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savages have played an important conceptual role in the history of Western thought since its beginning. The idea of man living in a natural state, possibly even devoid of man-made laws or conventions, can be traced back to ancient times. It was, however, only with the rise of increasingly penetrating critiques of civilization that the notion of the savage came to be fully elaborated in the wholly positive sense it was to assume in the Enlightenment cult of the ‘noble savage’.

A powerful influence on subsequent conceptions of savages is to be found in Michel de Montaigne's accounts of Amerindians in his Essais (1530). His depiction of their lives was not idealized as it often was later. But he endeavoured to challenge the moral and intellectual complacency of his contemporaries by subverting the notion of the sauvage: ‘They are savages [sauvages] in the sense that we say fruits are wild [sauvages], which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose nature we have changed by our artifice, and which are diverted from the common order.’ This idea was further exploited by Rousseau in his Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755). Natural man was healthy, robust, unreflective, and fearless, according to Rousseau; he was also indolent and had no cause to labour, as nature was bountiful and his needs were few and easily provided for. What is more, he was truly happy. His existence was mostly solitary. The chance encounters between men and women were very brief; women raised children single-handedly and children left their mothers, never to see them again, as soon as they could fend for themselves. Civilized man, by contrast, was dependent, weak, frail, enslaved to countless needs and desires, unhealthy and as profoundly unhappy as one might expect of a creature thoroughly alienated from his true nature. Not everyone agreed with this rendition of civilized existence. James Boswell reported that when he argued for the superior happiness of the savage life, Samuel Johnson was adamant: ‘The savages have no bodily advantages beyond those of civilized men. They have no better health; and as to care or mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below it, like bears.’

Most thinkers were agreed that the condition of women amongst savages was far from ideal. Even Diderot, who spoke favourably of the life of savage man, thought that civilized woman was far better off than her primitive counterpart, who was treated with unmitigated brutality by uncivilized males. However the idea of the savage was used in a negative manner by women writers who, like Mary Wollstonecraft, reflected on the contemporary condition of their sex: ‘An immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure, and for sway, are the passions of savages; the passions that occupy those uncivilized beings who have not yet extended the dominion of the mind, even learned to think with the energy necessary to concatenate that abstract train of thought which produces principles. And that women from their education and the present state of civilized life, are in the same condition, cannot, I think, be controverted.’

The debate over the merit or demerit of savage life continued throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Likewise, the evolutionary view of the history of society and the family, like Lewis H. Morgan's Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (1877) exercised much influence, not least on Frederick Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

Sylvana Tomaselli


Kierman, V. G. (1990). Noble and ignoble savages. In Exoticism in the Enlightenment, (ed. G. S. Rousseau and R. Porter). Manchester University Press, Manchester.

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