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Detail from Benjamin West‘s The Death of General Wolfe, 1770 (National Gallery of Canada)

Benjamin WestRA (10 October 1738 – 11 March 1820)

The Noble Savage

The term “noble savage” was first used by John Dryden (9 August 1631 – 1 May 1700) in The Conquest of Granada (1672) a two-part tragedy.  Moreover, playwright Thomas Southerne, the author of Oroonoko (1696), also depicted a noble savage except that his savage, or his man in the state of nature, is an African.  Southerne’s play is based on Aphra Behn’s novel about a dignified African prince enslaved in the British colony of Surinam.

Oroonoko kills Imoinda in a 1776 performance of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko.

Adario:  Rameau’s Indes galantes (1735)

You may recall that, in the fourth entrée or act of Jean-Philippe Rameau‘s (25 September 1683, Dijon – 12 September 1764) Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies), Zima, the daughter of an Amerindian chief, rejects her Spanish and French suitors to live with an Amerindian, a Huron, named Adario.

Yet, by 1735, Thomas Hobbes (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679) had written his Leviathan (1651) and, in Chapter XIII, entitled Of the Natural Condition of Mankind Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery, Hobbes had negated the idea that in the state of nature, man was good.  But such was not the opinion of the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, an English politician and philosopher.  Nor was it altogether John Locke‘s view of man in the state of nature, FRS (29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704).

Hobbes and John Locke were political philosophers.  But it would be useful to take into consideration various travel accounts that inspired writers such as John Dryden.  One traveller was the baron de Lahontan[i] who had depicted a noble savage or bon sauvage, a man in the state of nature portrayed not only as good, but as superior to Europeans.

Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan

Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan (9 June 1666 – prior to 1716) was a French baron who served in the French military, in New France, from 1683 to 1693, but, as I have noted above, also travelled in the Wisconsin and Minnesota region and the upper Mississippi Valley.  Lahontan deserted and upon his return to Europe, he published three books, the third of which is about Adario.  The titles are:

1. Les Nouveaux Voyages de M. le Baron de Lahontan dans l’Amérique septentrionale (a narrative of the Baron de Lahontan’s new trips to North America)
2. Les Mémoires de l’Amérique septentrionale (history of the territory, the settlers and the Amerindians)
3. Les Dialogues curieux entre l’auteur et un sauvage de bon sens qui a voyagé (The curious dialogues between the author and a sensible savage who has travelled)

Lahontan’s three books, published at The Hague in 1703, were bestsellers and they were translated into various languages.  It is therefore entirely possible that by giving the name Adario (The Rat) to the bon sauvage whom Zima chooses as her husband, Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683, Dijon – 12 September 1764), and his librettist Louis Fuzelier (1672 – 1752) were attesting to the popularity of Lahontan’s three books, the third in particularly.  Naming Zima’s bon sauvage Adario cannot be a mere coincidence, even if there were a number of Hurons named Adario.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

According to Lahontan, there are five areas in which Adario is depicted as morally superior to the French: religion, law, property, medicine and marriage. However, if we look at property, the third area in which Lahontan’s Adario is considered as superior to Europeans, the French in particularly, it is difficult to dismiss the idea that, on the subject of property, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was influenced, first, by Lahontan and, second, by Hobbes.

Adario tells Lahontan that among Amerindians, there is no “le tien et le mien” (yours and mine).  In this respect, there is a significant degree of affinity between Lahontan and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s  Discourse on Inequality (1754).

In the Second Part of the Discourse on Inequalityalso known as Second Discourse[ii], Rousseau writes that:

“[t]he first man who, having enclosed off a piece of land, got the idea
of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him
was the true founder of civil society.” (Second Part: first line)

And later:

“What crimes, what wars, what murders, what miseries and horrors would someone have spared the human race who, pulling out the stakes or filling in the ditch, had cried out to his fellows, ‘Stop listening to this imposter.  You are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to everyone and the earth belongs to no one.’” (Second Part: second line)

In Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, the “sovereign” has twelve principal rights, the seventh of which is “to prescribe the rules of civil law and property.”  But, as I noted above, it would be my opinion that, given the popularity of Lahontan’s books, Rousseau’s “This is mine” may have been Adario’s “le tien et le mien” (yours and mine), down to the very wording.  (First Part: two paragraphs after note 15) 

Moreover, it does not appear that “civil society” as first introduced in the Discours on Inequality is the society in which individuals have entered into a social contract (government) and where the rule of law prevails.  In the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques argued that “moral inequality is endemic to a civil society and relates to, and causes, differences in power and wealth. (Discourse on Inequality, Wikipedia)

Therefore, the “civil society” in which innate human goodness deteriorates when the innately good individual is no longer isolated or “savage,” would be plain society.  Civil society, as it is understood in the Social Contract, is a later development.

And savage man, deprived of every kind of enlightenment, experiences only the passions of the latter sort: his desires do not go beyond his physical needs. (Discourse on Inequality, (First Part).

According to Rousseau, man corrupts man.  Note that Rousseau uses the words “savage man,” hence his being associated with the idea of the “noble savage,” when in fact, Dryden coined the term “noble savage.”[iii]

Rousseau believed in the concept of innate human goodness, a concept he would express at greater length in Émile, ou, De l’éducation, 4 vol. (1762), but reaffirm in his Confessions (written 1765–70) and his Dreams of a Solitary Walker (1776–78).  In Émile, ou, De l’éducation Rousseau writes that:

Tout est bien sortant des mains de l’Auteur des choses, tout dégénère entre les mains de l’homme.” (Émile, ou, De l’éducation, Livre premier) 
God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. (Émile, Project Gutenberg, Chapter 1).

There are further chapters to the history of the noble savage which can be presented in a later blog.  But, before pausing, I will mention a book quoted by the author of Wikipedia’s entry of the Discourse on InequalityThe book is entitled The bully culture: enlightenment, romanticism, and the transcendental pretense, 1750-1850 and it was published in 1992 by Robert Solomon.  The 1992 edition seems a second edition.  The following is a quotation from Solomon’s book (pp.59-61):  “The two fundamental principles of Rousseau’s natural man are his natural, non-destructive love of self (amour de soi-même), and pity/compassion for the suffering of others (‘another principle which has escaped Hobbes’).”


[i] Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan, Baron de Lahontan (9 June 1666 – prior to 1716), known as Lahontan or le baron de Lahontan published his three books at The Hague in 1703.

[ii] The first Discourse, entited the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences was written in 1750 in response to an add that appeared in a 1749 issue of the Mercure de France, a newspaper.  It was a prize competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon and the subject to be discussed was the following question: “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral character?”  Rousseau won first prize in the competition.

[iii] “The Noble Savage,” The Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed on October 25, 2012 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/416988/noble-savage

© Micheline Walker
26 October 2012
G. Tartini: Concerto for violin, strings & b.c. in G major (D 76) / L’Arte dell’Arco
The Sociat Contract: Hobbes, Locked and Rousseau
Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes