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Eurocentrism and the noble savage

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  1. Europeans of the fifteenth century and exploring the world.
  2. Classical viewpoint on African cultures.
  3. Initial domination by the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish empires.
  4. How Columbus and his cohorts distorted what little knowledge was available to the rest of Europe about Amerindians.
  5. Michael de Montaigne's 1575 essay.
  6. Evidence that ?Oroonoko? was meant as a humanitarian and anti-slavery treaty.
  7. Crusoe's return to European culture after his adventure.

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. [...]


[...] It was written in the context of the French renaissance, and was in many ways a product of the period's discoveries and subsequent uncertainty, relativity, and ambiguity. To begin with, Montaigne situates his ideas as nonconformist, and credits the individual's of reason,? rather than ?vulgar opinion.? This pretense obviously suits his self-conscious disassociation with imperialist ideology and ethnocentrism, as he would like to convince the reader that he has detached himself from common attitudes and prejudices. He additionally voices his disapproval of boundless exploration, in that the pleasures of it are outstripping any real understanding of what (and who) has been found: eyes are bigger than our bellies.? He next legitimates his secondhand information on cannibals by arguing that his source was too much of an ?imbecile? to lie, as only ?well-bred? men with the ability to form opinions and biases are ever dishonest: This man that I had was a plain ignorant fellow, and therefore the more likely to tell truth: for your better bred sort of men are much more curious in their observation, 'tis true, and discover a great deal more, but then they gloss upon it, and to give the greater weight to what they deliver and allure your belief, they cannot forbear a little to alter the story; they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them, or as they would have them appear to you, and to gain the reputation of men of judgment, and the better to induce your faith, are willing to help out the business with something more than is really true, of their own invention. [...]

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