The term "noble savage" expresses the concept of the so-called “natural man,” untouched by the supposedly corrupting influences of civilization. The term is founded on the belief that in a state of nature, human beings are essentially good. Their evil impulses and destructive behaviors, holds the theory, manifest only as a result of societal stresses.
The concept of the noble savage has existed in various forms since the dawn of time. It was embodied in the character Enkiddu, the wild but good man who lived in harmony with animals, in the ancient epic of Gilgamesh. The Biblical shepherd boy David also falls into this category. Indeed, religious literature is rife with the theme that withdrawal from society — and specifically from cities — has a salutary effect on one's moral and spiritual development. The republican writings of Cicero and Lucretius likewise dealt with the theme of man living in a state of nature.
During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western literature spotlighted the indigene or "savage" -- and later, increasingly, the "good savage" -- to show Europeans just how morally decrepit their supposedly advanced civilization was. While religious wars were causing mass slaughters and a horrifying breakdown of civility across the continent, Michel de Montaigne, who was Catholic, penned his famous essay "Of Cannibals" in 1587. In that work, the author noted that the Tupinamba people of Brazil, who ceremoniously ate the corpses of their slain enemies as a matter of honor, were not nearly as barbarous as Europeans who killed one another over disputes about religion. "One calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to," wrote Montaigne.
The actual phrase “noble savage” first appeared in 1672 in John Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada. The term was subsequently identified with the idealized figure of "nature's gentleman," which was an aspect of eighteenth-century sentimentalism -- a movement in literature and philosophy typified by a conscious effort to induce emotion, coupled with a firmly rooted belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. At that time, the word "savage" did not connote cruelty as it does today, but rather the unencumbered freedom of an individual living in harmony with nature.
The Earl of Shaftesbury, a Whig supporter of constitutional monarchy, also advanced the notion that in a state of nature mankind was essentially good. In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue (1699), Shaftesbury proposed that people could form a proper sense of morality by way of their natural and innate emotions. There was no need, he said, for the indoctrination of any particular religion. In this formulation, Shaftesbury, like many of his contemporaries, was refuting Thomas Hobbes's famous assertion (in justification of royal absolutism) that in a state of nature men are depraved and their lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
At the start of the eighteenth century, a French travel writer, the Baron de Lahontan, wrote a memoir that included an account of his experiences while having lived among the Huron Indians for a period of time. He described one particular Canadian Indian, Adario, as the embodiment of the "good" (or "noble") savage who, though living in comparatively primitive conditions, was, in the author's estimation, immeasurably more enlightened than the purportedly more "civilized" Europeans:
"Adario sings the praises of Natural Religion. . . As against society he puts forward a sort of primitive Communism, of which the certain fruits are Justice and a happy life. . . . He looks with compassion on poor civilized man -- no courage, no strength, incapable of providing himself with food and shelter: a degenerate, a moral cretin, a figure of fun in his blue coat, his red hose, his black hat, his white plume and his green ribands. He never really lives because he is always torturing the life out of himself to clutch at wealth and honors which, even if he wins them, will prove to be but glittering illusions. . . . For science and the arts are but the parents of corruption. The Savage obeys the will of Nature, his kindly mother, therefore he is happy. It is civilized folk who are the real barbarians."
Lahontan's incendiary attacks on established religion and social customs were immensely popular during the first half of the 18th century.
It was also common for 17th- and 18th-century literature to take up the theme of voyages to distant, unspoiled, previously undiscovered lands untouched by Western modernity. The quality of life in these primitive outposts was typically depicted as superior to its Western counterpart.
In 1675, for instance, Denis Varaisse published History of the Sevarites, a novel about shipwrecked travelers who land on an unknown continent whose inhabitants had developed a deeply satisfying, socialist way of life that was free of Western preoccupations with wealth and status.
A year later, Gabriel de Foigny published The Southern Land, the story of a voyage to the still-unknown fifth part of the globe, where the travelers found an androgynous people who lived lives of complete freedom and innocence, knowing neither clothing nor government nor any concept of private property.
In the late 18th century, published accounts of the voyages of Captain James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville seemed to offer a glimpse into an unspoiled Edenic culture that still existed in the un-Christianized South Seas.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) contended, like Shaftesbury, that people were born with great potential for goodness -- but that civilization invariably corrupted them and alienated them from their higher selves. Notably, Rousseau himself never actually used the term "noble savage." He believed that in a state of nature men are essentially animals, and that they become fully human only by accepting and abiding by a social contract. He looked upon the distant past -- the era preceding the formation of cities and civilizations -- as halcyon days when men were more or less universally equal, and thus untroubled by envy and greed. As a corollary to this perspective, Rousseau saw private property, and the desire to acquire ever-more of it, as the root cause of human suffering. He famously wrote:
"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine,' and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
A similar perspective is characteristic of the modern-day socialist left, which routinely romanticizes the "noble savage" who is without property and technology. The left readily whitewashes and forgives the unsavory or barbaric elements of non-Western "noble savages" all over the world, but spares no energy in condemning the ills and transgressions of the West. And finally, the left has inherited Rousseau's contempt for private property and the capitalist economic system that is founded upon it.