We can read in Wikipedia (but also elsewhere) that "During the Age of Enlightenment, intellectuals rhetorically used the idealization of indigenous peoples as political criticism of European culture" (Wikipedia, Primitivism).

But as of examples of Enlightenment thinkers using the "noble savage myth" as a rethorical tool, I can think "only" of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Diderot's Addendum to the Journey of Bougainville (1796), and Voltaire's L'Ingénu (1767).

Are there some other authors? Hobbes surely was not one of them (cf. Bellum omnium contra omnes).

  • You might also look to anthropology, Mead's en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coming_of_Age_in_Samoa & Graeber's work on settling of Madagascar eg covered in this lecture youtu.be/_0oOod0nu3I plus the historical picture that agriculture was not a boon, eg Humanity' Worst Invention: Agriculture theecologist.org/2006/sep/22/… Debate still rages, eg Pinker stirred up controversy with his 'The Better Angels of Our Nature: a history of violence and humanity' saying hunter-gathering involved violence
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 17:16
  • You might like the mention of what the psycology of Hobbes' & Rousseau's views of human nature can tell us, here: 'Does Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis drives toward irrationalism and low self-control?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/98804/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 17:18
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    You have to consider Michel de Montaigne's Of Cannibals (1580) as well as de Brosses' Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Egypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie (1760) up to Joseph Marie, baron de Gérando's Considération sur les diverses méthodes à suivre dans l'observation des peuples sauvages (1800). Modern Ethnology and Anthropology originated with Enlightenment. Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 9:22
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA But did these authors idealized the indigeneous people (as did Rousseau and Diderot)?
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 12:17

2 Answers 2


One of the motifs of enlightenment thinking was the idea of the 'State of Nature'. This idea was used by a number of people — Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, etc — and was meant to imagine how human existence was prior to the higher-level structures of society, politics, economics, culture, and the like. All of those 'State of Nature' arguments (except Hobbes') imagined pre-societal humans as sophisticated and rational people, unsullied by the corruptions inherent in the social world around them.

'State of Nature' arguments were not meant to be realistic; they were intellectual abstractions meant to reimagine how higher-level structures could and should be reconstructed: they framed revolutionary ideals. But less sophisticated readers took them a bit too literally and projected them on to 'natives' — non-Western tribal societies — imbuing those natives with an idealized noble, rational, world-integrated persona that the anthropologists of the day tried to discover and explore. And this then led to the Colonial 'White-Man's Burden' justification where the now 'enlightened' Western societies had an obligation either to keep these 'natives' in their state of noble innocence, or drag them to enlightened understanding without allowing them to pass through the corrupting intermediary stages of ignorant forms of governance.

The idea of the 'noble savage' was a literary and cultural motif that drew on a poor understanding of the philosophical principles. It was never a significant part of the philosophical discussion itself, but (arguably) was used as a moral rationalization for the Colonial project as a whole.

  • I thought the idealization of the un-civilized (the noble savage), the un-educated (the child) was principally defended by the romantics, while the Enlightenment thinkers on the other hand defended scientific progress, and a democratization of knowledge
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 4:21

A lot depends on how you draw the lines around the Enlightenment and around philosophy. It would seem that the trope was of much more interest in art and literature than in philosophy. This article Noble savage - Wikipedia may help with that. Here's a passage that might interest you:-

In the philosophic debates of 17th-century Britain, the Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit was the Earl of Shaftesbury’s Ethical response to the political philosophy of Leviathan (1651), in which Thomas Hobbes defended absolute monarchy and justified centralized government as necessary because the condition of Man in the apolitical state of nature is a “war of all against all”, for which reason the lives of men and women are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” without the political organization of people and resources. The European Hobbes gave as example the American Indians as people living in the bellicose state of nature that precedes tribes and clans organizing into the societies that compose a civilization.[5]

The footnote takes you to a reference - Harrison, Ross. Locke, Hobbs, and Confusion's Masterpiece (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 70. If you have access to a good library you might like to track it down.


Out of sheer curiosity, I looked Hobbes up and searched for "America" in the text. The references are given below. I also checked on Locke's Essay and Second Treatise; I found three references in the former and no less than fifteen in the latter. Here are the references:-

Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:- 13, 20; 14, 20; 16, 6

The Second Treatise of Government:- 2, 14; 5, 27, 36, 37, 41, 43, 46, 48, 49; 7, 92; 8, 102, 105, 108; 16, 184,

An ancient, vague memory led me to look up his labour theory of value in Second Treatise chapter 5, esp. § 27. He doesn't mention America, but he is clearly thinking of a colonist in an unoccupied territory. So you might like to expand your range to include "state of nature".

HOBBES, Leviathan:-

10, § To Honour and Dishonour; 13, § The Incommodities Of Such A War; 20, § Objection Of Those That Say There Are No Principles Of Reason For Absolute Soveraignty; 46, § Private Interpretation Of Law

  • +1 Great contribution. I just learned.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 16:10
  • Thank you. Looked at the passages in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and The Second Treatise of Government, but I don't know, seem no particular idealization
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 12:25
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    I had a look too, of course. I was impressed by Locke. He never went there, so far as I know. But the comments he makes are very detailed and specific; there's no mention of savages, noble or otherwise; (If I remember right) he specifically distinguishes between tribal and "savage" cultures. I got the impression that he had talked to an American, and most likely not a colonist. He also mentions Peru and cites specific documentary sources. Hobbes seemed vaguer and less interesting.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 16:18

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