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The Noble Savage

Rousseau, or Lucretius?

Who were the noble savages? And where did they come from? In the history of political ideas, are they an original invention, or should we consider them a sort of Lost Tribe wandering in the forests of the human mind for centuries, to be rediscovered by that intrepid explorer of the democratic psyche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

The polemical advantages they offered are well known. Naked and unashamed, the artless simplicity of natural man contrasted with the insincerities of the overdressed Bourbon court: on the one hand seeming innocence and virtue; on the other, hypocrisy and vice. But what Rousseau found most useful for his libertarian political project was really something else—a way of imagining how humanity would look if the more onerous constraints of civilization were stripped away.

Man was born free, announced The Social Contract, but is everywhere in chains. This was a dramatic way of saying that freedom is always curtailed by social rules and conventions, and that power, privilege, and prestige have been unevenly distributed in every society ever known. Rousseau found this intolerable, and the Discourse on Inequality was a thought experiment in which he tried to imagine a human condition, as far from Versailles as anything could be, where no-one would ever be humbled by anyone else; where each man or woman, alone and in solitude, was psychologically safe from invidious comparison, from being rated, from feeling bad about their inadequacies—whatever those inadequacies might be.

The primordial state of nature

The fable of social evolution his Discourse on Inequality supplied, with its primordial green “state of nature” and its original naked human specimens standing about under the trees—each under his own tree, blissfully free or all social pressure and satisfied with nothing more than a bed of leaves to lie on and a handful of acorns to eat—presented the earliest men and women as isolates. And though supposedly happier than at any time since, they could hardly be said to be either moral or amoral. They just were, in a world without tribes or clans or families. In this hypothetical prelapsarian epoch solitary men and women came together for the purposes of copulation, parted, and silently went their mysterious ways—silently because language had yet to be invented.

The primordial world wasn’t perfect. Wild beasts had to be fought in the woods, water had to be found in the desert, and hunters had to go out daily to pursue and kill the deer and antelope they ate for food. All this was hard work. Doubtless some hunters were energetic and some were not, some men rose early each morning, while others were layabouts who kept putting things off. But a lazy hunter who starved had no-one to blame but himself. At least (thought Rousseau) even the most dilatory and irresolute savage, still loitering shiftlessly at the mouth of his cave when the sun went down, could not complain of

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes…

In the absence of “society” Hamlet’s frustrations would never arise. In the woods nobody would seek distinction or pridefully put on airs, nobody would be intimidated into trying to satisfy social expectations instead of fulfilling themselves, and everyone would be self-sufficient and free. Taken as the imaginative vision of a hypersensitive thinker trying to invent a world where nobody’s self-esteem would ever suffer, and even the most psychologically fragile would be shielded from mental hurt, this was not uninteresting. Taken as anything more it was risky. Taken as a guide for the egalitarian reform of society it was madness.

Where did it come from?

But whence the beatific vision? To whom do we owe this picture of primeval and presocial man? In their indispensable 1935 book Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas tell us that in the De rerum natura there are several intriguing parallels between the French thinker and Lucretius, and suggest that key elements in Rousseau’s account of primordiality may well have been borrowed from the Roman poet.

Anticipating Rousseau, primeval man in De rerum natura was also solitary, roving, and asocial, a creature whose way of life was crude, who mated casually, and who spent much of his time struggling against wild beasts. Both Lucretius and Rousseau see the invention of metallurgy and agriculture as bringing the downfall of this more-or-less idyllic Golden Age. And for both of them it is the latent military potential of these developments that ushers in an epoch of feuds and wars between tribes and states and empires.

But some elements in this account of social evolution were widespread in antiquity, and Rousseau could have found them almost anywhere. Much more significant, and a specific feature that points more strongly to direct borrowing from Lucretius, is the explanation in Book V of De rerum natura of why man fell from egalitarian grace into the world of ubiquitous ranking, the world of incessant rivalrous striving for distinction and power—of life lived in the mirror of social regard while pursuing wealth, honor, status, and prestige.

Here is Lucretius:

Men desired to become distinguished and powerful, so that their fortunes might remain established upon a firm foundation… (But this was in vain) since envy, like a thunderbolt, usually strikes the highest places and whatever things are raised up above others.

From which it follows that it is far better to be a subject and live in peace than to seek dominion in the state and to rule kingdoms. Let those, then, who struggle along the narrow path of ambition sweat blood and weary themselves in vain, since for them things have savor only through the mouths of other men and they pursue objects only because of what they have heard others say, rather than from their own feelings. (My italics, RS)

Lovejoy comments that here we can see Lucretius adumbrate “Rousseau’s account of the inner psychological causes” of the fall of man: “man’s amour-propre or fureur de se distinguer, and his strangely factitious desires, his tendency to crave things, not because they of themselves give him pleasure or serve his real needs, but because, under the corrupting influence of social suggestion, they seem to him necessary for the gratification of his self-esteem”. In Rousseau’s words:

Le sauvage vit en lui-même; l’homme sociable, toujours hors de lui, ne sait que vivre dans l’opinion des autres, et cest pour ainsi dire de leur seul jugement qu’il tire le sentiment de sa proper existence.

Blame Lucretius, not Rousseau

There are other indications that Rousseau may have found De rerum natura a useful source, and at one point in the Discourse on Inequality there is an allusion to what “the poet says” that appears to be pointing to Lucretius himself. They can all be found on pages 240 to 242 of Lovejoy and Boas’s book.

But does it matter? And why should we care? Let me suggest one reason why identifying Lucretius as the original discoverer of autonomous, solitary, self-sufficient savages might appeal to Rousseau’s defenders and devotees.

If we ask what single doctrine, phrase, and cliché is most publicly associated with their hero, and is normally regarded by ordinary people as his own original conception, the answer must be the Noble Savage. And if we then also ask what conception is widely regarded as the most ridiculous, the answer would be the same. Right from the start the Noble Savage was more a liability than an asset. It has been a cause for mockery and scorn ever since Voltaire annotated his copy of the Second Discourse with the comments “pitiful!” “ridiculous!”, and “what an idea!”

Naked simplicity looks entirely appropriate when presented by Lucretius in its poetic context, far away and long ago; but two thousand years later it is contradicted by all science tells us about the social life of the prehuman primates on the one hand, and of tribal societies on the other. Indeed, the picture it paints of mute human solitaries scattered through the woods, each sovereign unto itself, a picture elaborated by Rousseau solely to promote his view that all forms of society fatally corrupt the sincere, autonomous, free and radically independent self, amounts to one of the strangest images in all utopian speculation.

That is a pity. Elsewhere the Discourse on Inequality contains much psychological insight, historical erudition, and interesting personal observation; and if ordinary political commonsense is somewhat lacking, it does contain original political thought. In contrast, the vision offered of asocial primordiality needlessly strains the credulity of readers and damages the author’s credibility. One wonders, might it not help the philosopher’s reputation if it were bruited about that we needn’t blame Rousseau for these implausibilities at all? That the inarticulate and solitary Noble Savage wasn’t even his idea—he may just have lifted it in a momentary fit of authorial absent-mindedness from the work of a Latin poet of around 60BC?

Posted in Civilization, Arts and Letters, People, Tribalism.

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