Whatever the date of origin of the concept of 'the noble savage', you might find Bruce G. Trigger's 'Reviewed Work(s): The Myth of the Noble Savage by Ter Ellingson', The International History Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 136-137, of interest. Note his remarks on Rousseau. In a very compressed nutshell, and gently put, since Rousseau did not endorse the idea of the noble savage neither Mencius or anyone else anticipated him in regard to it. Accepting with virmaior that Mencius did not have the idea of the Noble Savage, we appear to have a case of Mencius, who did not have the idea, not anticipating Rousseau, who also did not have the idea. Two interesting negatives ! But let's get down to answering the question as far as concerns Rousseau.
Ter Ellingson. The Myth of the Noble Savage. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2001. Pp. xxii, 445.
Hoxie Fairchild, in his book The Noble Savage (1928), defined the Noble Savage
as 'any free and wild [human] being who draws directly from nature virtues which
raise doubts as to the value of civilization' (p. 2). The Noble Savage, according to
Fairchild, 'represents a protest against the evil incidental to human progress' (p.
2). Ter Ellingson demonstrates that the Noble Savage was a much rarer specimen
and with very different plumage than most scholars imagine.
Ellingson traces the concept of the Noble Savage back to the French lawyer
Marc Lescarbot's account of the Micmac Indians he encountered in Acadia in
1606-7. Lescarbot's chief reason for calling them noble was that Indian men
hunted, which in France was one of the prerogatives of the nobility. Lescarbot
enumerated what he regarded as both the vices and the virtues of the Indians and
compared these attributes with those of Europeans. This pattern, followed at least
since thirteenth-century European descriptions of the Mongols, would persist into
the nineteenth century.
NB: the dating of the 'noble savage' to Lescarbot is a point I cannot verify. My main answer concerns Rousseau, however, and is unaffected by this point.
After Lescarbot, Ellingson finds few traces of the concept of the Noble Savage
until the mid-nineteenth century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau did not employ the term
or believe that primitive peoples could be either good or bad, as he held that this
distinction had evolved along with civilization. The conceptualization of primitive
human beings acquired increasingly negative connotations as a result of Enlightenment progressivism, growing racism, and finally Darwinian evolution. Each of
these intellectual movements encouraged the view that early humans represented
the antithesis of European cultural achievements.
NB: The statement that 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau did not ... believe that primitive peoples could be either good or bad, as he held that this
distinction had evolved along with civilization' needs examination, which I attempt below.
Ellingson establishes that the concept of the Noble Savage was popularized,
beginning in 1859, by ... John Crawfurd... Crawfurd attributed the concept to social reformers and
anarchists, whom he accused of seeking to use unduly optimistic hypotheses about
human nature to promote their Utopian social agendas. ...
Ellingson makes two important contributions to understanding the concept of
the Noble Savage. The first is establishing the rarity of this term between the times
of Lescarbot and Crawfurd. This conclusion can be confirmed by rereading Fairchild's voluminous survey of literature which he regarded as exemplifying the idea of the Noble Savage, but in which the term almost never occurs. Ellingson also
establishes that, from the early eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century,
accounts of indigenous peoples increasingly stressed their primitive and negative
characteristics to accord better with evolutionary and racist themes.
Ellingson contends that Crawfurd fabricated the concept of the Noble Savage as
an 'apparent absurdity' (p. 2) intended to incite disbelief and facilitate rhetorical
attacks and even genocide against indigenous peoples, as well as to assert anthropology's fundamental loyalty to its own culture. These probably were Crawfurd's
goals, but his creation, as it was understood by others, appears to have elicited a
broader range of reactions than Ellingson considers. The Wendat historian and
philosopher, Georges Sioui, maintains that, regardless of their form, the Adario
dialogues published by the French nobleman baron de Lahontan, far from being
fantasies or fabrications, express beliefs that are authentically Wendat, and that
these and similar Amerindian ideas, when introduced to France, led directly to the
French Revolution. The substance of Lahontan's description of Huron values is
confirmed by the Jesuit Relations, which were not written by revolutionaries.
Ethnographic data emanating from New France nourished the Enlightenment
belief in the essential goodness of humanity, while evidence that societies did not
have to be based on hereditary classes, physical coercion, or rampant social in-
equality has played a significant role in reshaping Western societies over the past
250 years. Lewis Henry Morgan, Karl Marx, and some modern anthropologists
have envisaged social evolution as a project that ideally recreates the desirable aspects of simpler, more egalitarian societies within the context of technologically
advanced civilizations. Romantics disgruntled by modern industrial societies have
consistently idealized simpler ones. For people who know nothing about Crawfurd, the Noble Savage has become a label for what they admire about small-scale
societies. The concept of the Noble Savage, as it is understood today, is neither all
positive nor all negative in terms of its conceptualizations and impacts; like most
concepts in the social sciences, it is multivalent and contested.
Natural goodness and badness
In the part 1 of the Second Discourse [Rousseau] describes
our original or natural condition through a portrait of
savage man's basically solitary existence in the pure
state of nature. In the part 2 he discusses the state of
nature simply - the prepolitical condition eventually
ended by the social contract (John T. Scott, 'The Theodicy of the Second Discourse: The "Pure State of Nature" and Rousseau's Political
Thought', The American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Sep., 1992), pp. 696-711: 696).
State of nature
The pure state of
nature in the Second Discourse is the condition where
humans exist as purely physical beings, that is,
possessed solely of the instincts, passions, and faculties with which they are endowed by (physical)
nature. Humans originally or naturally lack moral
needs or passions, that is, needs or passions with
particular, conscious regard for their fellow humans.
Such needs and passions, Rousseau argues, only
develop when individuals begin to have constant
relations with their fellow humans. Rousseau defines
a moral being as "intelligent, free, and considered in
its relations with other beings" (1964, 94). The natural
man whom he describes in the pure state of nature is
manifestly not a moral being according to his definition: while he may be said to be "free" in the sense
that he enjoys "natural freedom" (p. 127)-or what
Rousseau equates with "an unlimited right to everything that tempts him and that he can get" (Social
Contract 1.8), he is not "intelligent" nor does he have
"relations with other beings" or the passions associated with such relations. (Scott: 699; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1964. The First and Second Discourses.
Trans. Roger D. and Judith R. Masters. New York: St.
Martin's; 94, 127.)
In the pure state of nature, then, it looks as if human beings cannot be either morally good or morally bad. But is the appearance the reality ?
Rousseau claims that he has demonstrated that man
is naturally good and that he has thereby justified
nature (Masters: 1964, 193). He later explains that the natural
goodness of man is central to his system of thought,
as when he exposed the "fundamental principle" of
all of his writings, namely, "that man is naturally
good, loving justice and order, that there is no
original perversity in the human heart, and that the
first movements of nature are always right" (1959-69,
vol. 4, pp. 935-36). Rousseau's demonstration of the
natural goodness of man in the Second Discourse
consists in his portrait of savage man's natural condition in the pure state of nature as a physical being
embedded in (physical) nature. ...[L]et me take up what Rousseau means by
our natural goodness.
We usually brand attributions of goodness as moral
judgments - even as matters of "value" distinct from
those of "fact." Rousseau, however, does not use
good in a moral sense and even takes it in a sense
compatible with matters of physics. Rousseau's conception of goodness becomes clear when, after his
description of the pure state of nature, he wonders
what kind of mortality we could be said to possess by
It seems at first that men in that state, not having
amongst themselves any moral relationship or known
duties, could be neither good nor evil, and had neither
vices nor virtues: unless, taking these words in a physical
sense, one calls vices in the individual the qualities that
can harm his own preservation, and virtues the those
that can contribute to it; in which case, it would be
necessary to call the most virtuous the one who least
resists the simple impulses of nature. (Masters: 1964, 128)
But Rousseau wants to add that it is perfectly possible for human beings to act as morality requires, and thus to love justice and order and to fulfil morally right intentions, without having any concept of morality. So it is misleading for Scott to say that 'Rousseau, however, does not use
good in a moral sense'. He does. Only, in the state of nature we act morally without knowing that we do.
In other words by 'the simple impulses of nature' human beings, whether in the relatively solitary pure state of nature or in what Rousseau calls merely the 'state of nature' in Part II of the Second Discourse, where there are multiple and regular social interactions but before the competitive emotions mediated by the institution of private property set in, human beings can act as morality requires and have a spontaneous inclination to do so with yet 'no idea of moral goodness.