Noble savage

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A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of the indigene, outsider, wild human, an "other" who has not been "corrupted" by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness.


  • Americans divide Indians into two categories: the noble savage and the howling savage. The noble savage is seen as the appealing but doomed victim of the inevitable evolution of humanity from primitive to postindustrial social orders. The American belief in progress and evolution makes this a particularly difficult idea to dislodge, even though it is a root cause of the genocide practiced against American Indians since the colonial period. This attitude, which I characterize as the Progressive Fallacy, allows American Indians victim status only. And while its adherents suffer some anguish when encountering the brutal facts of exterminationist policies, they inevitably shrug resignedly and say—quite directly—that Indians have to assimilate or perish. So while the Progressives allow the noble savage to be the guardian of the wilds and on occasion the conscience of ecological responsibility, the end result of their view for Indians is the same as its counterpart view of American Indians as howling denizens of a terrifying wilderness.
  • Historically the focus on resistance had powerful political uses in emancipating individuals from feudal authority. The priority of the individual was an artificial device, which (although everywhere contradicted by the real life dependency of individuals on hierarchical social structures) helped to free men from bondage. The fiction preceded the reality: in fact, the fiction created the reality, for it was meant not as a defense of preexisting individuals against encroaching authority, but a justification for the forging of individuals from socially constructed subjects. The point was not to legitimize natural individuals, but to legitimize individuation in the face of "natural" (historical and traditional) collectivism. The "natural" man was merely a hypothetical contrivance whose wholly rhetorical significance was not to be mistaken for the kind of anthropological conjectures that would in time be favored by the romantics (noble savages and all that).
    • Nancy L. Rosenblum, Liberalism and the Moral Life (1989), p. 60

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