I used to believe that the idea of noble savage, that humans are innately well natured and corrupted into bad bahavior by socialization was originated by Rousseau. However, I just accidentally came upon Mencius, who predated Rousseau by about 2000 years and learned that he had a similar idea.

Is there any history of this (scientifically superseded) idea that revolves around the appeal to nature even before Mencius and who were some other exponents of that idea regardless of their position in history?

  • 1
    Mencius did not have the idea of the noble savage, so you're sourcing is off. He had the idea of the inherent goodness of humanity until corrupted (by upbringing) which is a bit different.
    – virmaior
    Jun 5, 2018 at 20:30
  • boils down to the same ballpark
    – amphibient
    Jun 5, 2018 at 20:41
  • 1
    I thought the term 'noble savage' went out during the early 20th century late 19th century with the collapse of the British empire. You may want to move your reading forward a few more decades... Jun 6, 2018 at 5:03
  • 2
    Please google before asking here, Wikipedia has the Pre-history of the noble savage.
    – Conifold
    Jun 6, 2018 at 21:48

2 Answers 2


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 ?

For :

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 nature:

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.

  • 1
    "Bon sauvage" is the french equivalent and Montaigne's development of the idea is famous. French wikipedia lists precedents as early as 1500.
    – sand1
    Jun 6, 2018 at 8:59
  • @sand1. Thanks for this information. I have revised my answer, the main substance of which remains : Rousseau did not endorse the idea of the noble savage and so the question of who anticipated him in regard to it, and when, doesn't arise. Or so it seems to me. But I appreciate your scholarly intervention. I'm always anxious to remove errors. I owe you. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 19, 2018 at 20:35
  • 1
    I have revised portions of my account of Rousseau in the light of JinSnow's highly pertinent objections. This does not imply JinSnow's agreement with my amended text.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 22, 2019 at 20:45
  • 2
    @GeoffreyThomas You are quite a surprising fellow. Your humility touches me. A classical answer, (the natural one, of human "state of nature"? ;-) ) would have replied the criticism with the exact opposite: it would have fought back, and certainly not have upvoted the opponent answer. I disagree with you on that topic (I believe "innocence" is "virtue") but I like you (I like your civilized/unnatural moral judgment ;-) ). The cultural evolution never ceases to amaze me.
    – JinSnow
    Oct 23, 2019 at 3:45
  • 1
    Thank you for your own, most civilised comment. My text was misleading (or worse) as it stood and couldn't be left as it was. You made me re-think. I can only be grateful for that. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 23, 2019 at 7:42

A part of the answer:

It's true that:

  • Rousseau did not invent the Noble Savage idea, which is much older (cf. below).

  • It's also true that he never used the phrase “noble savage” (or “the good savage”) but his writing shows that he was clearly believing on it. He believed that humans in the state of nature were blissful, nonviolent, altruistic, and non-competitive and that people were generally “nice” to each other. He believed that evil was foreign to mankind deep nature, that it was merely a perversion.

So he was carrying this belief (like many intellectuals of his time [and our]), and he contributed to promoting it.

So Geoffrey Thomas Statement "Rousseau did not endorse the idea of the noble savage" is false.

Rousseau wrote:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man…. The more we reflect on this state, the more convinced we shall be that it was the least subject of any to revolutions, the best for man and that nothing could have drawn him out of it but some fatal accident, which, for the public good, should never have happened. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species. 

It's pretty clear in French:

le principe de toute morale (...) est que l'homme est un être naturellement bon, aimant la justice et l'ordre ; qu'il n'y a point de perversité originelle dans le coeur humain, et que les premiers mouvements de la nature sont toujours droits"

(...) tous les vices qu'on impute au cœur humain ne lui sont point naturels (...) par l'altération successive de leur bonté originelle, les hommes deviennent enfin ce qu'ils sont.

 rien n’est si doux que lui dans son état primitif, lorsque, placé par la nature à des distances égales de la stupidité des brutes et des lumières funestes de l’homme civil, et borné également par l’instinct et par la raison à se garantir du mal qui le menace, il est retenu par la pitié naturelle de faire lui-même du mal à personne, sans y être porté par rien, même après en avoir reçu. Car, (...) il ne saurait y avoir d’injure où il n’y a point de propriété.

l’homme naît bon, c’est la société qui le corrompt

Le principe de toute morale (...) est que l'homme est un être naturellement bon, aimant la justice et l'ordre ; qu'il n'y a point de perversité originelle dans le coeur humain, et que les premiers mouvements de la nature sont toujours droits" (...) tous les vices qu'on impute au cœur humain ne lui sont point naturels (...) par l'altération successive de leur bonté originelle, les hommes deviennent enfin ce qu'ils sont.


  • Rousseau, Lettre à C. de Beaumont. Novembre 1762. La Pléiade, IV, p. 935 à 937.

  • Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes By Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Concerning the history of this myth

The noble savage idea myth is older than Rousseau (1750)

  • in 1670 John Dryden’s wrote in The Conquest of Granada

I am as free as Nature first made man, Ere the base laws of servitude began, When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

As Pinker explains in The Blank Slate: "The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization."

But the noble savage idea is older, and even much older (and probably as old as the second generation of homo sapiens) if you include on it the narcissist declaration "mankind is naturally so virtuous", or the "before it was better", or the concept of "we have been perverted by the progress/wealth, etc."

For instance:

  • In 1603 Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!

  • The idea that wisdom comes from a distant past (so before we have been perverted by [something]) has been found in one of the oldest writing (which suggests it's much older): 4500 years ago, Shuruppak's instructions begin by recalling "those far remote days" and "those far remote years" as the source of wisdom.

In the old days, a few decades after using the fire, some cave men Dudes might have blamed this "technological progress that perverted the people" of his time. He might have tried to live without fire, to find back the harmonious life his virtuous ancestors had before this great perversion.

Savages too ―like us― believe in noble savage.

(And in our turn, we might be seen as noble savages in few thousand years. But, I doubt it. I bet we'll be only seen as savage since we'd have left too many footprints of who we are! Greetings to the future, if we manage to make it!)

  • 1
    +1. A very good answer, which I am glad to upvote. Just a detail : do you equate 'good' and 'noble' ('bon and noble? It doesn't seem an exact equation to me, but I ask openly and not critically.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 22, 2019 at 17:39
  • I have revised my answer in the light of JinSnow's highly pertinent objections.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 22, 2019 at 20:33
  • @GeoffreyThomas you are right I equate 'good' and 'noble'. I don't understand, why do you think it's a mistake? (Please Thomas don't be cautious with me, don't spare me, you can be direct, I love confrontation).
    – JinSnow
    Oct 23, 2019 at 3:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.