Romantic Primitivism or the Myth of the Noble Savage

In my earlier post I made a point that it appears that economic development is actually saving the Amazonian rainforest. There are some who have taken a bit of an issue with this position.

Let’s think about this for a minute.

Why would that be true? Actually if you think about it, it is pretty easy to conceptualize how that premise could be true – and provably so.

The basics of human survival are:

  • A safe and secure food source
  • Clothing appropriate to the climate
  • A habitable and sanitary living space

Increases/improvements in human development/technology bring:

  • With respect to food sources –
    • More productive land allowing greater production in a smaller space
    • Development of aquaculture (fish farming)
    • Better and cheaper transportation to allow the food to get to the people (doesn’t have to be produced in the Amazon rainforest)
    • Improved food security and storage to allow longer shelf-life, disease and less spoilage
  • With respect to clothing;
    • Higher clothing tech to fit climate extremes
    • Cheaper and less harmful materials (think Under Armor)
    • Industrialization brings mass production and lower cost per unit
    • Better transportation makes for more choices and greater availability
  • Habitation
    • Sewage systems, refuse disposal and indoor plumbing
    • Ability to heat and cool to offset the environmental extremes
    • Man-made materials can substitute for natural materials
    • Electricity extends the day

So it is pretty easy to make the case that human technological evolution has lessened the need for inefficient tech, like stripping the rainforest for subsistence farming, isn’t it. So would not these sensitive areas benefit from development in other, less sensitive geographies of the world/countries? Would not this development not take the heat off the rainforests?

I think that they do.

Yet there still seem to be those who would deny the benefits of modernity with the world due to a myth, that being the myth of the “noble savage”. Whether or not they know it, people who believe that native civilizations are better off left to their idyllic hunter/gatherer, live in Mother Gaia’s bosom, back to nature existence are making this argument. That’s really the subtext behind the “back to nature”, anti-development, blow up the dams, anti-energy development movements.

The theory of the “noble savage” or romantic primitivism is, in literature and philosophy, an idealized concept of uncivilized man, a savage who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization. It presupposes that before technology and development, men and women were living in an innocent and harmonious state with nature, that they were basically living as Adam and Eve.

That’s sounds great, what with all unicorn riding and my personal favorite, the romping around semi-naked and whatnot – but unfortunately this is less of a real theory and more of a myth.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the major political philosophers of the Enlightenment often cited as espousing the most sympathetic version of the noble savage myth. Extracting the basics of this myth from his writings, we find these from a Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men and The Social Contract:

  • Men in a state of nature do not know good and evil, but their independence, along with “the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice”, keep them from doing ill (A Discourse…, 71-73).
  • Natural equality disappeared “from the moment one man began to stand in need of another” (A Discourse…, 92).
  • The first rules of justice develop only with the existence of private property, “for, to secure each man his own, it had to be possible for each to have something” (A Discourse…, 94). Rousseau clearly refers to distributive justice here.
  • In general, the main thesis of A Discourse… is that inequality is the outgrowth of enlarged desires, but enlarged desires are essentially good in that only through them could any improvement in the human condition have come about. While these desires may originally have been narrowly material–more comfortable living conditions, better health, etc., they led dialectically, via the spawning of social interdependence–in fact, via the creation of “man” as a social being–to the notions of law, justice, civil liberties and popular sovereignty.
  • Rousseau also recognizes that once the dynamics of accumulation (not just those of capitalism) have taken root in one society, others must follow suit or suffer conquest. Thus for broadly material reasons, civilization once established anywhere is inevitable everywhere and is in this sense a more advanced stage of existence.
    • Rousseau also makes a sly ideological argument that parallels this: “as every advance made by the human species removes it still farther from its primitive state, the more discoveries we make, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of making the most important of all. Thus it is, in one sense, by our very study of man, that the knowledge of him is put out of our power” (A Discourse…, 43).
    • While considered by itself this is an amoral logic, Rousseau finds in civilization not merely a morally edifying outcome, but the very creation of morality among humans, since it is only with the destruction of natural liberty that the need arises to establish civil liberty, that is, the rule of right over that of power.

Chapter 8 of The Social Contract develops a series of antitheses between natural existence and civil society:

Natural Existence/Civil Society dichotomies were:

  • Instinct/Justice
  • Amoral/Moral
  • Appetite/Reason
    • “the mere impulse to appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty” (The Social Contract, 196)
  • natural liberty, possession based on personal power/ civil liberty, secure proprietorship based on respect for the law
  • Individual strength/general will

I’m about 50/50 with old Jean-Jacques. There is not much in Rousseau’s philosophy that I agree with on an intellectual level but every now and again, my views collide with one of his points. I’ve always been a little suspicious of him because while he is credited with being the father of classical republicanism and the inspiration for the French Revolution, he was rarely mentioned by our Founding Fathers.

According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. Submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. This is where we part company, Rousseau’s theories of republicanism are too close to collectivism for me – remember, communism is theorized as the dictatorship of the proletariat – a supposed perfect democracy.

I am in agreement with his summary of the contrast between natural and social existence. While they attest to the underlying, Eurocentric view of the superiority of European civilization in the critical analysis of the noble savage myth, I can understand his view that the tradeoffs we make for modernity and civilization do far outweigh the negatives. In The Social Contract, he states:

“Although, in this state [civil society], he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it forever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man”

Another view of the “noble savage myth” is offered by noted writer (and socialist), H.G.Wells, in his novel, The Time Machine. The sympathetic language he used in descriptions in Chapters 3 and 4 illustrate romantic notion of the ignorant simplicity of the Eloi:

He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive – that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much. At the sight of him I suddenly regained confidence. I took my hands from the machine.In another moment we were standing face to face, I and this fragile thing out of futurity. He came straight up to me and laughed into my eyes. The absence from his bearing of any sign of fear struck me at once. Then he turned to the two others who were following him and spoke to them in a strange and very sweet and liquid tongue.There were others coming, and presently a little group of perhaps eight or ten of these exquisite creatures were about me. One of them addressed me. It came into my head, oddly enough, that my voice was too harsh and deep for them. So I shook my head, and, pointing to my ears, shook it again. He came a step forward, hesitated, and then touched my hand. Then I felt other soft little tentacles upon my back and shoulders. They wanted to make sure I was real. There was nothing in this at all alarming. Indeed, there was something in these pretty little people that inspired confidence – a graceful gentleness, a certain childlike ease. And besides, they looked so frail that I could fancy myself flinging the whole dozen of them about like nine-pins. But I made a sudden motion to warn them when I saw their little pink hands feeling at the Time Machine. Happily then, when it was not too late, I thought of a danger I had hitherto forgotten, and reaching over the bars of the machine I unscrewed the little levers that would set it in motion, and put these in my pocket. Then I turned again to see what I could do in the way of communication.And then, looking more nearly into their features, I saw some further peculiarities in their Dresden-china type of prettiness. Their hair, which was uniformly curly, came to a sharp end at the neck and cheek; there was not the faintest suggestion of it on the face, and their ears were singularly minute. The mouths were small, with bright red, rather thin lips, and the little chins ran to a point. The eyes were large and mild; and – this may seem egotism on my part – I fancied even that there was a certain lack of the interest I might have expected in them.

I point this out to note that I read and hear similar sympathetic/romantic words used when speaking of less civilized societies – even as these societies have limited defenses against injury, disease, famine and natural disasters. Given our levels of comfort and protection, Rousseau might have been on to something when discussing the leverage value of an evolving civilization.

You might also note similar imagery in the main stream media reporting on the #OWS crackpots. There have been many, many attempts to link them with the “glory days” of the 60’s counterculture to the point of equating them with the Civil Rights movement and the harsh and abusive treatment suffered by those participating in those marches, risking their lives doing so. They have also been likened to the non-violent protests of Gandhi and others. The Civil Rights leaders and Gandhi faced personal harm, imprisonment and death. Coming on the heels of reports like this:

Most of the roughly 300 Occupy L.A. protesters were released from jail by Friday evening, with some immediately speaking out on the police raid that cleared their camp.

One speaker suggested that some of those arrested might need therapy. Several said they felt traumatized after witnessing police use nonlethal force and being forced to wait for hours in zip-tie handcuffs. Some displayed cuts on their wrists from the handcuffs. Others complained that they were forced to urinate in bags on the bus as they were transported to jails.

One speaker urged others to document any complaints. “Make note of every single violation of human rights,” she told those assembled.

…these comparisons are laughable as much for their obsequiousness as they are for the lack of truth they represent. To liken this rabble to the Civil Rights marchers is particularly galling and indicates how desperate for a narrative “progressives” and their willing media accomplices really are.

Therapy, my sweet Mississippi ass…What the Hell for? A bruised ego and a dose of reality? Adam Carolla was right, these are the first “adult” members of the “Everybody Gets a Trophy Generation” wanting to know where their awards are and when to pile in the minivan for the trip to Chucky Cheese for the free all-you-can-eat pizza and Coke.

So there’s my argument in both practical and philosophical contexts. I could be wrong, I could be right. Since I tend to run a little to the confident (arrogant) side, I happen to think that I am right and absent of external stimuli, I will self-validate my position – but unlike most arrogant personalities, I am not so fragile in belief and position that I can’t take an opposing view – I would certainly like to hear other points of view (even if there is a great possibility that you are wrong – just kidding!)

What say ye?

10 thoughts on “Romantic Primitivism or the Myth of the Noble Savage

  1. “In general, the main thesis of A Discourse… is that inequality is the outgrowth of enlarged desires, but enlarged desires are essentially good in that only through them could any improvement in the human condition have come about.”

    How can you not like Rousseau?

    • Before it became “official” and not just some half-assed blog post, I would clean it up and get all scholarly on it’s ass.

      I didn’t do much research on this other that to validate what I remembered from reading Rousseau, so I would need to dig a little deeper to make it worthy of publication elsewhere – but it is yours if you want it.

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