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Noble savage

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Noble savage

A detail from Benjamin West's heroic, neoclassical history painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1771), depicting an idealized Native American.[1]

The term noble savage 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. However, the phrase 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.[2]

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 in 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."[3]

Contrary to what is sometimes believed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau never used the phrase noble savage (French bon sauvage). However, the character of the noble savage appeared in French literature at least as early as Jacques Cartier (coloniser of Québec, speaking of the Iroquois) and Michel de Montaigne (philosopher, speaking of the Tupinamba) in the 16th century.

Pre-history of the noble savage

Illustration of a 1776 performance of Oroonoko.
Oroonoko kills Imoinda in a 1776 performance of Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus 98 A.D. De Origine et situ Germanorum (Germania) has been described as a predecessor of the modern noble savage concept which started in the 17th and 18th centuries in western European travel literature.[4]

During the late 16th and 17th centuries, the figure of the indigene or "savage"—and later, increasingly, the "good savage"—was held up as a reproach to European civilization, then in the throes of the French Wars of Religion and Thirty Years' War. During the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572), some ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children were massacred by Catholic mobs, chiefly in Paris, but also throughout France. This horrifying breakdown of civil control was deeply disturbing to thoughtful people on both sides of the religious divide.

In his famous essay "Of Cannibals" (1580),[6] 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."

In "Of Cannibals", Montaigne uses cultural (but not moral) relativism for the purpose of satire. His cannibals are neither noble nor especially good, but not worse than 16th-century Europeans. In this classical humanist view, customs differ but people everywhere are prone to cruelty, a quality that Montaigne detested.

The treatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish Conquistadors also produced a great deal of bad conscience and recriminations.[9] The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who witnessed it, may have been the first to idealize the simple life of the indigenous Americans. He and other observers praised their simple manners and reported that they were incapable of lying.

European angst over colonialism inspired fictional treatments such as Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688), about a slave revolt in Surinam in the West Indies. Behn's story was not primarily a protest against slavery; rather, it was written for money, and it met readers' expectations by following the conventions of the European romance novella. The leader of the revolt, Oroonoko, is truly noble in that he is a hereditary African prince, and he laments his lost African homeland in the traditional terms of a classical Golden Age. He is not a savage but dresses and behaves like a European aristocrat. Behn's story was adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Thomas Southerne, who stressed its sentimental aspects, and as time went on, it came to be seen as addressing the issues of slavery and colonialism, remaining very popular throughout the 18th century.

Origin of term

In English, the phrase Noble Savage first appeared in poet Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672):

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

The hero who speaks these words in Dryden's play is a Spanish Muslim, who, at the end of the play, in keeping with the requirements of a heroic drama, is revealed to have been, unbeknownst to himself, the son of a Christian prince (since heroic plays by definition had noble and exemplary protagonists).

Ethnomusicologist Ter Ellingson believes that Dryden had picked up the expression "noble savage" from a 1609 travelogue about Canada by the French explorer Marc Lescarbot, in which there was a chapter with the ironic heading: "The Savages are Truly Noble", meaning simply that they enjoyed the right to hunt game, a privilege in France granted only to hereditary aristocrats. It is not known if Lescarbot was aware of Montaigne's stigmatization of the aristocratic pastime of hunting, though some authors believe he was familiar with Montaigne. Lescarbot's familiarity with Montaigne, is discussed by Ter Ellingson in The Myth of the Noble Savage.[10]

Dryden's use of the phrase is a striking oxymoron. However, in his day it would have been less so, for in English the word "savage" did not necessarily have the connotations of cruelty we now associate with it, but only gradually acquired them. Instead it could as easily mean "wild", as in a wild flower, as it still does in its French and Italian cognates, for example. In French, sauvage does not necessarily connote either fierceness or moral degradation; it may simply mean 'wild', as in fleurs sauvages, 'wildflowers'. Dryden also wrote in 1697, 'Thus the savage cherry grows. . .';[11] and Shelley. . . wrote in 1820 in his 'Ode to Liberty', 'The vine, the corn, the olive mild / Grew savage yet, to human use unreconciled'.[12][13] One scholar, Audrey Smedley, believes that: "English conceptions of 'the savage' were grounded in expansionist conflicts with Irish pastoralists and more broadly, in isolation from, and denigration of neighboring European peoples." and Ellingson agrees that "The ethnographic literature lends considerable support for such arguments"[14]

In France the stock figure that in English is called the "noble savage" has always been simply "le bon sauvage", "the good wild man", a term without the any of the paradoxical frisson of the English one. This character, an idealized portrayal of "Nature's Gentleman", was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism, along with other stock characters such as, the Virtuous Milkmaid, the Servant-More-Clever-than-the-Master (such as Sancho Panza and Figaro, among countless others), and the general theme of virtue in the lowly born. The use of stock characters (especially in theater) to express moral truths derives from classical antiquity and goes back to Theophrastus's Characters, a work that enjoyed a great vogue in the 17th and 18th centuries and was translated by Jean de La Bruyère. The practice largely died out with advent of 19th-century realism but lasted much longer in genre literature, such as adventure stories, Westerns, and, arguably, science fiction. Nature's Gentleman, whether European-born or exotic, takes his place in this cast of characters, along with the Wise Egyptian, Persian, and Chinaman. "But now, alongside the Good Savage, the Wise Egyptian claims his place." Some of these types are discussed by Paul Hazard in The European Mind.[15]

He had always existed, from the time of the Epic of Gilgamesh, where he appears as Enkiddu, the wild-but-good man who lives with animals. Another instance is the untutored-but-noble medieval knight, Parsifal. The Biblical shepherd boy David falls into this category. The association of virtue with withdrawal from society — and specifically from cities — was a familiar theme in religious literature.

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan an Islamic philosophical tale (or thought experiment) by Ibn Tufail from 12th-century Andalusia, straddles the divide between the religious and the secular. The tale is of interest because it was known to the New England Puritan divine, Cotton Mather. Translated into English (from Latin) in 1686 and 1708, it tells the story of Hayy, a wild child, raised by a gazelle, without human contact, on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean. Purely through the use of his reason, Hayy goes through all the gradations of knowledge before emerging into human society, where he revealed to be a believer of Natural religion, which Cotton Mather, as a Christian Divine, identified with Primitive Christianity.[16] The figure of Hayy is both a Natural man and a Wise Persian, but not a Noble Savage.

The locus classicus of the 18th-century portrayal of the American Indian are the famous lines from Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" (1734):

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

To Pope, writing in 1734, the Indian was a purely abstract figure—"poor" because uneducated and a heathen but also happy because living close to Nature. This view reflects the typical Age of Reason belief that men are everywhere and in all times the same as well as a Deistic conception of natural religion (although Pope, like Dryden, was Catholic). Pope's phrase, "Lo the Poor Indian", became almost as famous as Dryden's "noble savage" and, in the 19th century, when more people began to have first hand knowledge of and conflict with the Indians, would be used derisively for similar sarcastic effect.[17]

Attributes of romantic primitivism

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.[19]

As art historian Erwin Panofsky explains: 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:

Reaction to Hobbes

Debates about "soft" and "hard" primitivism intensified with the publication in 1651 of Hobbes's Leviathan (or Commonwealth), a justification of absolute monarchy. Hobbes, a "hard Primitivist", flatly asserted that life in a state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"—a "war of all against all":

Reacting to the wars of religion of his own time and the previous century, he maintained that the absolute rule of a king was the only possible alternative to the otherwise inevitable violence and anarchy of civil war. Hobbes' hard primitivism may have been as venerable as the tradition of soft primitivism, but his use of it was new. He used it to argue that the state was founded on a social contract in which men voluntarily gave up their liberty in return for the peace and security provided by total surrender to an absolute ruler, whose legitimacy stemmed from the Social Contract and not from God.

Hobbes' vision of the natural depravity of man inspired fervent disagreement among those who opposed absolute government. His most influential and effective opponent in the last decade of the 17th century was Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury countered that, contrary to Hobbes, humans in a state of nature were neither good nor bad, but that they possessed a moral sense based on the emotion of sympathy, and that this emotion was the source and foundation of human goodness and benevolence. Like his contemporaries (all of whom who were educated by reading classical authors such as Livy, Cicero, and Horace), Shaftesbury admired the simplicity of life of classical antiquity. He urged a would-be author “to search for that simplicity of manners, and innocence of behavior, which has been often known among mere savages; ere they were corrupted by our commerce” (Advice to an Author, Part III.iii). Shaftesbury's denial of the innate depravity of man was taken up by contemporaries such as the popular Irish essayist Richard Steele (1672–1729), who attributed the corruption of contemporary manners to false education. Influenced by Shaftesbury and his followers, 18th-century readers, particularly in England, were swept up by the cult of Sensibility that grew up around Shaftesbury's concepts of sympathy and benevolence.

Meanwhile, in France, where those who criticized government or Church authority could be imprisoned without trial or hope of appeal, primitivism was used primarily as a way to protest the repressive rule of Louis XIV and XV, while avoiding censorship. Thus, in the beginning of the 18th century, a French travel writer, the Baron de Lahontan, who had actually lived among the Huron Indians, put potentially dangerously radical Deist and egalitarian arguments in the mouth of a Canadian Indian, Adario, who was perhaps the most striking and significant figure of the "good" (or "noble") savage, as we understand it now, to make his appearance on the historical stage:

Published in Holland, Lahontan's writings, with their controversial attacks on established religion and social customs, were immensely popular. Over twenty editions were issued between 1703 and 1741, including editions in French, English, Dutch and German.

Many of the most incendiary passages in Raynal's book, one of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, especially in the Western Hemisphere, are now known to have been in fact written by Diderot. Reviewing Jonathan Israel's Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, Jeremy Jennings, notes that The History of the Two Indies, in the opinion of Jonathan Israel, was the text that "made a world revolution" by delivering "the most devastating single blow to the existing order":

Atala au tombeau, par Girodet, 1808 - Musée du louvre.

In the later 18th century, the published voyages of Captain James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville seemed to open a glimpse into an unspoiled Edenic culture that still existed in the un-Christianized South Seas. Their popularity inspired Diderot's Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (1772), a scathing critique of European sexual hypocrisy and colonial exploitation.

Benjamin Franklin's Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America

Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (1784), Franklin deplored the use of the term "savages" for native Americans:

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.

Franklin used the massacres to illustrate his point that no race had a monopoly on virtue, likening the Paxton vigilantes to "Christian White Savages'". Franklin cried out to a just God to punish those who carried the Bible in one hand and the hatchet in the other: 'O ye unhappy Perpetrators of this Horrid Wickedness!'"[26] Franklin praised the Indian way of life, their customs of hospitality, their councils, which reached agreement by discussion and consensus, and noted that many white men had voluntarily given up the purported advantages of civilization to live among them, but that the opposite was rare.

Though retrospectively it may seem to us that Franklin may have idealized the Indians to make a rhetorical point, the phrase "noble savage" never appears in his writings.

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. 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).[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] Yet the phrase "noble savage" does not occur in any of Rousseau's writings.[30] In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes' pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution. According to the historian of ideas, Arthur O. Lovejoy:

In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau, anticipating the language of Darwin, states that as the animal-like human species increased there arose a "formidable struggle for existence" between it and other species for food.[32] It was then, under the pressure of necessity, that le caractère spécifique de l'espèce humaine – the specific quality that distinguished man from the beasts – emerged – intelligence, a power, meager at first but yet capable of an "almost unlimited development". Rousseau calls this power the faculté de se perfectionner – perfectibility.[33] Man invented tools, discovered fire, and in short, began to emerge from the state of nature. Yet at this stage, men also began to compare himself to others: "It is easy to see. . . that all our labors are directed upon two objects only, namely, for oneself, the commodities of life, and consideration on the part of others." Amour propre – the desire for consideration (self regard), Rousseau calls a "factitious feeling arising, only in society, which leads a man to think more highly of himself than of any other." This passion began to show itself with the first moment of human self-consciousness, which was also that of the first step of human progress: "It is this desire for reputation, honors, and preferment which devours us all . . . this rage to be distinguished, that we own what is best and worst in men – our virtues and our vices, our sciences and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers – in short, a vast number of evil things and a small number of good." It is this "which inspires men to all the evils which they inflict upon one another.".[34] To be sure, Rousseau praises the newly discovered "savage" tribes (whom Rousseau does not consider in a "state of nature"), as living a life that is simpler and more egalitarian than that of the Europeans; and he sometimes praises this "third stage" it in terms that could be confused with the romantic primitivism fashionable in his times. He also identifies ancient primitive communism under a patriarchy, such as he believes characterized the "youth" of mankind, as perhaps the happiest state and perhaps also illustrative of how man was intended by God to live. But these stages are not all good, but rather are mixtures of good and bad. According to Lovejoy, Rousseau's basic view of human nature after the emergence of social living is basically identical to that of Hobbes.[35] Moreover, Rousseau does not believe that it is possible or desirable to go back to a primitive state. It is only by acting together in civil society and binding themselves to its laws that men become men; and only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make men good. According to Lovejoy:

For Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social compact, so as to "draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it." Lovejoy concludes that Rousseau's doctrine, as expressed in his Discourse on Inequality:

19th century belief in progress and the fall of the natural man

During the 19th century the idea that men were everywhere and always the same that had characterized both classical antiquity and the progress to inevitable extinction. The sentimentalized "primitive" ceased to figure as a moral reproach to the decadence of the effete European, as in previous centuries. Instead, the argument shifted to a discussion of whether his demise should be considered a desirable or regrettable eventuality. As the century progressed, native peoples and their traditions increasingly became a foil serving to highlight the accomplishments of Europe and the expansion of the European Imperial powers, who justified their policies on the basis of a presumed racial and cultural superiority.[38]

Charles Dickens 1853 article on "The Noble Savage" in Household Words

In 1853 [39]

Like others who would henceforth write about the topic, Dickens begins by disclaiming a belief in the "noble savage":

Dickens' essay was arguably a pose of manly, no-nonsense realism and a defense of Christianity. At the end of it his tone becomes more recognizably humanitarian, as he maintains that, although the virtues of the savage are mythical and his way of life inferior and doomed, he still deserves to be treated no differently than if he were an Englishman of genius, such as Newton or Shakespeare:

Scapegoating the Inuit: cannibalism and Sir John Franklin's lost expedition

Although Charles Dickens had ridiculed positive depictions of Native Americans as portrayals of so-called "noble" savages, he made an exception (at least initially) in the case of the Inuit, whom he called “loving children of the north”, “forever happy with their lot,” “whether they are hungry or full”, and “gentle loving savages”, who, despite a tendency to steal, have a “quiet, amiable character” ("Our Phantom Ship on an Antediluvian Cruise", Household Words, April 16, 1851). However he soon reversed this rosy assessment, when on October 23, 1854, The Times of London published a report by explorer-physician John Rae of the discovery by Eskimos of the remains of the lost Franklin expedition along with unmistakable evidence of cannibalism among members of the party:

Franklin's widow and other surviving relatives and indeed the nation as a whole were shocked to the core and refused to accept these reports, which appeared to undermine the whole assumption of the cultural superiority of the heroic white explorer-scientist and the imperial project generally. Instead, they attacked the reliability of the Eskimos who had made the gruesome discovery and called them liars. An editorial in The Times called for further investigation:

This line was energetically taken up by Dickens's, who wrote in his weekly magazine:

Dr. John Rae rebutted Dickens in two articles in Household Words: “The Lost Arctic Voyagers”, Household Words, No. 248 (December 23, 1854), and "Dr. Rae’s Report to the Secretary of the Admiralty", Household Words, No. 249 (December 30, 1854). Though he did not call them noble, Dr. Rae, who had lived among the Inuit, defended them as “dutiful” and “a bright example to the most civilized people”, comparing them favorably with the undisciplined crew of the Franklin expedition, whom he suggested were ill treated and "would have mutinied under privation", and moreover with the lower classes in England or Scotland generally.[41][42]

Dickens and Wilkie Collins subsequently collaborated on a melodramatic play, "The Frozen Deep", about the menace of cannibalism in the far north, in which "the villainous role assigned to the Eskimos in Household Words is assumed by a working class Scotswoman.[43]

The Frozen Deep was performed as a benefit organized by Dickens and attended by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and Emperor Leopold II of Belgium, among others, to fund a memorial to the Franklin Expedition. (Dr. Rae himself was Scots).

Rae's respect for the Inuit and his refusal to scapegoat them in the Franklin affair arguably harmed his career. Lady Franklin's campaign to glorify the dead of her husband's expedition, aided and abetted by Dickens, resulted in his being more or less shunned by the British establishment. Although it was not Franklin but Rae who in 1848 discovered the last link in the much-sought-after Northwest Passage, Rae was never awarded a knighthood and died in obscurity in London. (In comparison fellow Scot and contemporary explorer David Livingstone was knighted and buried with full imperial honors in Westminster Abbey). However, modern historians have confirmed Rae's discovery of the Northwest Passage and the accuracy of his report on cannibalism among Franklin's crew.[44] Canadian author Ken McGoogan, a specialist on Arctic exploration, states that Rae's willingness to learn and adopt the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. Rae's respect for Inuit customs, traditions, and skills was contrary to the prejudiced belief of many 19th-century Europeans that native peoples had no valuable technical knowledge or information to impart.[45]

In July 2004, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced into the UK Parliament a motion proposing that the House "regrets that Dr Rae was never awarded the public recognition that was his due". In March 2009 Carmichael introduced a further motion urging Parliament to formally state it "regrets that memorials to Sir John Franklin outside the Admiralty headquarters and inside Westminster Abbey still inaccurately describe Franklin as the first to discover the [North West] passage, and calls on the Ministry of Defence and the Abbey authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify the true position."

Dickens's racism, like that of many Englishmen, became markedly worse after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in India.

It was said that Dickens’s racism, “grew progressively more illiberal over the course of his career".[47][48][49] Grace Moore, on the other hand, argues that Dickens, a staunch abolitionist and opponent of imperialism, had views on racial matters that were a good deal more complex than previous critics have suggested.[50] This event, and the virtually contemporaneous occurrence of the American Civil War (1861–64), which threatened to, and then did, put an end to slavery, coincided with a polarization of attitudes exemplified by the phenomenon of scientific racism.

Scientific racism

In 1860, John Crawfurd and James Hunt mounted a defense of British imperialism based on "scientific racism".[51] Crawfurd, in alliance with Hunt, took over the presidency of the Ethnological Society of London, which was an offshoot of the Aborigines' Protection Society, founded with the mission to defend indigenous peoples against slavery and colonial exploitation.[52] Invoking "science" and "realism", the two men derided their "philanthropic" predecessors for believing in human equality and for not recognizing that mankind was divided into superior and inferior races. Crawfurd, who opposed Darwinian evolution, "denied any unity to mankind, insisting on immutable, hereditary, and timeless differences in racial character, principal amongst which was the 'very great' difference in 'intellectual capacity.'" For Crawfurd, the races had been created separately and were different species. Crawfurd was Scots, and thought the Scots "race" superior to all others; whilst Hunt, on the other hand, believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon "race". Crawfurd and Hunt routinely accused those who disagreed with them of believing in "Rousseau's Noble Savage". The pair ultimately quarreled because Hunt believed in slavery and Crawfurd did not.[53] "As Ter Ellingson demonstrates, Crawfurd was responsible for re-introducing the Pre-Rousseauian concept of 'the Noble Savage' to modern anthropology, attributing it wrongly and quite deliberately to Rousseau.”.[54] In an otherwise rather lukewarm review of Ellingson's book in Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 4:1 (Spring 2003), Frederick E. Hoxie writes:

"If Rousseau was not the inventor of the Noble Savage, who was?" writes Ellingson,

Ellingson finds that any remotely positive portrayal of an indigenous (or working class) person is apt to be characterized (out of context) as a supposedly "unrealistic" or "romanticized" "Noble Savage". He points out that Fairchild even includes as an example of a supposed "Noble Savage", a picture of a Negro slave on his knees, lamenting lost his freedom. According to Ellingson, Fairchild ends his book with a denunciation of the (always unnamed) believers in primitivism or "The Noble Savage"—whom he feels are threatening to unleash the dark forces of irrationality on civilization.[57]

Ellingson argues that the term "noble savage", an oxymoron, is a derogatory one, which those who oppose "soft" or romantic primitivism use to discredit (and intimidate) their supposed opponents, whose romantic beliefs they feel are somehow threatening to civilization. Ellingson maintains that virtually none of those accused of believing in the "noble savage" ever actually did so. He likens the practice of accusing anthropologists (and other writers and artists) of belief in the noble savage to a secularized version of the inquisition, and he maintains that modern anthropologists have internalized these accusations to the point where they feel they have to begin by ritualistically disavowing any belief in "noble savage" if they wish to attain credibility in their fields. He notes that text books with a painting of a handsome Native American (such as the one by Benjamin West on this page) are even given to school children with the cautionary caption, "A painting of a Noble Savage". West's depiction is characterized as a typical "noble savage" by art historian Vivien Green Fryd, but her interpretation has been contested.[58]

Opponents of primitivism

The most famous modern example of "hard" (or anti-) primitivism in books and movies was William Golding's Lord of the Flies, published in 1954. The title is said to be a reference to the Biblical devil, Beelzebub. This book, in which a group of school boys stranded on a desert island "revert" to savage behavior, was a staple of high school and college required reading lists during the Cold War.

In the 1960s, film director Stanley Kubrick professed his opposition to primitivism. Like Dickens, he began with a disclaimer:

The opening scene of Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) depicted prehistoric ape-like men wielding weapons of war, as the tools that supposedly lifted them out of their animal state and made them human.

Another opponent of primitivism is the Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall, who has accused other anthropologists of exalting the "noble savage".[60] A third is archeologist Lawrence H. Keeley, who has criticised a "widespread myth" that "civilized humans have fallen from grace from a simple primeval happiness, a peaceful golden age" by uncovering archeological evidence that he claims demonstrates that violence prevailed in the earliest human societies. Keeley argues that the "noble savage" paradigm has warped anthropological literature to political ends.[61]

The noble savage is described as having a natural existence. The term ignoble savage has an obvious negative connotation. The ignoble savage is detested— described as having a cruel and primitive existence. Often, the phrase “ignoble savage” was used and abused to justify colonialism. The concept of the ignoble savage gave Europeans the "right" to establish colonies without considering the possibility of preexisting, functional societies.[62]

Noble savage idea today

Motion pictures

According to critics like the Telegraph's Tim Robey, romantically idealized portrayals of non-industrialized or exotic people persist in popular films, above all in the popular genres of fantasy and science fiction, as for example in The Lone Ranger[63] or Dances with Wolves.[64]

See also


  1. ^ Fryd, Vivien Green (1995). "Rereading the Indian in Benjamin West's "Death of General Wolfe"". American Art 9 (1): 75.  
  2. ^ See Grace Moore, "Reappraising Dickens's 'Noble Savage'", The Dickensian 98:458 (2002): 236-243. Moore speculates that Dickens, although himself an abolitionist, was motivated by a wish to differentiate himself from what he believed was the feminine sentimentality and bad writing of female philanthropists and writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, with whom he, as a reformist writer, was often associated.
  3. ^ Locke, Hobbs, and Confusion's Masterpiece, Ross Harrison, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 70.
  4. ^ Paradies auf Erden?: Mythenbildung als Form von Fremdwahrnehmung : der Südsee-Mythos in Schlüsselphasen der deutschen Literatur Anja Hall Königshausen & Neumann, 2008
  5. ^ "Montaigne's political and religious context" in The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne (Cambridge, 2005), p. 14 (cf. also Tom Conley, "The Essays and the New World" p. 80 in the same volume.)
  6. ^ Essay "Of Cannibals"
  7. ^ Terence Cave, How to Read Montaigne (London: Granta Books, 2007), pp. 81-82.
  8. ^ David El Kenz,"Massacres During the Wars of Religion", 2008
  9. ^ Anthony Pagden, The Fall of the Natural Man: the American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology. Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies.(Cambridge University Press, 1982)
  10. ^ The Myth of the Noble Savage, Ter Ellingson, (University of California, 2001), note p. 390.
  11. ^ (OED 'Savage', A,I,3)
  12. ^ (OED 'Savage' A, I, 3)
  13. ^ (Ellingson [2001], p. 377)
  14. ^ (Ellingson [2001], p. 389).
  15. ^ The European Mind, Paul Hazard (1680-1715) (Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books [1937], 1969), pp. 14-24 and passim
  16. ^ Doyle R. Quiggle, “Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqdan in New England: A Spanish-Islamic Tale in Cotton Mather's Christian Philosopher?” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, 64: 2 (Summer 2008): 1-32.
  17. ^ In 1859, journalist Horace Greeley, famous for his advice to "Go west, young man", used "Lo, The Poor Indian" as the title for a letter written from Colorado:
    I have learned to appreciate better than hitherto, and to make more allowance for, the dislike, aversion, contempt wherewith Indians are usually regarded by their white neighbors, and have been since the days of the Puritans. It needs but little familiarity with the actual, palpable aborigines to convince anyone that the poetic Indian -- the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow -- is only visible to the poet's eye. To the prosaic observer, the average Indian of the woods and prairies is a being who does little credit to human nature -- a slave of appetite and sloth, never emancipated from the tyranny of one animal passion save by the more ravenous demands of another. As I passed over those magnificent bottoms of the Kansas, which form the reservations of the Delawares, Potawatamies, etc., constituting the very best corn-lands on earth, and saw their owners sitting around the doors of their lodges at the height of the planting season and in as good, bright planting weather as sun and soil ever made, I could not help saying, “These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against His righteous decree.” -- "Lo! The Poor Indian!”, letter dated June 12, 1859, from An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)
    During the Indian wars of the late 19th century, white settlers, to whom Indians were “an inferior breed of men”, referred mockingly to the Indians as “Lo” or “Mr. Lo,” a deliberate misreading of Pope's famous passage. The term was also “a sarcastic reference to those eastern humanitarians whose idea of the Indian was so at variance with the frontiersman's bloodthirsty savage. "The Leavenworth, Kansas, Times and Conservative, for example, commented indignantly on the story of Thomas Alderdice, whose wife was captured and killed by Cheyennes: 'We wish some philanthropists who talk about civilizing the Indians, could have heard this unfortunate and almost broken-hearted man tell his story. We think they would at least have wavered a little in their opinion of the Lo family'", quoted by Louise Barnett, in Touched by Fire: the Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer (University of Nebraska Press [1986], 2006), pp. 107-108.
  18. ^ François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Encounter with the Mandurians, in Chapter IX of Telemachus, son of Ulysses, translated by Patrick Riley (Cambridge University Press, [1699] 1994), pp. 130-31. This didactic novel (arguably the first "boys' book") by the Archbishop of Cambrai, tutor to the seven-year-old grandson of Louis XIV, was perhaps the most internationally popular book of the 18th and early 19th centuries, a favorite of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Herder, Jefferson, Emerson, and countless others. Patrick Riley's translation is based on that of Tobias Smollett, 1776 (op cit p. xvii).
  19. ^ For the distinction between "hard" and "soft" primitivism see A. O, Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, Baltimore, I, 1935.
  20. ^ Erwin Panofsky, "Et in Arcadia Ego", in Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York: Doubleday, 1955).
  21. ^ Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker ([1771] London: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 292. Interestingly, One of the characters in Smollett's Humphry Clinker, Lieutenant Lismahago, is a kind of ludicrous noble savage. A proud and irascible Scotsman of good family and advancing years, Lismahago has been so poorly requited by the government for his services in the Canadian wars that he is planning to return to Canada to live out his days with his Native American common-law wife, in squalor but with more honor and decency than would be possible as a pauper at home.
  22. ^ Leviathan
  23. ^ See Paul Hazard, The European Mind (1680-1715) [1937], 1969), pp. 13-14, and passim.
  24. ^ J.B. Bury (2008). The Idea of Progress: an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth (second ed.). New York: Cosimo Press. p. 111. 
  25. ^ Jeremy Jennings (May 25, 2012). "'"Reason's Revenge: How a small group of radical philosophers made a world revolution and lost control of it to 'Rouseauist fanatics (magazine).  
  26. ^ a b c Benjamin Franklin (1982). "Chapter 5: The Philosopher as Savage". Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rationale for the American Revolution. Ipswich, Massachusetts: Gambit, Inc.  
  27. ^ Lovejoy (1923, 1948 p, 21.
  28. ^ Voltaire was no believer in human equality: "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.
  29. ^ See Ter Ellingson (2001).
  30. ^ In a recent review of a book discussing Steven Pinker, 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" (Peter Gay, "Breeding Is Fundamental: Jenny Davidson reflects on Enlightenment ideas about human perfectibility", Book Forum [April/May 2009]).
  31. ^ Originally published in Modern Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186, Lovejoy's essay was reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, [1948, 1955, and 1960], is also available on Jstor. See also Victor Gourevitch, "Nothing in Rousseau's account of men in the pre-political state of nature justifies calling them "noble savages," in Rousseau: The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Victor Gourevitch, Editor (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought [1997] 2004).
  32. ^ (Lovejoy (1960), p. 23)
  33. ^ Lovejoy attributes the invention of the term to Turgot in 1750, but, according to him, it was Rousseau who gave it wide currency. See Lovejoy (1960), p. 24,
  34. ^ Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, as quoted in Lovejoy (1960), p. 27.
  35. ^ "Rousseau's theory of human nature here, in short, is identical with that of Hobbes", Lovejoy (1960), p. 27.
  36. ^ See Lovejoy (1960), p. 31.
  37. ^ Lovejoy (1960), p. 36.
  38. ^ See reference to Frederick E. Hoxie's review of Ter Ellingson's Myth of the Noble Savage in note 32 below.
  39. ^ a b c For an account of Dickens's article see Moore, "Reappraising Dickens's 'Noble Savage'" (2002): 236-243.
  40. ^ Lillian Nayder, “The Cannibal, the Nurse, and the Cook in Dickens’s ‘The Frozen Deep'”, Victorian Literature and Culture 19 (1991):1.
  41. ^ See Lillian Nayder (1991), p. 3
  42. ^ Nadyer notes: In their order of appearance, Dickens’s articles are: 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers,' (December 2, 1854); 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers' (December 9, 1854); 'The Lost English Sailors' (February 14, 1857); and 'Official Patriotism' (April 25, 1857). Dr. Rae’s articles are 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers' (December 23, 1854); 'Dr. Rae’s Report to the Secretary of the Admiralty' (December 30, 1854); and 'Sir John Franklin and His Crews' (February 3, 1855)".
  43. ^ (Nayder [1991], p. 7).
  44. ^ On cannibalism, see, for example: , Nov. 11, 2009.Times Literary SupplementRobert Douglas-Fairhurst, "The Arctic heart of darkness: How heroic lies replaced hideous reality after the grim death of John Franklin",
  45. ^ See Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The True Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002).
  46. ^ quoted in Ellingson (2001), p. 273.
  47. ^ William Oddie Dickens and Carlyle: the Question of Influence (London: Centenary) pp. 135–42
  48. ^ “Dickens and the Indian Mutiny”, Dickensian 68 (January 1972), 3–15
  49. ^ Myron Magnet, Dickens and the Social Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), pp. 3–4
  50. ^ Grace Moore, Dickens And Empire: Discourses Of Class, Race And Colonialism In The Works Of Charles Dickens (Nineteenth Century Series) (Ashgate: 2004)
  51. ^ See Ellingson (2001), pp. 249-323.
  52. ^ History page: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The Ethnological Society later merged with the Anthropological Society of London to form the Institute.
  53. ^ Hunt went on to found the rival Anthropological Society of London, with a mission of "promoting the study of Anthropology in a strictly scientific manner" and focused on the issue of race. Like the Ethnological Society, Hunt's Anthropological Society later merged into the Royal Anthropological Institute.
  54. ^ "'"John Crawfurd — 'two separate races. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  55. ^ Hoxie Neale Fairchild, The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism (New York, 1928).
  56. ^ Ellingson (2001), p. 4.
  57. ^ Ellingson (2001), p. 380.
  58. ^ "British and Indian Identities in a Picture by Benjamin West", Leslie Kaye Reinhardt, Eighteenth-Century Studies 31: 3 (Spring 1998): 283-305.
  59. ^ McGregor, Craig (January 30, 1972). "Nice Boy From the Bronx?". The New York Times. 
  60. ^ For an appraisal of Roger Sandall, see Patrick Wolfe in The Anthropological Book Review, Sept., 2001.
  61. ^ Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford, University Press, 1996), p. 5.
  62. ^ Ad Borsboom, The Savage In European Social Thought: A Prelude To The Conceptualization Of The Divergent Peoples and Cultures Of Australia and Oceania, KILTV, 1988, 419.
  63. ^ Robey, Tim (30 November 2013). "Tim Robey recommends...The Lone Ranger". The Telegraph. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  64. ^ King, C. Richard (2009). Media Images and Representations. Infobase Publishing. p. 22. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 

Further reading

  • Barnett, Louise. Touched by Fire: the Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer. University of Nebraska Press [1986], 2006.
  • Barzun, Jacques (2000). From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: Harper Collins. pp. 282–294, and passim.
  • Bataille, Gretchen, M. and Silet Charles L., editors. Introduction by Vine Deloria, Jr. The Pretend Indian: Images of Native Americans in the Movies. Iowa State University Press, 1980*Berkhofer, Robert F. "The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present"
  • Boas, George ([1933] 1966). The Happy Beast in French Thought in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Reprinted by Octagon Press in 1966.
  • Boas, George ([1948] 1997). Primitivism and Related Ideas in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Bordewich, Fergus M. "Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century"
  • Bury, J.B. (1920). The Idea of Progress: an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth. (Reprint) New York: Cosimo Press, 2008.
  • Edgerton, Robert (1992). Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-02-908925-5
  • Edwards, Brendan Frederick R. (2008) "'He Scarcely Resembles the Real Man': images of the Indian in popular culture". Website: Our Legacy. Material relating to First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, found in Saskatchewan cultural and heritage collections.
  • Ellingson, Ter. (2001). The Myth of the Noble Savage (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press).
  • Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object
  • Fairchild, Hoxie Neale (1928). The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism (New York)
  • Fitzgerald, Margaret Mary ([1947] 1976). First Follow Nature: Primitivism in English Poetry 1725-1750. New York: Kings Crown Press. Reprinted New York: Octagon Press.
  • Fryd, Vivien Green (1995). "Rereading the Indian in Benjamin West's 'Death of General Wolfe.'" American Art, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Spring, 1995), pp. 72–85.
  • Hazard, Paul ([1937]1947). The European Mind (1690–1715). Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books.
  • Keeley, Lawrence H. (1996) War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford: University Press.
  • Krech, Shepard (2000). The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-32100-5
  • LeBlanc, Steven (2003). Constant battles: the myth of the peaceful, noble savage. New York : St Martin's Press ISBN 0-312-31089-7
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. (1923, 1943). “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, ” Modern Philology Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186. Reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948 and 1960.
  • A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas ([1935] 1965). Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Reprinted by Octagon Books, 1965. ISBN 0-374-95130-6
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O. and George Boas. (1935). A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas, vol. 1. Baltimore.
  • Moore, Grace (2004). Dickens And Empire: Discourses Of Class, Race And Colonialism In The Works Of Charles Dickens (Nineteenth Century Series). Ashgate.
  • Olupọna, Jacob Obafẹmi Kẹhinde, Editor. (2003) Beyond primitivism: indigenous religious traditions and modernity. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-27319-6, ISBN 978-0-415-27319-0
  • Pagden, Anthony (1982). The Fall of the Natural Man: The American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pinker, Steven (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking ISBN 0-670-03151-8
  • Sandall, Roger (2001). The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Reinhardt, Leslie Kaye. "British and Indian Identities in a Picture by Benjamin West". Eighteenth-Century Studies 31: 3 (Spring 1998): 283-30
  • Rollins, Peter C. and John E. O'Connor, editors (1998). Hollywood's Indian : the Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.
  • Tinker, Chaunchy Brewster (1922). Nature's Simple Plan: a phase of radical thought in the mid-eighteenth century. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Torgovnick, Marianna (1991). Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago)
  • Whitney, Lois Payne (1934). Primitivism and the Idea of Progress in English Popular Literature of the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press
  • Eric R. Wolf (1982). Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

External links

  • Massacres during the Wars of Religion: The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre: a foundational event
  • The New Yorker from The Blank SlateLouis Menand. "What Comes Naturally". A review of Steven Pinker's
  • . April / May 2009Book ForumPeter Gay. "Breeding is Fundamental".
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