US Political Thought

Rousseau and the noble savage myth

A Supplement to Lecture 6

October 17, 1995

Consider these extracts from Rousseau, who among the major political philosophers of the Enlightenment is often cited as espousing the most sympathetic version of the noble savage myth:
  1. Men in a state of nature do not know good and evil, but their independence, along with “the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice”, keep them from doing ill (A Discourse..., 71-73).

  2. Natural equality disappeared “from the moment one man began to stand in need of another” (A Discourse..., 92).

  3. The first rules of justice develop only with the existence of private property, “for, to secure each man his own, it had to be possible for each to have something” (A Discourse..., 94). Rousseau clearly refers to distributive justice here.

  4. In general, the main thesis of A Discourse... is that inequality is the outgrowth of enlarged desires, but enlarged desires are essentially good in that only through them could any improvement in the human condition have come about. While these desires may originally have been narrowly material--more comfortable living conditions, better health, etc., they led dialectically, via the spawning of social interdependence--in fact, via the creation of “man” as a social being--to the notions of law, justice, civil liberties and popular sovereignty.

  5. Rousseau also recognizes that once the dynamics of accumulation (not just those of capitalism) have taken root in one society, others must follow suit or suffer conquest. Thus for broadly material reasons, civilization once established anywhere is inevitable everywhere and is in this sense a more advanced stage of existence.

    Rousseau also makes a sly ideological argument that parallels this: “as every advance made by the human species removes it still farther from its primitive state, the more discoveries we make, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of making the most important of all. Thus it is, in one sense, by our very study of man, that the knowledge of him is put out of our power” (A Discourse..., 43).

    While considered by itself this is an amoral logic, Rousseau finds in civilization not merely a morally edifying outcome, but the very creation of morality among humans, since it is only with the destruction of natural liberty that the need arises to establish civil liberty, that is, the rule of right over that of power.

  6. Chapter 8 of The Social Contract develops a series of antitheses between natural existence and civil society:

    Natural ExistenceCivil Society
    “the mere impulse to appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty” (The Social Contract, 196).
    natural liberty, possession based on personal powercivil liberty, secure proprietorship based on respect for the law
    individual strengthgeneral will
    from a “stupid and unimaginative animal” to “an intelligent being and a man” (The Social Contract, 196)

Rousseau’s summary of the contrast between natural and social existence eloquently attests to the underlying, Eurocentric valorization of European civilization in the critical version of the noble savage myth: “Although, in this state [civil society], he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man” (The Social Contract, 195-196).