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:
- 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).
- Natural equality disappeared from the moment one man began to stand in
need of another (A Discourse..., 92).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Chapter 8 of The Social Contract develops a series of antitheses
between natural existence and civil society:
|Natural Existence||Civil 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 power||civil liberty, secure proprietorship based on respect for the law|
|individual strength||general will|
|from a stupid and unimaginative animal to an intelligent
being and a man (The Social Contract, 196)|
Rousseaus 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).