not Being Governed, or at least the sample chapters that are available for free download on  Read it and absorb the picture he’s painting.  A large hilly, upland country, difficult to navigate.  Underpopulated.  Inhabited by little tribes of hunter-gatherers and primitive slash and burn farmers.  Communication is difficult, but picking up stakes and disappearing is easy.

Within these areas, down in valleys or other flat places, you get small and fragile little civilizations.  They round up a bunch of locals and try to teach them their civilized ideology, usually religion, and have them build structures.  But its always a struggle because being one of the peasants in the city is hard work, so they tend to skedaddle back to the nearby hills, where life is simple, you don’t pay taxes, and religion is pretty vague and hazy.

Often the hill people will deliberately reject the technology and even the farm crops of civilization, because it would force them to settle down and make them vulnerable to being controlled.

There is a lot of ethnic fluidity.

The boundaries of the civilization are also pretty vague.  There are lots of areas that owe nominal allegiance, pay occasional tribute, have partially adopted some of the high culture and claim to be part of the civilization as it suits them.

These little civilizations come and go.

In the hills, you also get epheremal anti-states, which owe their existence to the riches that can be won by looting the civilization.

Get that picture in your mind. Now consider the Book of Mormon.

I just read about Sherem.  Here are the Nephites still one or two generations out from their voyage, their leader is still someone who was actually born in the Old World, yet they have room enough for a dissident religious movement to arise where the dissident, Sherem, and the Nephite prophet, Jacob, don’t know each other.  Book of Mormon scholars point to the Sherem episode as evidence that the Nephite Promised Land was probably already inhabited.

Look at some of the other features of the Book of Mormon.  Nephi becoming a “king” right away (probably because he offered some notion of civilization/religion and had superior military technology, his superior military technology probably being more social and organizational and the concept of standup warfare rather than anything physical).  Dissident religious movements arising as a path to power (because the Nephites probably became the elites on the basis of having a religion).  Captain Moroni operating out on the fringes and creating cities out of nothing.  The “Lamanites” being hunter-gatherers but being more numerous than the Nephites.  The prophets extreme concern for the elites adopting luxury and lording it over everyone else, and the fragility of their civilization when they do.  The rapid shifts in power.  They way peoples get lost.  The ultimate fragility of the Nephite civilization.

So, yes, the Art of not Being Governed illuminates the Book of Mormon. Except that our heroes are his villains.

Nephites means something like Normans.


P.S.  I presume the Book of Mormon chroniclers were cagy about the already existing inhabitants because they were modeling themselves on the Exodus, where the already existing inhabitants were supposed to be destroyed, not ruled over.

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