Europeans of the fifteenth century undertook a daunting task: to explore the entire world. Looking back on it today, we can see that the sheer size of this venture would naturally impede the flow of accurate information about discoveries of new lands and peoples. Yet, it seems that pragmatic economic interests were always sufficient motivations for explorers to learn more. For instance, the entire outline of Africa was accurately marked out by the end of the fifteenth century, which reflects the explorers' initial interests in material resources and useful ports, and yet it took several hundred more years for any thorough or factual analyses about native cultures to emerge. Among the latter of such anthropological studies was the idea of the noble savage, which this essay will better explain after a relatively brief outline of history and a discussion of several relevant primary texts. It will be revealed that this concept was largely a reaction to earlier anti-native attitudes and other injustices of Western civilization, as well as a desire for a simpler, unindustrialized lifestyle. Most importantly, proponents of the noble savage aimed to turn the usual imperialist narrative on its head, and often contended that there is no absolute moral system or perfect world outlook. This philosophy, which we today have termed cultural relativism, is in direct opposition to the ethnocentric perspective, which argues that one's own values and customs are the same ideal for which all peoples of the world should strive. In travelogues and other popular literature of the fifteenth to eighteenth century we can see a plethora of attitudes and ideologies towards native African and Amerindian societies. Pertinent to this essay are those works that contain clear instances of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. In examining the particular concept of the noble savage, I argue that although the authors intended to praise native cultures objectively as independent value systems, they instead reaffirmed such cultures' otherness and exoticness by judging on the basis of contact with Europeans and in comparison to European values. It will become painstakingly clear that such authors meant to give the impression that their observations and evaluations of native culture were separate from their own European prejudices and acculturation, but fell far short of such a goal.
[...] All the same, Crusoe returns to European culture after his adventure, preserving Friday as the most unrefined and of the characters in this story, who thus deserves the most consideration in this essay. First, we can see that Friday has the innocence, trust, and naiveté of the (stereo)typical “noble savage.” Throughout the whole novel, Crusoe is Friday's teacher, continually reforming and developing him, almost as he would a child (ironically, Rosseau chose “Robinson Crusoe” as the only book that his young student, Emile was allowed to read). [...]
[...] As for their spirits, they are entirely savage and display the nature of a wild beast and are as far removed as possible from human kindness to one another; and speaking as they do with a shrill voice and cultivating none of the practices of civilized life as these are found among the rest of mankind, they present a striking contrast when considered in the light of our own customs. (Oldfather, 1935) In this we can begin to see what Katherine George (1958) identifies as explicit “negative prejudices” against seemingly strange, primitive societies. [...]
[...] Next, a close reading of Daniel Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) will further flesh out the “noble savage.” Crusoe's ethnic sidekick, Friday, is probably the most famous literary savage of all time, and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later critiqued civilization and praised natural man in his famous “Discourse on Inequality,” was certainly influenced by Friday, for he praised “Robinson Crusoe” as the best textbook of natural sciences in print. Given that, in his twenty-seven years stranded on the island, Robinson Crusoe befriends only one savage, one should well wonder what makes Friday so appealing and companionable to a European man. [...]
[...] Gommes Eannes deAzurara 1474), in writing about a recently converted group of New World natives, further articulates this blatantly ethnocentric idea that Western civilization was contributing to the improvement of primitive societies: And so their lot was now quite contrary of what it had been; since before they had lived in perdition of soul and body; of their souls, ain that they were yet pagans, without the clearness and the light of holy faith; and of their bodies, in that they lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings for they had no knowledge of bread or wine, and they were without the covering of clothes, or the lodgment of houses; and worse than all, through the great ignorance that was in them, in that they had no understanding of good, but only how to live in a bestial sloth. [...]
[...] Lastly, Montaigne quite literally “flips the script,” as he redefines the terms and “barbarous:” We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them In plain truth, these men are very savage in comparison of us; of necessity, they must either be absolutely so or else we are savages; for there is a vast difference between their manners and ours. He would allow and “barbarous” to be used as a consciously subjective term, but never as an absolute category. [...]
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