Noble Savage

views updated May 21 2018


NOBLE SAVAGE. One of Europe's most important oxymora, the noble savage was the man of nature who lived according to the dictates of natural law, thought according to natural reason, and understood God and creation by way of natural religion. Unencumbered by the prejudices and partisanship of modern life and thought, the savage was primitive man, remote from Europe in either the most ancient past or the New World. At its very core the concept was self-contradictory: natural man acquired all he knew via sense perception, in Lockean fashion, and the only things that were real for him were those that were visible and evident to the senses. On the other hand, the noble savage's natural reason was Cartesian, autonomous, universal, and imagined to be uncorrupted by social mores and tradition. The noble savage was a fiction, a literary device that allowed social critics to invert European culture, to point out its flaws, and to suggest ways it might be improved.

The savage was the mansingular and usually malewho lived without society. This is the condition John Milton's (16081674) Adam yearned for when, upon recognizing his sin and shame, he lamented (Paradise Lost [1667], IX, 1085),

"O might I here 
In solitude live savage, in some glade

"Savage" could be applied as an epithet to plants, indicating that they were uncultivated and overgrown. With animals, "savage" implied ferocity. When applied to people it carried similar implications, in addition to being rude, wild, untamed, undomesticated, ungoverned, and ungovernable. French essayist Michel de Montaigne (15331592) considered savage people wild only in the sense that fruit was considered wild when it grew in nature without cultivation. Europeans had once been savages too.

What made some savages noble was their rejection of the luxuries with which Europeans made life more comfortable. The noble savage desired nothing beyond the necessities of life, acquired from nature without work, and he subsisted on venison, fruit, and acorns. Content in his existence, he displayed neither ambition nor avarice, and from Thomas More's (14781535) Utopia (1516) to Voltaire's (16941778) El Dorado (in Candide [1759]) primitive societies were depicted as surrounded by unrefined gold ore, which the natives ignored as a useless metal. The noble savage knew nothing of Europe's awkward courtesies. What little society he had was egalitarian, governed by merit, with few privileges for the king or tribal leader, or perhaps with no government at all.

The very concept of natural man implied that there was something "natural" about human beings that could be isolated or abstracted from the "social." It was the search for a universal human nature, for the essence of humanity that lay beneath the accidents of culture, that led Europeans to take such an interest in primitive societies in the first place. Many prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment assumed that human beings were endowed with a basic nature that society and history could do little to alter. John Locke (16321704) supposed, "Men, I think, have been much the same for natural endowments, in all times" (Of the Conduct of the Understanding [1706], sec. 24). David Hume (17111776), the historian of Britain, echoed that sentiment in his An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) when he wrote, "Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature."

If human nature was universal and immutable, one could construct a history of human society from the state of nature to modern society on the basis of conjecture. Conjectural history, and with it the ideas of the state of nature and the noble savage, was a tool to explain modern Europe to Europeans. To claim that savage man was noble was to assert that human beings were essentially good at heart and that somehow from the evils of society their natural innocence might be redeemed.

In the dark age of the English Civil War Thomas Hobbes (15881679) had concluded the opposite, that the state of nature was a state of perpetual war, every man against every man, "and the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan [1651], ch. 13). Following the Glorious Revolution (1688), Locke took a more moderate position, in which "the state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" (Second Treatise on Government, sec. 6). The most sanguine view of human nature emerged in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), who argued, "above all we shall not conclude with Hobbes that just because he has no idea of goodness, man must be naturally wicked; that he must be vicious because he does not know virtue; . . . nor that by virtue of the right he reasonably claims to the things he needs, he foolishly imagines himself to be the sole proprietor of the whole universe" (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [1751]).


Although the term "sauvage" emerged toward the end of the Middle Ages in Old French and Middle English (derived ultimately from the Latin silva, 'forest'), its connotations had long been a part of European thought, reaching backlike so many ideas in early modern Europethrough the medieval period to antiquity. In the first century b.c.e. Strabo (Geography VII, 300303) praised the ancient Scythians as thrifty and self-sufficient, the most honest and least deceitful of people, although lately they had taken to robbing and murdering strangers because of the Greek luxury that had reached them. Strabo found Homer's claims correct, that in the lands of "Europe" far to the north there were innocent nations, uncorrupted by luxury and decadence, which owned no property and cultivated no land, but drank mare's milk and lived in honesty. When Darius the Persian (c. 550486 b.c.e.) challenged the retreating Scythians to stand still and fight like men, Herodotus (Histories 4, 128129) reported their response: They were not running away but simply following their nomadic custom; they had nothing to fight for, because they had no cities and no cultivated land.

To the Romans the Germanic tribes of northern Europe were noble savages, and they described them in terms similar to the Greeks on the Scythians. Julius Caesar (10022 b.c.e.) described the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine as devoting their whole lives to hunting and war. Tacitus (c. 56c. 120 c.e.) admired the monogamy of the Germans, who neither laughed at vice nor considered it fashionable to corrupt or to be corrupted as his fellow Romans did. Salvian (fifth century c.e.) lambasted the behavior of decadent Roman Christians who were being defeated by the more virtuous, although pagan, Goths.

In medieval Europe the noble savage was still present, although the terms necessarily changed as those formerly virtuous Germans had become Europeans themselves, now Christianized and centuries removed from their primitive condition. At the same time, there was plenty of empirical evidence to vilify the savage. Ovid (43 b.c.e.?17 c.e.), exiled for the final years of his life among the Getae and Sarmatians on the Black Sea, found little noble about them. The northern barbarians whom the Greeks and Romans extolled in contrast to their own decadence were to Christian authors the murderers of the evangelists, and particularly in medieval hagiography (Sulpicius Severus's Life of St. Martin [fourth century c.e.], for example) pagan Europeans came in for harsh treatment. Early modern explorers, colonists, and missionaries who actually lived among the peoples of the New World demonized them (sometimes literally) more often than they ennobled them. Whether noble or ignoble, the savage was a foil used by an author to present a particular point of view and rarely had much to do with historical reality.


Although Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau each referred vaguely to actual inhabitants of the New World in support of their model of the state of nature, their presentation of the savage was largely without empirical support. Rousseau was most honest about this in his attempt to identify where Europe had gone awry in erecting its present society replete with inequalities. Rousseau's vision was a thought-experiment, and he proposed, "Let's begin by setting aside all the facts, as they do not pertain to the question."

Even when the reports of travelers were consulted, the resulting image of the noble savage was invariably fictitious. Less than twenty-five years after the discoveries of Columbus (14511506), Sir Thomas More used the voyage accounts of Amerigo Vespucci (14541512) to create his ideal world of Utopia, where people worked only six hours per day and did not grasp after unnecessary luxuries. Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals" depicted the natives of Brazil as noble cannibals who ate their prisoners of war as the ultimate vengeance unless the vanquished would admit defeat (none ever did, but they taunted their captors and eaters). Montaigne argued that, "certainly we can call them barbarians according to the rules of reason but not according to ourselves, who surpass them in every sort of barbarism," for the Americans had replaced their cannibalism with the Portuguese custom of burying their enemies to the waist and then shooting them full of arrows, which they considered even more brutal and humiliating than their own practice. Jonathan Swift's (16671745) Houyhnhnms (Gulliver's Travels [1726]) bore all the hallmarks of noble savages, having no power, government, war, law, or punishment, with the added distinction of being horses who used humanoid Yahoos as draft animals.

A satirical author could also turn the tables on Europe by fictitiously inviting a noble savage to Europe, where he could observe and comment on modern customs firsthand. In most cases the savage's natural reason carried the day, as when John Dryden's Montezuma (in The Indian Emperor, 1665) consistently outwitted a priest who had him bound to a rack and lectured him about the truths of Christianity. Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, Baron de Lahontan (16661715?) advocated the superiority of civilized France in a fictitious dialogue with a Huron named Adario, "a savage of good sense who had traveled," while the Native American defended his way of life in the forest. Lahontan's dialogue inspired Voltaire's short story "L'ingénu," about a Huron who pointed out the absurdities of eighteenth-century France as he moved through a monastery and the royal court and found himself imprisoned in the Bastille with a Jansenist. Voltaire was a master of using fictitious savages to skewer European politics, religion, and customs, and types like the naive Candide, the ingenuous Huron, the extraterrestrial Micromegas, and philosophical Brahmans appeared in many of his stories. In establishing a fictitious dialogue between a civilized and savage man early modern Europeans were drawing on a well-worn classical prototype. The Brahmans of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary and short stories echoed the medieval Roman d'Alexandre, in which Alexander the Great engaged the Brahman sage Dandamis in debate. Dandamis in turn recalls the ancient story of Anacharsis, a Scythian who combined the best of barbarian virtue and Greek education.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century most noble savages in European literature appear as Native Americans, but in the nineteenth century, as the colonial experience in Africa and India deepened, noble savages were found there as well. Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli (of the Jungle Books ) and Kim (endowed with the best qualities of his English father and Indian mother) are famous examples, as is the twentieth-century Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes. American Natives continued to be idealized (and vilified) in the twentieth-century Western by authors like the American Louis L'Amour and the German Karl May. No doubt the reader can think of many other examples.

See also Colonialism ; English Literature and Language ; Europe and the World ; French Literature and Language ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Idealism ; Locke, John ; Nature ; Philosophy ; Reason ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Lahontan, Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de. New Voyages to North-America. 2 vols. London, 1703.

Montaigne, Michel de. "Of Cannibals," in Essays. Translated by M. A. Screech. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1994.

More, Thomas. Utopia. 1516. Translated by Paul Turner. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1965.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Translated by Maurice Cranston. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1985.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. London, 1726. New York, 2001.

Voltaire. "The Huron, or Ingenuous," in Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories. Translated by Donald M. Frank. Bloomington, Ind., 1961.

Secondary Sources

Boas, George. Essays on Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages. Baltimore, 1948.

Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism. New York, 1928.

Lovejoy, Arthur O., and George Boas. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore, 1935.

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven, 1993.

Michael Carhart

Noble Savage

views updated May 11 2018

466. Noble Savage

  1. Chactas the noble savage of the Natchez Indians; beloved of Atala. [Fr. Lit.: Atala ]
  2. Chingachgook idealized noble Indian. [Am. Lit.: The Deers layer ]
  3. Daggoo African savage and crew member of the Pequod. [Am. Lit.: Moby Dick ]
  4. noble savage concept of a simple, pure, and superior man, uncorrupted by civilization. [Western Culture: Benét, 718719]
  5. Oroonoko the noble savage enslaved; rebels against captors. [Br. Lit.: Oroonoko ]
  6. Queequeg Polynesian prince and Ishmaels comrade aboard whaling vessel, Pequod. [Am. Lit.: Moby Dick ]

Noble savage

views updated Jun 27 2018

Noble savage (Rousseau's concept of ‘primitive simplicity’): see IBN TUFAYL.