Jean-Jacques Rousseau and noble savage

Jean-Jacques Rousseau 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. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an "innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer" (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man's one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau's fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau's egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because 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 19th century. Yet the phrase "noble savage" does not occur in any of Rousseau's writings.


  • The best-known expression of the idea of the ‘noble savage’ is in Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality (1755). The concept arises in the eighteenth century as a European nostalgia for a simple, pure, idyllic state of the natural, posed against rising industrialism and the notion of overcomplications and sophistications of European urban society. This nostalgia creates an image of other cultures as part of Rousseau’s criticism of the failure, as he perceived it, of modern European societies to preserve and maintain the natural innocence, freedom and equality of man in a ‘natural’ state. It creates images of the savage that serve primarily to re-define the European. The crucial fact about the construction is that it produces an ostensibly positive oversimplification of the ‘savage’ figure, rendering it in this particular form as an idealized rather than a debased stereotype.
    • Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin (2000). Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, second edition, London: Routledge, p. 193
  • The Maori of New Zealand committed massacres regularly. The dyaks of Borneo were headhunters. The Polynesians, living in an environment as close to paradise as one can imagine, fought constantly, and created a society so hideously restrictive that you could lose your life if you stepped in the footprint of a chief. It was the Polynesians who gave us the very concept of taboo, as well as the word itself. The noble savage is a fantasy, and it was never true. That anyone still believes it, 200 years after Rousseau, shows the tenacity of religious myths, their ability to hang on in the face of centuries of factual contradiction.
  • 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.
  • The solution, as we will see, is to treat the Noble Savage as a discursive construct and to begin with a rigorous examination of occurrences of the rhetoric of nobility as it was applied by ethnographic and other European writers to the peoples they labeled “savages.” In focusing on the discursive rather than the substantive Noble Savage, which might be imagined to lurk behind any positive reference to “savages” anywhere in the literature, we will find that the term “Noble Savage” was invented in 1609, nearly a century and a half before Rousseau, by Marc Lescarbot, a French lawyer-ethnographer, as a concept in comparative law. We will see the concept of the Noble Savage virtually disappear for more than two hundred years, without reemerging in Rousseau or his contemporaries, until it is finally resurrected in 1859 by John Crawfurd, soon to become president of the Ethnological Society of London, as part of a racist coup within the society. It is Crawfurd’s construction, framed as part of a program of ideological support for an attack on anthropological advocacy of human rights, that creates the myth as we know it, including the false attribution of authorship to Rousseau; and Crawfurd’s version becomes the source for every citation of the myth by anthropologists from Lubbock, Tylor, and Boas through the scholars of the late twentieth century.
    The chronological sequence of the following chapters also conceals the process followed in my own investigation of the myth. In fact, I began with a look at related historical problems in Rousseau’s writings. Having absorbed the myth as part of my professional training, I was at first incidentally surprised and then increasingly disturbed by not finding evidence of either the discursive or the substantive Noble Savage in Rousseau’s works. Finding this an interesting problem in its own right, I began to explore the secondary literature on the subject, beginning with Hoxie Neale Fairchild’s The Noble Savage (1928), finding confirmation of my readings of Rousseau but no satisfactory investigation of the myth’s real source.
    • Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (2001), pp. xv-xvi
  • Rousseau, like Hobbes, asserted the natural equality of mankind but saw humans in their natural state as being (justly) ruled by their passions, not their intellects. He argued that these passions could be easily and peaceably satisfied in a world without the "unnatural" institutions of monogamy and private property. Any tendency toward violence in the natural condition would be suppressed by humans' innate pity or compassion. This natural compassion was overwhelmed only when envy was created by the origins of marriage, property, education, social inequality, and "civil" society. He claimed that the savage, except when hungry, was the friend of all creation and the enemy of none. He directly attacked Hobbes for having "hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel" when in fact "nothing could be more gentle" than man in his natural state. Rousseau's Noble Savage lived in that peaceful golden age "that mankind was formed ever to remain in." War only became general and terrible when people organized themselves into separate societies with artificial rather than natural laws. Compassion, an emotion peculiar to individuals, gradually lost its influence over societies as they grew in size and proliferated. When artificial, passionless states fought, they committed more murders and "horrible disorders" in a single engagement than were ever perpetrated in all the ages that men had lived in a state of nature.
    • Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1997), pp. 6-7
  • 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)

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