Considered from our 21st century standpoint, the term noble savage is patronizing and condescending. But if the phrase itself leaves something to be desired, the thoughts behind it are somewhat more complex.
From at least the time that Michel de Montaigne wrote his famous essay “Of Cannibals” in 1580, Western intellectuals have debated the merits of so-called primitive societies. Montaigne took the high road of moral relativism, finding just as much savagery in the conduct of his contemporary Europeans as in that displayed by denizens of the New World. “One calls ‘barbarism’ whatever he is not accustomed to,” he concluded.
Another early reference comes in John Dryden’s play The Conquest of Granada (1672), which advocated shucking off the veneer of civilization: “I am as free as Nature first made man, Ere the base laws of servitude began, When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” From this lyrical expression there emerged a line of thought that emphasized the social and political freedom of Indigenous Peoples and their direct sustenance by and relations with nature.
Eventually, after explorers began encountering Indigenous Peoples in the course of their voyages westward, the vision of the noble savage became a means of critiquing the class-based, aristocratic and politically absolutist states that held sway in many European countries.
Philosophers began talking about individual freedoms in terms of the political practices of the indigenous communities. Europeans found that the consensus-based political processes of Indigenous Peoples were strikingly different from their own system of political centralization and control of power and wealth, in which few people voted or could wholly express their views with complete impunity.
This passage from Fénelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (1699) sums up that attitude admirably: “We abhor that brutality which under the specious names of ambition and glory…desolates the Earth, and destroys mankind.… We prize nothing but health, frugality, liberty, freedom, and vigor both of body and of mind; we cultivate only the love of virtue, the fear of the gods.… ”
By contrast, those who defended the European political and social status quo countered with the blood-stained image of the primitive savage. In his classic treatise Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes said that the authority and control of absolute monarchy was essential because the life of Indigenous Peoples was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” People in the state of nature, Hobbes argued, were engaged in a “war of all against all” if they did not have an absolutist monarch around to command order.
Indigenous Peoples, though, had social and political governments for thousands of years before Hobbes was born. Benjamin Franklin, who knew Indians well, observed that “Having frequent occasions to hold public councils, they have acquired great order and decency in conducting themselves.” However, as European and American interests turned to acquiring indigenous lands and moving farther west, images of primitive or bloody savages became more prominent as a means of justifying the subordination of Indian government and appropriation of Indian land and resources.
It is therefore ironic that the cultures and political visions of Indigenous Peoples were forged well before the arrival of Europeans—who then appropriated selected aspects of indigenous political understanding by enshrining the noble savage. As it is, most indigenous nations did not have a tradition of surviving through political repression or economic marginalization. There was no central cultural vision that the people sought to escape political domination. Indigenous nations had specific territories and were usually formed through consensus-based means.
Indeed, indigenous communities generally believed that their origins, powers, goals, and purposes came not from brute strength or realpolitik, but from the spirit world. Indigenous nations did not subordinate their beliefs to other nations or empires. Indigenous nations were autonomous, had specific national spiritual beliefs, were consensus driven, and politically egalitarian. And in those cases when an empire like that of the Aztecs arose, the subordinated nations were highly resentful and rebellious.
Thus, there is more to the two words noble savage than meets the eye. When Europeans regarded indigenous nations as noble, they meant to convey that they were not subordinated to hierarchical political rule by a centralized government, ruling class or other nation. Little did they suspect, though, that the roots of indigenous political autonomy lay deeply ingrained in the original spiritual instructions—and that behind their glib moniker was a long history and tradition of personal and national autonomy as a spiritually ordained way of being.