Noble savage  

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“God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. [... Man] will have nothing as nature made it.” --Emile (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"As far as the noble savage is concerned, that phrase is from Dryden and does not appear in Rousseau’s writings. In the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up". --Peter Gay[1]

"In his famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1580), Michel de Montaigne—himself a Catholic—reported that the Tupinambá people of Brazil ceremoniously eat the bodies of their dead enemies as a matter of honour. However, he reminded his readers that Europeans behave even more barbarously when they burn each other alive for disagreeing about religion (he implies): "One calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The term noble savage (French, bon sauvage) is a literary stock character that expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or "other" who has not been "corrupted" by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672), wherein it was used by a Christian prince, believing himself a Spanish Muslim, in reference to himself, but it later became identified with the idealized picture of "nature's gentleman", which was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. The noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for a satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, whom some believe may have wished to disassociate himself from what he viewed as the "feminine" sentimentality of 18th and early 19th-century romantic primitivism.

The idea that humans are essentially good is often attributed to the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, a Whig supporter of constitutional monarchy. In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue (1699), Shaftesbury had postulated that the moral sense in humans is natural and innate and based on feelings rather than resulting from the indoctrination of a particular religion. Shaftesbury was reacting to Thomas Hobbes's justification of an absolutist central state in his Leviathan, Chapter XIII, in which Hobbes famously holds that the state of nature is a "war of all against all" in which men's lives are "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short". Hobbes further calls the American Indians an example of a contemporary people living in such a state. Although writers since antiquity had described people living a pre-civilized conditions, Hobbes is credited with inventing the term "State of Nature". Ross Harrison writes that "Hobbes seems to have invented this useful term."

Contrary to what is often believed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau never used the phrase 'noble savage'.



The term "noble savage" expresses a concept of humanity as unencumbered by civilization; the normal essence of an unfettered human. Since the concept embodies the idea that without the bounds of civilization, humans are essentially good, the basis for the idea of the "noble savage" lies in the doctrine of the goodness of humans, expounded in the first decade of the century by Shaftesbury, who urged a would-be author “to search for that simplicity of manners, and innocence of behaviour, which has been often known among mere savages; ere they were corrupted by our commerce” (Advice to an Author, Part III.iii). His counter to the doctrine of original sin, born amid the optimistic atmosphere of Renaissance humanism, was taken up by his contemporary, the essayist Richard Steele, who attributed the corruption of contemporary manners to false education.

The concept of the noble savage has particular associations with romanticism and with Rousseau's romantic philosophy in particular. The opening sentence of Rousseau's Emile (1762), which has as its subtitle "de l'Éducation ("or, Concerning Education") is

“Everything is good in leaving the hands of the Creator of Things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

In the later 18th-century the published voyages of Captain James Cook seemed to open a glimpse into an unspoiled Edenic culture that still existed in the unspoiled and un-Christianized South Seas. By 1784 it was so much an accepted element in current discourse that Benjamin Franklin could mock some of its inconsistencies in Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (1784). The novel Paul et Virginie appeared in 1787. Chateaubriand's sentimental romance Atala appeared in 1807.

The concept appears in many further books of early 19th century. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein forms one of the better-known examples: her monster embodies the ideal. German author Karl May employed the idea extensively in his Wild West stories. Aldous Huxley provided a later example in his novel Brave New World (published in 1932).

Attributes of romantic primitivism

On our arrival upon this coast we found there a savage race who . . . lived by hunting and by the fruits which the trees spontaneously produced. These people . . . were greatly surprised and alarmed by the sight of our ships and arms and retired to the mountains. But since our soldiers were curious to see the country and hunt deer, they were met by some of these savage fugitives. The leaders of the savages accosted them thus: "We abandoned for you, the pleasant sea-coast, so that we have nothing left but these almost inaccessible mountains: at least it is just that you leave us in peace and liberty. Go, and never forget that you owe your lives to our feeling of humanity. Never forget that it was from a people whom you call rude and savage that you receive this lesson in gentleness and generosity. . . . We abhor that brutality which, under the gaudy names of ambition and glory, . . . sheds the blood of men who are all brothers. . . . We value health, frugality, liberty, and vigor of body and mind: the love of virtue, the fear of the gods, a natural goodness toward our neighbors, attachment to our friends, fidelity to all the world, moderation in prosperity, fortitude in adversity, courage always bold to speak the truth, and abhorrence of flattery . . . . If the offended gods so far blind you as to make you reject peace, you will find, when it is too late, that the people who are moderate and lovers of peace are the most formidable in war. --Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus (1699), tr. based on that of Tobias Smollett.

In the 1st century AD, sterling qualities such as those enumerated above by Fénelon (excepting perhaps belief in the brotherhood of man) had been attributed by Tacitus in his Germania to the German barbarians, in pointed contrast to the softened, Romanized Gauls. By inference Tacitus was criticizing his own Roman culture for getting away from its roots — which was the perennial function of such comparisons. Tacitus's Germans did not inhabit a "Golden Age" of ease but were tough and inured to hardship, qualities which he saw as preferable to the decadent softness of civilized life. In antiquity this form of "hard primitivism", whether admired or deplored (both attitudes were common), co-existed in rhetorical opposition to the "soft primitivism" of visions of a lost Golden Age of ease and plenty.

As art historian Erwin Panofsky explains:
There had been, from the beginning of classical speculation, two contrasting opinions about the natural state of man, each of them, of course, a "Gegen-Konstruktion" to the conditions under which it was formed. One view, termed "soft" primitivism in an illuminating book by Lovejoy and Boas, conceives of primitive life as a golden age of plenty, innocence, and happiness -- in other words, as civilized life purged of its vices. The other, "hard" form of primitivism conceives of primitive life as an almost subhuman existence full of terrible hardships and devoid of all comforts -- in other words, as civilized life stripped of its virtues. --Meaning in the Visual Arts
In the 18th century the debates about primitivism centered around the examples of the people of Scotland as often as the American Indians. The rude ways of the Highlanders were often scorned, but their toughness also called forth a degree of admiration among "hard" primitivists, just that of the Spartans and the Germans had done in antiquity. One Scottish writer described his Highland countrymen this way:
They greatly excel the Lowlanders in all the exercises that require agility; they are incredibly abstemious, and patient of hunger and fatigue; so steeled against the weather, that in traveling, even when the ground is covered with snow, they never look for a house, or any other shelter but their plaid, in which they wrap themselves up, and go to sleep under the cope of heaven. Such people, in quality of soldiers, must be invincible . . .

Erroneous identification of Rousseau with the noble savage

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Shaftesbury, also insisted that man was born with the potential for goodness; and he, too, argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. However Rousseau never used the term "noble savage" and was not a primitivist.
The notion that Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality was essentially a glorification of the State of Nature, and that its influence tended to wholly or chiefly to promote "Primitivism" is one of the most persistent historical errors. – A. O. Lovejoy, “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality” (1923).

Rousseau argued that in a state of nature men are essentially animals, and that only by acting together in civil society and binding themselves to its laws do they become men. For Rousseau only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make men good. His fellow philosophe, Voltaire, who did not believe in equality, accused Rousseau of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours.

"It is notorious that Voltaire objected to the education of laborers' children" – Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, [1969] 1977), p. 36. Peter Gay writes "As far as the noble savage is concerned, that phrase is from Dryden and does not appear in Rousseau’s writings. In the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up".

Because Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the "noble savage", especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the nineteenth century.

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Cultural examples:

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