He used to say, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”
But if he loses his soul, what has he gained in the end
I’ll take a shack on the rock Over a castle in the sand
Now he works all day and cries alone at night
It’s not getting any better Looks like he’s running out of time
‘Cause he worked and he built with his own two hands
And he poured all he had in a castle made with sand
But the wind and the rain are coming crashing in
Time will tell just how long his kingdom stands His kingdom stands
Casting Crowns, American Dream
Over the last few months, I have invoked images of traditional cultures and peoples with some regularity in the context of exploring human society and human nature. Inevitably, this has led to references to the Noble Savage. Perhaps it is time that explore the context and philosophy of the Noble Savage before attempting to push on any further.
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published his infamous tome of political philosophy: Leviathan. Hobbes may be considered one of the founders of the philosophical school of Empiricism: the belief that to understand the world and ourselves, we must look to the world itself for answers. He proposed that humans natural state was bellum omnium contra omnes or ‘war of all against all that the life of man without civilized society should be characterized as ‘solitary, poor, brutish and short.’ That he held this view is no wonder. England was in the midst of civil war as he wrote his masterwork. The Thirty Years War was just ending. European Colonialism was in full swing. His premise supported the moral imperative of civilized Europe to bring the ‘light’ of civilization to the ‘darkness’ of the rest of the world.
Of course, we know from previous discussions that European Colonialism was fundamentally driven by a need for resources. As noted then:
Discovery of the New World gave European man a markedly changed relationship to the resource base for civilized life. When Columbus set sail, there were roughly 24 acres of Europe per European. Life was a struggle to make the most of insufficient and unreliable resources. After Columbus stumbled upon the lands of an unsuspected hemisphere, and after monarchs and entrepreneurs began to make those lands available for European settlement and exploitation, a total of 120 acres of land per person was available in the expanded European habitat—five times the pre-Columbian figure! (Link)
In order to accomplish this feat of colonialism, local populations needed to be removed, or subjugated. Hobbes ideas supported the notion of white superiority and moral integrity, providing a moral framework for institutionalized racism.
As all philosophical works eventually inspire an alternate view, such was the case with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although he never used the phrase, his work has been categorized as ‘The Noble Savage’: the assumption that man is ‘naturally’ good, but that modern society corrupts that goodness. Again, placing his theories in context with the world he lived in helps in understanding where these ideas came from. His was the era of the American Revolution. It was a time when thinkers were exploring the ideas of individualism, personal liberty, and democratic government. It was the beginning of dis-colonialism around the world
In context with primitive society, racism and colonialism, the basic assumptions were reversed. Under Hobbesian ideas, it was morally righteous to give (or force) civilized behavior upon society. Under Rousseau, that righteousnous was reversed. Unfortunately, it left a new brand of racism in place: that of primitive people as children. Naive, sweet, loving creatures that, unfortunately, Europeans could never hope to emulate, but perhaps could protect from the vagaries of white culture.
Fortunately, out of the misnomers of Rousseaun thought and the development of Natural History, the science of Anthropology was born. Early studies wee heavily influenced by the assumptions of the noble savage, but in time, the idea began to fade as stark reality started to sink in. Primitive peoples, it turned out, were no more loving and pacifistic, kind and generous, nor ‘childlike’ than their European counterparts.
In fact, some of the cultures that have been documented over the years may be described as ‘savage’ or ‘immoral’ based upon European standards: from the ultra violence of the Amazonian Yanomami to the alternative sexuality of the Etoro. Once Anthropology began to accept these different variations in culture without moralization or cultural judgment both Rousseau’s doctrine of the Noble Savage and Hobbes’ assertion of ‘ solitary, poor, brutish and short’ could be dispensed with as far too simplified to have any real world meaning. Just the same, there are individuals that still accept one or the other assumption. But in the grand scheme of things, neither doctrine has been embraced by modern Anthropology.
In recent discussions of culture, civilization, sustainability and world issues, there has been a school of thought developing that looks to our primitive ancestors for guidance. Frequently, critics immediately assume that it is another instance of the ‘Noble Savage’ mythos recurring. In fact (in most cases), it is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a case of Hobbesian Empiricism applied to modern Anthropological data. However much we may like, or dislike, characteristics of various primitive cultures, there are a few characteristics that they all seem to share, and the one critical to our modern issues is that they all appear to be sustainable
So when we look at world problems now: all of them fundamentally driven by an unstable, unsustainable, exponentially growing culture, it becomes quite relevant and appropriate to consider how our culture differs from other cultures that do not exhibit the same problems. Better yet, if we find a whole class of cultures that are immune to our fundamental problem, then perhaps analyzing why and how they succeed where we fail will help us to succeed in turn.
(Originally Posted October 18, 2006)