"Rousseau's concept of the Noble Savage"
The Death of General Wolfe
Public DomainThe Death of General Wolfe - Credit: Benjamin West

The literary image of the Noble Savage is one of a figure who is uncorrupted by civilization and possesses an innocence that has been lost by civilized cultures.  From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the concept of the Noble Savage became a popular element in literature. Many early voyagers and travel writers proclaimed the “natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas.”

In English the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden’s heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672): "I am as free as nature first made man, Ere the base laws of servitude began, When wild in woods the noble savage ran."

In France "le bon sauvage" translated as "the good wild man." This character was an idealized portrayal of "Nature's Gentleman", associated with 18th-century sentimentalism and the general theme of virtue in the lowly born. The association of virtue with withdrawal from society — and specifically from cities — was a familiar theme in religious literature.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted that man was born with the potential for goodness, and argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. He however never specifically used the term "noble savage."  While some scholars have argued that Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality glorifies the State of Nature and promotes "primitivism," others argue against this interpretation.  Rousseau argued that in a state of nature men are essentially animals, and that only by acting together in civil society and binding themselves to its laws do they become men. Rousseau might thus be interpreted to suggest that only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make men good.