Rousseau’s Noble Savage

Rousseau was a French philosopher who thought humans had become decadent through playing too much tennis and eating cucumber sandwichs on the lawn, instead of wrestling naked and invading other nations like the ancient Greeks.

He believed we had lost our ‘state of nature’ and have been corrupted by civilization. Man is no longer natural, but full of artifices and social politeness that disguises our original nature.

Rousseau believes that because we have lost our natural state, it cannot be observed. He forumulates his conception of human nature through a hypothetical reconstruction of history. He engages in armchair anthropology in order to strip away the artifices of civilized man, to separate what we have become through civilization from what we were  prior to this corruption.

Through this process, Rousseau envisages a ‘noble savage,’ man without society, alone amidst the elements. He thinks of original man as being a tough loner, healthy and robust, uncorrupted by the disease and decadence of modern society. Man was full of strength and vigour, living a hunter/gatherer lifestyle.

Rouseau said he (original man) had ‘rustic morals’, which I think means that he was impolite and would club other people over the head to get what he wants, but at least he didn’t lie and pretend that he was a nice person. This is the concept of a ‘noble savage’ – strong, determined, occasionally violent, rude but an open book, direct and honest. What you see is what you get.

Rousseau imagined that in this state man was entirely satisfied by his natural surroundings, eating fruit, drinking from the nearest stream, sleeping under the nearest tree. Because he hasn’t been corrupted by society he wants for nothing except food, water and shelter.

The question this raises is, if man were so satisfied in this state why would he change? Why did society and civilization come about? Why did people move into this supposedly inferior lifestyle?

Rousseau’s answer is that man underwent two social revolutions which lead to this corruption.

  1. The first social revolution occured as humans banded together to protect themselves from wild animals and other groups of people. They formed into tribal family units for strength in numbers. Rousseau saw man as still being largely uncorrupted by this first revolution. Some disputes over private property emerged, but man was still generally uncivilized.
  2. The second revolution brought about a huge change. Man developed agriculture and metallurgy which lead to a population explosion. This caused increased desire through comparison with neighbours and fighting over limited resources. People flocked into large cities for protection as well as acquisition of personal property. This was the beginning of civilization with division of labour and the origin of corrupt power structures.

The state of humanity following this second social revolution is similar to Hobbes’ state of nature, where people are in constant mutual enmity with each other competing for power and property. The difference is that Hobbes sees this as humans in a state of nature, whereas Rousseau views this as corrupted man. It is not, he argues, a natural state but a corruption.

Rousseau thought that we have lost our original state of nature and it can no longer be retrieved. We cannot go back.

He thought the best we could now do would be institute direct democracy amongst small republics (e.g. city sates) much like ancient Greece. Here the people enter into a social contract, like Hobbes’ Leviathan, but rather than accept sovereign rule they agree to follow the ‘general will’ of the society. The direct democracy establishes general will and people have to follow it. He says people are ‘forced to be free’.


In some ways Rousseau’s view of human nature is appealing. It’s a nice idea to think of ‘natural man’ frolicking in the garden of eden wanting nothing and living from nature. It’s also easy to side with the view that civilization corrupts people and can bring out the less appealing elements of humanity.

But I disagree that these elements are unnatural and not part of human nature.

The main issue I take with Rousseau’s philosophy is its entirely hypothetically method and difficult to analyze, as you end up debating with Rousseau’s imagination rather than observable patterns.

I also find it hard to imagine man in this original state as being entirely unsocial, not anti-social but devoid of sociality, as a complete loner. Humans seem, from what can be observed, to be entirely social animals, possibly the most social animal.

Rousseau would respond that man has become a social animal through corruption, that man passed through a pre-social stage of development and underwent some kind of fundemental change that lead to sociality.

However, to maintain this position then one would also need to explain the origins of language of society. This is something Rousseau, to my knowledge, never managed to do. If man was satisfied being this noble-savage loner, then why did language and society develop when he wouldn’t have needed or wanted either?

I believe language and society are evidence that man is and always has been a social animal. I disagree with his hypothetical reconstruction method, thinking it better to analyse human nature through observing history and unfolding development and patterns. From this method, it would seem that man is by nature social and has an ongoing desire for socialization, development and change.

Our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, such chimpanzees, are entirely social animals even without developments like agriculture and metallurgy. I see no reason to think man would have been different.

The main fault I see in Rousseau’s theory of human nature is his idea of the unsocial man. Many of the things he views as artificial corruption through civilization I tend to see as evidence of human nature and more in line with Hobbes’ view – desire, competition, warfare.

I also think his solution of direct democracy is an idealistic dream that is not practical and even potentially dangerous. A direct democracy, without the restrictions present in constitutional monrachy or representative democracy under a constitution, could easily lead to a tyranny of the masses. If the majority vote to oppress or attack a minority, this would in theory be deemed the general will and therefore acceptable.

Rousseau forms his political solution mainly through having a positive view of human morality and human nature. Man is generally good when left to his own devices in a ‘state of nature’, it is only corrupt power structures brought about through civilized society that are bad.

As I disagree with his theory of human nature and tend to side more with Hobbes’, although more towards the neutral than negative view, I don’t trust direct democracy and the inherent goodness of man. I think checks and balances are needed to prevent a tyranny of the masses of runaway mass hysteria, which I see as elements of human nature.

In summary, Rousseau basically thinks man was originally this good-guy noble savage who was by nature morally good and it’s only the evils of society that have corrupted us and made us bad. We cannot go back so the best solution now is direct democracy to allow this ineherently good nature to be expressed through the general will of the people. I think Rousseau’s concept is fatally flawed by denying the inherent sociability of man and tend to be less optimistic of humanity in ‘a state of nature’.


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