Noble savage

From Academic Kids

A noble savage is a person who belongs to an “uncivilized” group or tribe and is considered to be, consequently, more worthy than people who live within civilization. Many writers and thinkers through the centuries of Western civilization have believed in the noble savage. The expression is particularly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The term noble savage expresses a romantic concept of humankind as unencumbered by civilization; the natural essence of the unfettered person. The concept symbolizes the idea that without the bounds of civilization, man is essentially good. The concept has particularly associations with romantic philosophy, especially that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and with romanticism in general. However, the phrase noble savage first appeared in a work of John Dryden in 1672.

The concept appears in many books of the 18th and 19th centuries. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein forms one of the better-known examples: her monster embodies the ideal. German author Karl May employed the idea extensively in his Wild West stories. Aldous Huxley provided a later example in his novel Brave New World (published in 1932).

The concept of the "noble savage", because it is somewhat unrealistic, condescending, and frequently based on (or the basis of) certain stereotypes, is frequently considered a form of racism, even when it replaces the old savage blood-thirsty stereotype of the Indian.


Around the 15th century certain European states began expanding overseas, initially in Africa, later in Asia and in the Americas. In general, they sought mineral resources (such as silver and gold), land (for the cultivation of export crops such as rice and sugar, and the cultivation of other foodstuffs to support mining communities) and labor (to work in mines and plantations). In some cases, colonisers killed the indigenous people. In other cases, the people became incorporated into the expanding states to serve as labor.

Although Europeans recognized these people to be human beings, they had no plans to treat them as equals politically or economically, and also began to speak of them as inferior socially and psychologically. In part through this and similar processes, Europeans developed a notion of "the primitive" and "the savage" that legitimized genocide and ethnocide on the one hand, and European domination on the other. This discourse extended to people of Africa, Asia, and Oceania as European colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism expanded.

The myth of the "noble savage" may have served, in part, as an attempt to re-establish the value of indigenous lifestyles and delegitimatize imperial excesses - establishing exotic humans as morally superior in order to counter-balance the perceived political and economic inferiorities.

Attributes of the "noble savage" often included:

  • Living in harmony with Nature
  • Absence of crime
  • Innocence
  • Inability to lie
  • Physical health
  • Moral courage
  • Lack of sexual inhibitions

Twentieth-century popular culture expressed its inherited views of the "noble savage" in the mythic figures of "Tarzan" and "Conan the Barbarian", both of them imagined as Caucasians. The very meaning of "barbarian" in contemporary popular culture has become sympathetically colored through similar fantasies.

Further reading

  • Fabian, Time and the Other
  • Wolf, Europe and the People without History
  • Torgovnick, Gone Primitive

See also


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