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The Noble Savage Myth

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The term “noble savage”, referring to the so-called “natural man” who has not been corrupted by civilization, first appeared in The Conquest of Granada by the English playwright, John Dryden (1631 – 1700). Since then it has been a popular theme in books, television, and movies with stories like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and Avatar espousing noble-savage philosophies.

The Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) believed there to be a distinction between human nature and society. Taking his inspiration from John Locke’s (1632 – 1704) philosophy of innate goodness, Rousseau believed human beings were inherently peaceful and that concepts like sin and wickedness and bore no consequence to the natural man. Rather it was society that had perverted mankind’s natural sense of ‘amour de soi’ (a form of positive self-love which Rousseau saw as a combination of reason and the natural instinct for self-preservation) had been corrupted by societal forces. Rosseau wrote in the 18th century:

“Nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.”

While Rousseau was not the first philosopher to posit that society may have a corrupting influence (the French philosopher, Montaigne (1533 – 1592) described the lives of Native Americans as being so idyllic that he claimed they did not have words for lying, cheating, avarice, or envy, and that they did not need to work), it has been his influence that has been the most damaging. The first attempt to politicise Rousseauan philosophy, the French Revolution, ended not with paradise on earth, but with the mass executions that characterised the reign of terror.  The social movements that have followed Rousseauan ideals have worked on the notion that it is society, not the individual, that is to blame for social problems. No aspect of human nature is responsible for evil, that is the result of a bad home, a bad neighbourhood, prejudice, poverty, and so forth. Human emotions are ultimately benevolent; evil and brutality are the results of social stressors on the individual. It is this philosophy that has been the driving force behind virtually all social programs.

The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), saw life in a state of nature as one of perpetual civil war. According to Hobbes, life in a state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short” (this, rather amusingly, has been used to describe the careers of some football managers). Since concepts like morality and justice have no place in a state of nature, the natural man has no concept of them. In Leviathan, written in 1651, Hobbes asked the reader to imagine what their lives would be like if they lived outside the protection of the state. Without law and order there are no checks and balances on an individual’s behaviour. Human beings, therefore, must be kept in check by an authority that has the ability to punish wickedness. Kings and governments have a responsibility to teach their citizens to be just, to not deprive others of their property, including their lives, through theft, fraud, murder, rape, and so forth. Hobbes believed the only way people could protect themselves from the trials and tribulations of life would be to transfer authority to a Government and a King.

The “noble savage” idea is a myth, pure and simple. It is merely a means for shifting responsibility away from the individual towards society. It is time for people to put this ridiculous belief in the one place it belongs: the waste-paper bin.


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