Sexy Idea #1: Rousseau’s Noble Savage

Some ideas are “sexy,” ahem, because they baffle the imagination and excite the intellect (or vice versa). Rousseau’s noble savage is a case in point.

In the hands of other philosophers, the state of nature bears fewer dimensions than it possesses in Rousseau’s. For Rousseau begins with an express acknowledgement of this concept’s arbitrary nature.

The second Discourse, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), allows Rousseau to again air his grievances with civil society, just as he did to great effect in the first Discourse, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1749). But where the latter is content to gainsay the conventional wisdom that the effects of the arts and sciences are salubrious and edifying, the former is Rousseau’s opportunity to attack everything. In brief, the second Discourse holds that civil society’s effect has been wholly perverse, corruptive, and that a cycle of violence and a temporary reprieve therefrom is all that awaits us.

To arrive at this conclusion, Rousseau must begin with an account of the state of nature—the state that nature will deface and derange.

And yet, he writes, into this concept it is nearly impossible to have insight.

The reason for this is that human being has changed so dramatically over time. It is striking that Rousseau should say such a thing, being that it is tantamount to saying that there is no state of nature.

Consider for yourself, momentarily, what’s meant when we speak of human nature. It’s frequently appealed to in order to explain why greed is expected, selfishness is natural, men are dominant, or women are so emotional.

In other words, human nature is kind of a rhetorical deus ex machina. Why did he/she/it do it? Human nature. It’s an argumentative pillow. Something to prop up other statements confirming one’s own conclusions and (back to rhetoric) a kind of coup de grace to an otherwise interesting discussion.

The thing is that human nature most frequently expresses a quite common view, a notion unscathed by intellectual scrutiny because “everyone knows that …”

Whereas, when Rousseau points to human nature, he explicitly says that this is a false, unlikely notion, but one that is necessary in order to explain and judge the origin of inequality. And when he finally explains what the noble savage is truly like, it’s not what had been commonly thought.

To be clear, when Rousseau says that he needs a concept of human nature, he’s saying that we need a principle or model to use to judge the present state of human life. We cannot use what we already know about human life, for against this criteria human being will always find justification. Moreover, Rousseau is critiquing contemporaries’ accounts of human nature. They begin and end with one and the same concept; their conclusions always agree with their presuppositions.

How does Rousseau defend his concept of human nature?

First, he says that the concept is a necessary starting point in order to account for the origin of inequality and political discord. Second, he draws on nascent anthropological accounts from the New World, like his contemporaries casting the civilizations found there as a glimpse into the past of human being. Of course, the conclusions he draws from these accounts are quite different (although they may still be patronizing and projective). Third, he draws connections between humans and animals. Fourth, he sublimates theological notions.

Detail from Brueghel the Elder’s Triumph of Death (1562). I have no idea why I included this, except that, you need to know about this.
And with no more delay …

Rousseau’s concept of human nature involves three distinct groups of features. First, he thinks all animals possess

  • a drive for self-preservation and
  • a natural aversion to the suffering of others.

Humans—the noble savage, if you will—are distinguished from animals only in two traits, namely their

  • perfectibility and
  • free will.

Finally, human in the state of nature do not have—and here Rousseau breaks with the Western tradition—reason, language, and social existence.

So why, you might ask, is this concept so freaking sexy, such that it makes you want to sing Rick James’ “Superfreak” with the word idea in place of girl? [Surely it’s not just me …]

In part, it’s because Rousseau is so tremendously petulant in the face of the philosophical tradition. Philosophers had almost unanimously held, up until this point, that human beings are rational beings. Say what you will about hedgehogs and foxes, both think that the soul possesses a rational part. But not Rousseau. The consequences of this view could not be more dramatic. Why don’t they possess reason? Reason is unnecessary, and like a good transcendental thinker Rousseau knows there must be conditions of possibility for something’s existence. Humans do not need reason, for they live separately and know no language. In fact, reason, language, and society are mutually conditioning in such a way that none can exist without the others.

Second, the origin of language! About which, I’ll say nothing because it deserves its own post [or maybe you could just read the damned book already!].

Third, perfectibility and free will are the most bizarre versions of these seemingly familiar concepts. Rousseau wrests so much away from free will that one might ask to what degree it is free will. If beings are not rational, they cannot be free because reason is what makes free will free. When actions do not emerge from conscious choices, they are not called free. Freedom is not freedom to do what you want to do, to ride your machine, to ride your machine without being hassled by the man, and … to get loaded. Regardless of what Peter Fonda’s character may pine for in The Wild Angels (1966). Instead, it’s just the capacity to act contrary to one’s instincts, like a dog that holds its pee for no good reason. That is not a hyperbolic analogy.

Just as free will should be scare quoted, so should perfectibility. Humans have this funny habit of using words that have a certain meaning to express certain ideas and not others. So they are perplexed when someone talks about perfectibility but without an end (perfection) and contrary to any notion of perfection. Rousseau means a non-rational ability to develop new habits, not a striving for perfection (the latter being impossible given the non-rational state of human being in the state of nature).

Finally, self-preservation, held in common with animals, just means striving for what prolongs one’s own existence, but it is complemented by an aversion to other’s suffering as the latter keeps one from coming into conflict with others.

Having said these things, we can also see that Rousseau sublimates a theological notion. Recall that Rousseau was Swiss and raised in Geneva and therefore brought up in the heart of Calvinism. The story of the second Discourse is the story of the fall, which, as any good student of Calvinism knows, is the sine qua non. Humans are initially in a state of near perfection, a kind of Eden, but eventually they are corrupted (the fall). That is, even though they have this human nature, eventually they change to adopt a series of features at odds with their original human nature. So, Rousseau has sublimated a theological notion into a mythic account of natural law.

If you’re interested in other writings about philosophy, consider my blurb on whether philosophy does film.