The Noble Savage needs to be Buried

stanley tribal attack noble savage

A lot of problems in the world today can be blamed on the “noble savage” concept. I commented in a previous article that Filipinos are bogged down by a primitivist mentality. For example, I notice in nostalgia webpages comments by some who wish they could go back and live in the 1800s or times without technology (even thought they comment using technology) because they perceive such times to be simpler and easier. Rather than “Filipino dumbness” or laziness to think, I would attribute it to Filipinos having bought into the noble savage myth.

The noble savage is more of a literary character. The savage is perceived to be clean and blameless because he is uncivilized. When the character meets civilization, either comedy or tragedy result. The best known noble savage character is probably Tarzan of the Jungle. Modern examples include the tribe in the movie Avatar and Nixau in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

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The noble savage concept is quite old. Enkidu in Sumerian mythology is considered a noble savage. Before Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan’s creator), writers such as John Milton and John Dryden already made use of the concept. But aside from literary use, some people also became enamored with it as a philosophical ideal, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. I will focus on Rousseau next because James Lindsay of New Discourses has an interesting take on it.

Rousseau’s Social Contract

As Lindsay puts it, during the Age of Exploration, Rousseau read the reports of missionaries and explorers about tribal societies in the far-off lands and misinterpreted them to mean that such societies were better than modern European society. He, being a romanticist and anti-rationalist, concluded that the savage is noble and unsullied, while European society with its advancements was corrupt.

So he came up with the Social Contract concept, where individuals have to give up some (or all) of their rights to the state and the state will take care of them as long as they adhere to the state’s will (Rousseau was a fervent statist). Rousseau also thought that human leaders should be able to change human nature to make that perfect world possible. The resulting idea was the savage made to live in cities as a concept of the ideal man. This idea found its way into Marxism as the communist or Soviet man.

The Social Contract seems to be a continuation of tribal law that oversteps individualism. In some tribes, the idea is that the individual must be subsumed to the will of the tribe. You can’t have a different idea, different creativity, different opinion, so on. If you do, you can be bullied, beaten up, or even exiled or killed, as this is what tribes tend to do. This is the tyranny of the majority and it opposes modern ideas of John Locke’s liberalism and inalienable rights, which is the operating principle of free and prosperous societies. Rousseau wanted to go backward, not forward.

Some people today take the Social Contract concept for granted and assume that it’s a good device for overcoming the selfishness of people and that it follows religious belief. However, they likely believe this without understanding the actual history. I wonder if it occurred to them that the Social Contract’s proposal was no different from people being the serfs or subjects of the lord or king. Rousseau just took an old, common idea and made it look like something new.

To question the Social Contract, one can raise up the imperfection of people. The leaders expected to overcome the perceived selfishness of others under the Social Contract are themselves people who also can be selfish. So this is a problem of giving perfect power to those who are imperfect, which can result (and has resulted) in tyranny and abuse.

A tree is known by its fruits, says the Bible. The fruits of Marxism and the Social Contract are the French Revolution and all the deaths from Communism.

Fudging Biblical Understanding

Speaking of the Bible, I believe that another influence on the noble savage concept was Biblical misinterpretation that was perpetuated around the time of Augustine (people like Origen, who came centuries before him, were still in tune with the original understanding of scripture). Under the misinterpretation, which is commonly believed today, Eden was a primeval forest or jungle. Adam and Eve were innocent Tarzan and Jane savages who did not work and just got food from trees as long as they did not eat from one specific tree. Then they got “knowledge” from that tree (they’re no longer noble savages) and by obtaining scientific and rational skills and ideas, or by being civilized, they became sinful.

Modern Biblical scholars like Michael Heiser and John Walton, who read the original Hebrew scripts, say that the passage is archetypal or symbolic. Adam and Eve were were archetypes of humanity serving as priest and priestess in the garden that was God’s temple. Lush, perfect gardens is where deities live according to Ancient Near Eastern culture. God set up his abode on earth to live with his creation. But Adam and Eve were not freeloaders; they had work to do there. They were not savages but already civilized. Taking the forbidden fruit meant that they refused the work and the civility that God provided them, so they became savages in effect. The “fruit of knowledge of good and evil” was also a symbol of their deciding to judge morality for themselves rather than following what was already set up by God, the actual determiner of morality. In other words, they wanted to oppose the order of the universe.

Philosophers of the 1700s-1800s though did not have the benefit of modern updated Biblical scholarship and so probably had nothing to steer them away from the noble savage misconception. Rousseau and Marx still believed in Eden and thought that humanity, without God, can build it. Marx thought that communism as practiced by tribal societies was the way to achieve this. So Marxism was in essence trying to achieve divine results with earthly efforts.

But Marxism believes that “capitalists” or the civilized people living in western society, opposite of the communist noble savage and holders of traditional religion, are blocking the way to the communist Eden. So these should be killed. In that sense, Marxism and its dialectic method continue all the savagery of old tribes.

Colonialism Actually Helps

The term “noble savage” is a contradictory one for me. Our knowledge of history should be corrected about how savage old tribes really were. Many of them, whether Asian, Native American or African, were engaged in wars with each other and committed atrocities. Sub-Saharan African and Arab tribes traded in slaves. “Noble” came in only when they decided to stop wars and believe that slavery is wrong, and this often came about because of colonialism (case in point, American occupying government in the Philippines getting Benguet tribes to stop headhunting).

This was the point of a controversial paper published a few years back titled The Case for Colonialism, which spelled out many other benefits. Colonialism is a mixed bag, but even Simon Webb said that it did benefit colonized peoples. The benefits include scientific and technological advancement being shared, but also ideas like liberalism and human rights. Those who vehemently slammed the paper were likely Marxists and those who hold on to the noble savage concept.

In the Filipino context, much work is needed to bury the noble savage myth. I would daresay that many parts of the country are still in “savage” level. Filipinos still identify more with their tribes and language groups rather than the bigger picture. Filipino culture regards intellectualism and science with suspicion. “Gut feel” and subjectiveness are valued over logic. So when the communist insurgency arrives, it makes things worse. The journey away from the savage may take long, but it must continue.

I also say we can modernize without sacrificing tribal identity. Some tribes are still savage, like the Sentinelese. But there are also tribes that have changed their culture and are more open to inalienable rights and western values, as well as technology, without needing to compromise their tribal identity. It can be done. And then there are “civilized” men, like Rousseau and Marx, who thought it was better to alienate humans from their rights for the sake of Utopia. They are the savages.

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