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May 26, 2007


andy n

i always thought, to give the line a little more context, "to sleep with pocahontas and find out how she felt in the morning on the fields of green" was not just a simple jungle-love trope but also expressed a more complex desire to actually experience the world through her eyes/senses. no?

Yuval Taylor

Well, no. First, there are better ways to find out how a squaw feels than to sleep with her. Second, he's a trapper offering a thousand pelts, which is probably like you or me offering six years' salary. If it were pure empathy, why would he be offering so much? He clearly wants to pay for sex.

For comparison's sake, let's say you overheard some idiot white stoner say, "Man, I'd give a million dollars to sleep with a black slave girl. Well, I mean, that way I could find out how it felt to be a slave." Draw your own conclusions.

Yuval Taylor

In various 1970s Westerns--Jeremiah Johnson and perhaps Little Big Man too--the white man gets to sleep with an Indian girl because he has done something great for the Indian community. Sex with the squaw is offered as a reward. That's where the idea of giving a thousand pelts comes from. The desire of the squaw herself never enters into the equation.


"Roll Plymouth Rock" from the completed "Smile" by Brian Wilson, lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, about the despoliation of the noble Indians' relationship to nature, continues the "noble savage" theme. Full circle for Wilson, since the first Beach Boys album had an original version of "Ten Little Indians," which I can't listen to (and I love the Beach Boys).


It is "folklore that Rousseau invented the trope of the Noble Savage.

I refer readers to the following exchange, which appeared in Times Literary Supplement
Correspondence about a review of a book by Steven Pinker:

"Noble Savage" Letter to the Times of London Literary Supplement

Sir, - It is time to bury the myth that Jean-Jacques Rousseau invented
the notion of the "noble savage." In both John R. G. Turner's review of
Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature
(September 27, 2002) and in Pinker's book itself (pp. 6-7), the canard
is repeated, presumably because reviewer and author believed it to be
true. I plead guilty to the same inexcusable error, in that, while
researching into the origins of negotiation behavior in primitive
societies, I included a reference, though I was unable to find the
source quotations in Rousseau's works. 20

Rousseau never said anything about noble savages in any of his works.
His work on inequality (1755) became the target of John Crawford
(1783-1868), a racist with pretensions to scientific authority, who
linked his attacks on those opposed to belief that the human race was
one species and not several, "to the very eccentric philosopher
[Rousseau] of the last century" (Transactions, Ethnological Society,
1859). From barrages of similar racist criticism, always linking
Rousseau to the noble savage allusion, the association caught on in
anthropology, even among those completely opposed to Crawford's white
supremacy illusions and, unfortunately and to our scholarly shame, the
false association has lasted almost unchallenged, through to the
twenty-first century.

For the scholarly exposure of this fallacious association, Ter
Ellingson's The Myth of the Noble Savage (2001) provides a sobering
reminder, even to those of solid reputation, always to check the
original sources of the best known authorities.[1] Whatever else
Rousseau got wrong, he was not responsible for illusory notions about
noble savages. Meanwhile, enjoy Steven Pinker's excellent book . . .
--Gavin Kennedy, Edinburgh Business School, Riccarton, Edinburgh

The following week these two letters appeared:
November 22, 2002, "Noble Savage" Letter to the Times of London
Literary Supplement

Sir, - Gavin Kennedy rightly dissociates Jean-Jacques Rousseau from
the concept of the "Noble Savage" (Letters, November 15), but he
doesn't explain the importance of the dissociation. Whatever respect
Rousseau may have had for those leading the simple life of the
solitary state of nature, his belief was that man could only be a
moral being by living in
society. If man has been corrupted in society, only education (of the
type given to Emile [he believed]) will rehabilitate him. But his
regeneration (and with it the redemption of civilization itself) can
only take place within society, not in the savage state that precedes
it. Kennedy is right in saying that some people have made the mistake
of associating Rousseau with the notion of the Noble Savage, but he
does not allude to that long, text-based tradition of scholarship
(partly deriving from R. S. Meek's seminal book of 1976, Social
Science and the Ignoble Savage), in which this error has never been
made. -Malcom Jack, 31 Whitehall Park, London N19.


Sir, - It is evident from Gavin Kennedy's letter that Rousseau did not
invent the notion of the "Noble Savage," but did [the poet] John
Dryden, in his Conquest of Granada (1670)?=20

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

-Juliet Clutton Brock, South Barn, High Street, Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire

yuval taylor

I apologize for the misattribution of the phrase "noble savage." The idea, though, that we were all pretty good--the embodiment of classical virtues--before civilization corrupted us is Rousseau's. Malcolm Jack makes the mistake of confusing society with civilization: the noble savage or "natural man" in Rousseau's words by no means lives alone, he lives prior to the advent of agriculture, metallurgy, private property, and the division of labor (see the Discourse on Inequality). Thus Polynesians, American Indians, and Africans became associated with Rousseau's "natural man," and not coincidentally were portrayed as noble savages.


The idea that we were “pretty good” – i.e., that there is no such thing as original sin, derives from Spinoza’s arguments against organized religion (specifically against superstition and religious persecution). The “natural man” and “natural religion” were rhetorical figures used to question contemporary customs such as witch burning, political absolutism, and the idea that Protestants and non-Christians ought to be “compelled to enter” the Catholic Church (the doctrine of compelle intrare), an idea which was put into practice by Louis XIV when he revoked the Edict of Nantes. When Baron Lehontan put Spinozist religious arguments in the mouth of American Indians, he was criticized for having had the temerity to allow those dreadful savages to speak at all (clearly he was a sympathizer of the Jesuits!) Rousseau never mentions “the noble savage” – in French, at any rate, it would have been “le bon sauvage” (or the good “other,” if you will). No reputable scholar associates Rousseau with “the noble savage” (or ever did). Johnathan Israel in his brilliant book, The Radical Enlightenment, argues that Rousseau was a very moderate Spinozist, since, among other things, he did advocate having a state religion. During the Romantic period Spinozism became more acceptable, and Wordsworth (in 1801) daringly wrote: “We have all one human heart.” In the first half of the nineteenth century there were philanthropic movements to address the wrongs of native people and to suppress the slave trade. Ter Ellingson very convincingly shows that the derogatory phrase “the noble savage” was first used by scientific racists at the time of the Sepoy rebellion (1857) to justify colonialism and white supremacy. They used the phrase as a way to discredit ethnographers who had defended the rights of non-Europeans and advocated the abolition of slavery as being outmoded and sentimental romantics, rather than “scientific,” like themselves. How successful they were is shown by Hoxie Fairchild’s inclusion of a scene in a book of “a negro slave begging for his freedom” as an example of the “myth of the noble savage” (See Ellingson) http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Noble-Savage-Ter-Ellingson/dp/0520226100/ref=sr_1_1/002-9348258-7929637?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1181072200&sr=8-1.

yuval taylor

It's unclear from your argument what exactly is the difference between the idea of the noble savage and Rousseau's idea of the natural man (which appears to me quite different from Spinoza's). Both idealize a state of humanity that predates civilization as we know it. The phrase "noble savage" may have been (mis)used in other contexts, such as the ones you cite, but its origins lie in Shaftesbury's idea of the innate goodness of humans (which parallels Spinoza's ideas), and the idea was not, as you imply, to legitimize imperialism, but to deligitimize it by establishing the moral superiority of the "savage."


"What is especially remarkable about Rousseau’s thought is its Janus-headed mixing of elements from both the radical and mainstream enlightenment. In its stress on the existence of a Creator and First Mover, on two substances [i.e., Spirit and Matter], on the immortality of the soul, and the absolute quality of “good” and “evil” in ethics, it is aligned with the mainstream of the moderate Enlightenment and rejects the radical tradition of Spinoza and Diderot. Yet in its sweeping rejection of tradition and authority, its deligitimizing of the social and political structures of the day, its egalitarianism, underlying pantheism, and, above all, in the doctrine of “general will” [taken from Machiavelli’s Discourses and from Spinoza], it is aligned unmistakably with a radical philosophical tradition reaching back to the mid-Seventeenth Century. Spinoza, Diderot, Rousseau: all three ground their conception of individual liberty in man’s obligation to subject himself to the sovereignty of the common good.” Johnathan Israel, The Radical Enlightenment, p. 720

That the "noble savage" has never been anything but a straw man (concocted to justify white supremacy) is conclusively shown in Ter Ellingson's book.


“The notion that Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality was essentially a glorification of the state of nature and that its influence tended to wholly or chiefly to promote 'primitivism' is one of the most persistent historical errors” –A. O. Lovejoy, “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, ” Modern Philology Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186

You continue to repeat urban legend as fact. Contrary to what you say, Shaftesbury did not assert that man possessed “innate goodness.” In countering Hobbs’s claim that all human actions are motivated by selfishness, Shaftesbury maintained, not than men were innately good, but that the moral sense is innate (modern science has tended to support this insight). Rousseau does say that man is “naturally good” – but his definition of "naturally good" (i.e., not "naturally wicked or vicious") is quite limited (and is essentially the same as that of Shaftesbury).

Contrary to what you say, Rousseau’s primitive man does indeed live alone and not in a group. According to Rousseau, man (and many lower animals), possesses empathy (or compassion), which (contrary to Hobbs) acts "on occasion" as a check to brute selfishness and thus tends to promote the welfare of "the whole species." This empathy Rousseau describes as the “only natural virtue.” Nowhere does Rousseau “idealize” or attribute other “classical virtues” to primitive man, as you assert.

“Solitary, indolent, and perpetually accompanied by danger, the savage cannot but be fond of sleep; his sleep too must be light, like that of the animals, which think but little and may be said to slumber all the time they do not think. Self-preservation being his chief and almost sole concern, he must exercise most those faculties which are most concerned with attack or defense, either for overcoming his prey, or for preventing him from becoming the prey of other animals. …………………………………………………….

“It appears, at first view, that men in a state of nature, having no moral relations or determinate obligations one with another, could not be either good or bad, virtuous or vicious ………………….

Above all, let us not conclude, with Hobbes, that because man has “no idea of goodness, he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue ……………

“There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes; which, having been bestowed on mankind, to moderate, on certain occasions, the impetuosity of egoism, or, before its birth, the desire of self-preservation, tempers the ardor with which he pursues his own welfare, by an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer.3 I think I need not fear contradiction in holding man to be possessed of the only natural virtue, which could not be denied him by the most violent detractor of human virtue. I am speaking of compassion, which is a disposition suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils as we certainly are: by so much the more universal and useful to mankind, as it comes before any kind of reflection; and at the same time so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it.

“It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species.
Let us conclude then that man in a state of nature, wandering up and down the forests, without industry, without speech, and without home, an equal stranger to war and to all ties, neither standing in need of his fellow-creatures nor having any desire to hurt them, and perhaps even not distinguishing them one from another; let us conclude that, being self-sufficient and subject to so few passions, he could have no feelings or knowledge but such as befitted his situation; that he felt only his actual necessities, and disregarded everything he did not think himself immediately concerned to notice, and that his understanding made no greater progress than his vanity. If by accident he made any discovery, he was the less able to communicate it to others, as he did not know even his own children. Every art would necessarily perish with its inventor, where there was no kind of education among men, and generations succeeded generations without the least advance; when, all setting out from the same point, centuries must have elapsed in the barbarism of the first ages; when the race was already old, and man remained a child.

“What, then, is to be done? Must societies be totally abolished? Must meum and tuum be annihilated, and must we return again to the forests to live among bears? This is a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I would as soon anticipate as let them have the shame of drawing.” – All quotations from Rousseau’s "On the Origin of Inequality,” 1754 http://www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq.htm

Thalia May

It seems to me that, while the idea that Rousseau invented the noble savage is wrong, there is a way of resolving this issue.

In the quotes Harold reproduces above, we see that Rousseau does attribute a capacity for empathy and occasional compassion to the savage.

In this he was directly opposing the ideas of Hobbes, who believed that without civilisation man would naturally be vicious, and sate his desires regardless of the consequences.

Now while Rousseau's viewpoint has been misrepresented over time, there is still a polarity here and two opposing political viewpoints tended to appeal to one or the other pole.

For those who wished to defend the humanity of the savage for whatever reason, Rousseau's view of them as at least capable of compassion and empathy was naturally appealing. For those who wished to scoff at the idea that the savage could ever be the equal of western man, Hobbes' ideas had more appeal, and it was natural to scoff at Rousseau (by for instance parodying his ideas as 'the noble savage') and to reject the possibilities that his thinking opened up - that the savage was not a mere animal (to be enslaved or eradicated) but had some natural capacity for 'goodness' or 'humanity' (who could therefore be educated or civilised).

So it is in the political interpretation and development of the ideas that Rousseau and Hobbes represented that we see a polarity open up between those who treat savages as base, and those who counter this viewpoint by insisting on their capacity for good. And the latter viewpoint occasionally led to a tendency to insist on the natural innocence or goodness of savages - to treat them as innocent children rather than as beasts.

Harold is right to point out the historical confusion of simply attibuting the noble savage idea to Rouuseau, but he was nonetheless significant in the train of thought that led on to the tendency to idealise the savage (in opposition to those who wished to depict the savage as inhuman).

Thalia May

Oh, and one more thought. It may be wrong that Rousseau invented the noble savage. but he wouldn't be the first in history to have his ideas remembered in terms that his opponents invented to parody them.

One minor example that comes to mind is that Margaret Thatcher tried to bring in the Community Charge in the UK. This was dubbed a 'Poll Tax' by the campaign against it, and it was the derogatory name that stuck, rather than the original (much to her chagrin, as this was part of the cause of her final downfall).

I'm sure there are other cases of this, but just to make the distinction between the academic correctness of a point of history and the popular simplification of that point. Rousseau didn't talk of the noble savage in its most extreme form, but he did grant a degree of humanity to the savage which many of his era would deny, so it may be an unfair simplification, but it does capture one aspect of his thought in a basic catch-phrase.


Thalia May, you are exactly right. Conceding a degree of humanity to the "savage" or the slave was equated with "idealizing" them! This was how the hardline reactionary white supremacist pseudo-scientists took possession of the Anthropological Society in 1857. (We still see this dynamic at work). Ter Ellingson shows how after this, anthropologists and ethnographers internalized this criticism, becoming defensive as they anticipated being accused of lack of scientific rigor, before such accusations were even made. He gives example after example of anthropologists who ritually begin their writing with a disclaimer --"I am not a believer in the Noble Savage" (as though anyone ever had really believed in it).

Another rhetorical tactic is to accuse folklorists and anthropologist of "idealising" their subjects, by the mere fact of studying them at all, since the fact that you can study someone is supposed to denote a kind of patronizing superiority (according to this way of thinking). People who make these sorts of imputations typically have little understanding of (and less interest in) the methods of social science or ethnography, nor are they aware of what ethnographers folklorists and anthropologists may have actually written about the topic of authenticiy in, say, ritual performance or cooking, where claims of authenticity are an important factor.

Yuval Taylor

Apologies for my false claim that Rousseau didn't consider the savage as solitary--I stand corrected. I had in mind, without looking at it, the portion of the second part of the Discourse in which the savage lives with his extended family and embodies traditional virtues in those moments before he becomes corrupted by the vices of civilization.

To claim that Rousseau simply grants "savages" their humanity without idealizing them, though, seems very farfetched to me. The whole of the Discourse on Inequality amounts to an idealization of the savage--in the sense that his savage is an idea, not a fact. His ideas of savages certainly did not conform to contemporary accounts, despite his citations of them, but were based rather on abstract notions.

Harold questions whether people have ever believed in the noble savage myth. Certainly a good number of the writers of pop songs did, as did a large number of nineteenth-century writers.

What one finds neither in Hobbes nor in Rousseau, nor in the majority of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, nor in pop songs written by non-indigenous people, is a portrayal of the "savage" as a fully rounded human being with the same virtues and flaws that we all possess. Instead, the "savage" is either wholly bad or wholly good, either a fearsome thug or a childlike innocent. It is the latter portrayal that, I continue to believe, is best labelled the myth of the noble savage.

In my next post on American Indians, I'll be discussing the American Indian Peter LaFarge's "Ballad of Ira Hayes," a portrayal of American Indians as real human beings that puts the lie to myths of savages of all kinds.

- Yuval


Some people have called the phenomeon you describe -- of seeing others as "all good" or "all bad" -- in other words as essentially different than oneself -- as "the other." In English -- though not in French -- "savage" has come to be a highly derogatory term. (In French "sauvage" merely means "wild" as in a wild flower, and the English word used to have the same meaning.) Ter Ellinson believes "savage" ought to be dropped, as too emotionally laden to be helpful. I agree with him. I don't particularly like "the other" because associated with post modernism, but I can't think, offhand, of better way to express the concept at present. Perhaps post modernism does have a few things to offer us, after all.


The complete text of Rousseau's Discourse is here:

if you wish to refresh your memory by actually reading it.

Thalia May

I think there's less distance between the positions of Harold and Yuval here than it might seem, though you're also both exaggerating some points that emphasize the difference. I think Yuval is wrong to say that in 19th Century fiction the savage is either "wholly good or wholly bad" as that is rather too strong a claim, even if those tendencies are obvious. And I think Harold is a bit quick to exonerate social scientists, folklorists and so on of being patronising at times. Of course some were better at removing their personal ideas from study than others, but some clearly carried their preconceptions into their study. Whether you study savages as animals, children, or people, you can still patronise them. It's not the act of study, it's the assumptions that leak into one's method and deductions that matter here.

But in the end this isn't really about scientists, it's about discourse in the cultural and political arenas. As I said, the 19th century discourse on savages tended to split into those who treated them as beasts (the 'bestial savage' theory if you will) and those who treated them as human (which rightly or wrongly has become known as the 'noble savage' theory, if only because it accorded some dignity to the savage).

What Rousseau does do is to say that the savage is neither virtuous nor vicious, meaning that he regards the savage as in some sense innocent. We can also point to the fact that the 'savage' he talks about is (as for Hobbes) an imaginary construct (one could say an 'idealisation but that would be a sophistic point). He is not talking about real people with whom one could enter into a conversation to find out what they think. He is talking about an imaginary pre-civilisation savage.

So I totally agree with Yuval that neither of the main tropes of 19th century thought treated savages as fully rounded human beings whom one could treat as equals. And I think it is clear that within 19th century political and cultural discourse the savage was often romanticised (if only in reaction to the 'bestial savage' theory). And I agree with the book's theory that many musical folklorists (in blues, folk, or world music) have imputed ideas of innocence, simplicity, childlikeness, or purity to the musical cultures under study. So even if the noble savage is the wrong way to sum up Rousseau's thought, it is a useful concept in talking about a strand of 19th century thought that was sustained well into this century, and perhaps still exists in certain areas.


I believe that books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that succeed in portraying other people as "well rounded human beings" are as rare as hen's teeth, though it is an ideal worth striving for.

If you read Ter Ellingson's book, The Myth of the Noble Savage, you will find that in the 19th century the "savage" or "natural man" was not as romanticisized as you might think, even in books which feature the tropes of romantic naturalism. One example, not mentioned by Ellison, is the noble Uncas (and his father), the "Last of the Mohicans." These characters are actually exceptions to the behavior of the other Indians (or other characters) in the book, who are portrayed more in line with "savage" (or other) stereotypes one might expect. As is often the case in 19th century lit, all of the "good" characters in the book are exceptionally good, not just the good Indians. The hero, Natty Bumpo, of course, is another type of "natural man," like Owen Wister's "Virginian" -- the prototype of the cowboy. But these are exemplary, exeptional characters who are meant to stand as models of desirable behavior, not as realistic depictions of regular, normal people.

Thalia May

Of course, that's why I think Yuval was wrong to say the discourse only ever described savages as wholly good or bad. There are far more complex and subtle (and plain badly written...) examples.

But overall the tendency of the 19th century discourse probably was to regard the 'savage' as being either like an animal or like a child, rather than as being an adult that the western character could treat as an equal. There are inevitably exceptions to any sweeping statement of that sort, but I think it is reasonably fair as an overview of the political and cultural discourse of the period.


You are right, Thalia May. Most people in the nineteenth century believed in one-directional cultural evolution (Progress) with Europeans at the summit and other cultures ranged below in an orderly hierarchy. However, some believed that though Europeans were at the summit, others were not constitutionally incapable of catching up and joining them there. Charles Darwin was in this group, also Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russel Wallace (a maverick, who tended to see so-called primitives as equal and in many ways superior to so-called "civilized" man.) As the century wore on so-called "scientific" racism became more and more prevalent. This view condemned other cultures to permanent racial and cultural inferiority and deserving of perpetual servitude to their European superiors / and /or extermination.


Yuval Taylor's claim that the Discourse amounts to an "idealization" because it is about ideas is a sophistry, as Thalia May rightly points out.

Rousseau's name has gone down in obloquy because he committed the unforgivable sin of advocating the equality of man. For this he therefore had to be punished. He was actually a deeper and more subtle thinker than is generally allowed (he was also a composer and botanist). There were other people in the eighteenth century who wrote fictional accounts of primitive "golden age"-type Utopias, Rousseau was not one of them.

Rousseau admired (which in Yuval Taylor's sloppy vocabulary is equivalent to "idealizing") and wished to revive classical virtues. So did (and still do) many other people. But he never attributed them to primitive people. People admire what they do not have or what they feel is needed in their own era. At a time when people wore elaborate powdered wigs and hats two feet high, it is neither surprising or reprehensible that there was a widespread longing for a simpler, more informal way of life. (Just as today one might wish for a society without two-hour commutes while stuck in traffic, or for locally grown, farm-fresh food.) In the Victorian era people felt that evolution culminated in themselves -- is that so different from what many people believe today about the US system? Or about their own preferenced in music, say?

Instead of simplistically condemning or dismissing them because they don't conform to our own standards, wouldn't it be more useful to understand how they got there, what were the distinctions between them, and whether they might have anything to say to us?

Thalia May

Oh come on Harold, you're doing the typical macho academic thing here and trying to turn this into a personal grudge match. You were quite right to bring Ellingson's book into this discussion, but Yuval's overstatement of Rousseau's position does not mean the whole argument was wrong.

Let's look at some of what you say there:

"...it is neither surprising or reprehensible that there was a widespread longing for a simpler, more informal way of life. "

Which can also mean that one over-rates the virtues of simplicity, classical or 'savage'. There's a desperately fine line between admiring and idealising and I thought we already established that some of the idealisation came from those who followed in Rousseau's footsteps rather than from the man himself. And that some of that idealisation had perfectly sensible political motivations (rhetorically opposing the 'bestial savage' tendency).

"In the Victorian era people felt that evolution culminated in themselves --is that so different from what many people believe today about the US system? Or about their own preferenced in music, say?"

Of course not, which is why there is a lot of sense in saying that the way that people hanker for the 'simplicity of past eras' or simpler cultures, whilst believing themselves superior, is a political and cultural trope that was present in the 19th century and also one that persisted into the 20th century. It is a patronising and often misleading assumption as it leads one into false assumptions about the cultures (past or present) one is dealing with. This is where the book talks about ideas of cultural authenticity, and I find it persuasive on this point.

Finally I'd say that Yuval's first mention of Rousseau was not especially derogatory, and when I learnt about Rousseau at college his name was far from being mud - he was instead treated with some respect as a representative of a train of thought that has its good and bad points. I know Ellingson's book corrects an important historical error, but perhaps (like most books, including Barker and Taylor's) it occasionally sets up a bit of a straw man to argue with by claiming that Rousseau has been completely misrepresented and misunderstood. I would previously have associated him with the 'noble savage' idea . But I wouldn't have seen the noble savage idea as a terrible thing, just as an interesting and valuable fore-runner of the more liberal ideas of the 19th century with regards to the incorrectly named 'savage'.

Yuval Taylor

Thank you, Thalia. Indeed, both Rousseau's "natural man" and the "noble savage" ideas are marked improvements on what preceded them. I have been reading Rousseau off and on for over 25 years now, and he never fails to fascinate me, even if I find him remarkably silly at times. I didn't intend to "condemn or dismiss" him as Harold puts it--his importance and influence cannot be underestimated. Rousseau's thought was far from monolithic--he contradicts himself wildly from one work to another--and it is notoriously hard to pin down. I still maintain that his conception of "primitive" people has a lot in common with the "noble savage" idea, and why shouldn't it? As for Harold's claim that Rousseau never attributed classical virtues to primitive people, that's just plain wrong. When Rousseau gets around to discussing what happens to his "natural man" when he begins to live with his extended family, he writes, "The habit of living together soon gave rise to the finest feelings known to humanity, conjugal love and paternal affection. Every family became a little society, the more united because liberty and reciprocal attachment were the only bonds of its union." This is the ideal state, and it comes (in Part 2 of the discourse on inequality) immediately before man becomes corrupted by civilization. Rousseau is, of course, wrong, too--as contemporary anthropology has shown us, there is no "state of nature," and there never has been. People have always lived in more or less complex societies, have worshiped their gods and fought their battles, have satisfied their vanity in various ways, have indulged in their own vices and practiced their own virtues. Rousseau was indeed idealizing primitive peoples--I don't think one can escape that fact. Specifically, to address Harold's point most directly, Rousseau idealized primitive societies by implying that in them there was no inequality. Again, anthropological studies will not bear this out--only certain mobile hunter-gatherer societies feature a lack of social hierarchy; most primitive societies, including American Indian ones, are characterized by social hierarchies of one sort or another, and always have been.

Thalia May

See, now you're doing it, trying to prove Harold wrong about something to score a point. Typical men...

What can we all agree on? Well, we all think that Rousseau was a rather interesting thinker and that he attributed a degree of humanity to his imaginary 'savage' and was thus a forerunner of that strain of 19th century thought which was generous to (but also occasionally patronising towards) the 'primitive' peoples.

And we can probably agree that in Yuval's original post he took the concept of the noble savage a bit too much for granted, and attributed it to Rousseau without acknowledging the academic complexities of that attribution - but that in spite of this, the kind of thinking he describes was clearly present in 19th and 20th century thought.

Any more than that and it just turns into unnecessary point-scoring, in my humble opinion.


The question is: what purpose is served by speaking of Rousseau using the comic-book stereotype used by his enemies, who were the enemies of equality -- namely the concept of the Noble Savage?

It is true that Rousseau admired primitive men because they did not have slavery or land enclosure, and he thought that much could be learned about humanity by studying them. In this he was the first ethnographer (though this idea was also broached by Buffon, who also anticipated Rousseau in saying that civilization introduced vice to mankind.) But he did not idealize them and certainly did not wish to live like them. He "idealized," if you will, the middle class -- those of "mediocre" (average) income, since he thought that the most stable and just society would have a majority of its citizens in that group rather than at the extremes of riches and poverty -- and most political scientists agree with him. As for his belief that people are happiest in gatherings of their own families, I would venture that 90 percent of Frenchmen (and Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks -- not to mention Asians -- though not Americans) -- would agree with him there as well. As for Rousseau's admiration of the classical virtues. I would like to know what classical virtues (Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice) Juval Taylor does not admire?

In 1923 Arthur O. Lovejoy wrote his essay debunking Rousseau's supposed primitivism. reprinted in 1948 in Essays in the History of Ideas [1948] and elaborated in Reflections on Human Nature (1961). In addition, anyone who is interested in Primitivism (and "The Natural Man") should read Lovejoy and Boas': Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1935), the standard work on the topic -- previews are available on Amazon reader. (Saul Bellow's Herzog aspired to be "another Lovejoy")

Careful, sympathetic readers understood Rousseau's meaning from the beginning and realized that his "contradictions" were manifestations of a coherent outlook that Rousseau maintained until his death. It is a dark, profoundly pessimistic outline of cultural evolution in which it is true that he does discern a brief bright spot at the moment when man first left the solitary "savage" state and joined together in groups. But this ray of light is not a significant part of his theory, which stresses that the division of labor and the invention of agriculture carry in them the consequence of immiseration of the vast majority at the expense of the few.

Rousseau, in fact, anticipates Marx, since he describes mankind as beginning in a state of equality and progressively reduced by civilization to total economic servitude (since "before the despot all are equal, that is, equal to zero") a crisis that can only be remedied by political revolution. Friedrich Engels wrote that "we do not only find in Rousseau a train of thought which could be mistaken for that followed by Marx in Das Capital, but even in the specific details we find a whole series of dialectical modes of expression used by Marx: historical processes which, by their very nature, are antagonistic and incorporate contradictory elements; transformations of an extreme into its opposite, and finally, at the heart of the entire system, the negation of the negation. If Rousseau in 1754 could not yet speak Hegel's jargon, he is, nevertheless, and 13 years before the birth of Hegel, deeply affected by the Hegelian 'disease,' the dialectics of contradiction." --Engels, Anti-Durhring, quoted in Mario Einaudi, The Early Rousseau (1967).

"Although Rousseau's notion of the progressive moral degeneration of mankind from the moment civil society established itself diverges markedly from Spinoza's claim that human nature is always and everywhere the same and that there is no virtue before civil society, there remains a strong unifying thread in that, for both philosophers, the pristine equality of the state of nature is our ultimate guide and criterion, not just in determining the character and legitimacy of any society's political arrangements but also in shaping the common good, 'volonte' ge'ne'rale' (or Spinoza's mens una) which alone can ensure stability and political salvation. Without the supreme criterion of equality, the general will will be meaningless. For both men the point of the State is the very antithesis of heirarchy and domination, being the establishment and preservation of liberty on the basis of equality. When, in the depth of the French Revolution, the Jacobin clubs all over France regularly deployed Rousseau when demanding radical reforms, and especially anything -- such as land redistribution -- designed to enhance equality, they were at the same time, albeit mostly unconsciously, invoking a radical tradition which reached back to the late seventeenth century." Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment, p. 274

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What people are saying about our book

  • 9/07
    "[A] perceptive exploration of authenticity and its meaning in 20th-century popular music. . . . Highly recommended." --M. Goldsmith, Choice
  • 7/1/07
    "This revelatory book is a must for anyone who has been an ambivalent pop music fan. . . . An exhaustive and thought-provoking book that deserves serious attention." --Alan Licht, The Wire
  • 5/22
    [Four stars] "Whether nailing how perceptions of the blues were moulded by the racist cultural bias of those who originally recorded it or assessing the multi-dimensional pranksterism of the KLF, this well-researched, informative and thought-provoking book pierces the bubble of what pop authenticity really means." --Thomas H. Green, Q Magazine
  • 4/18
    [five stars] "Enthusiastic . . . superb. . . . Like all great music writing, Faking It is unashamedly subjective and, above all, makes you wish you were listening to the records it describes." --Martin Hemming, Time Out London
  • 4/17
    "Essential reading for anyone who really loves pop." --Paul Connolly, London Lite
  • 4/16
    “Persuasive . . . powerful. . . . A fascinating and nimble investigation of pop’s paradoxes. . . . A great collection of true stories about fake music. It's the essay as Möbius strip; a literary illusion that . . . tells us more about what's true, what's not, and why that doesn't always matter, than a more straightforward confrontation with the secrets and lies of pop music ever could.” --Jeff Sharlet, New Statesman
  • 4/15
    “Valuable . . . instructive . . . Taylor, who has written extensively on slavery, is particularly strong when discussing how the music of the American South was divided along race lines by the fledgling record industry, even when white and black artists had almost identical repertoires. The chapters on Jimmie Rodgers's autobiographical 'TB Blues' and Elvis's 'Heartbreak Hotel' are excellent.” --Campbell Stevenson, The Observer
  • 4/14
    “Diabolically provocative . . . [A] tightly focused examination of why, when and how authenticity became such a powerful force in popular music – and eventually its key marketing tool.” --Greg Quinn, Toronto Star
  • 4/11/07
    “The authors skillfully navigate a complicated musical past. . . . The book avoids the prose pitfalls of dry academic work and is not without humor. . . . Among the most notable essays is a bracing consideration of Donna Summer and her disco hit ‘Love to Love You Baby,’ the hypnotic epic of simulated female orgasm. In this chapter, Barker and Taylor nicely fuse a brief history of early disco with a larger contemplation of the tensions between authenticity and artifice in the disco era. As good as the authors' defense of disco is, it's topped by a riveting analysis of the career of John Lydon. In this finely nuanced chapter, Barker and Taylor penetrate the core contradictions within the punk scene, a genre rife with internal debates over authenticity and fakery.” --Chrissie Dickinson, Washington Post
  • 4/11/07
    “This is a work by two fanatics that, through copious research and profound contemplation, offers fellow fans a stimulating semantic exercise . . . and, more significantly, carte blanche to enjoy guilty pleasures without guilt. . . . Barker’s obvious passion for and deep understanding of manufactured pop make his chapters fascinating. . . . The exquisite research and nuanced insight Barker brings to [Donna Summer’s] moans and groans makes ['Love to Love You Baby'] one of the strongest chapters in the book. . . . [And Taylor’s 'Heartbreak Hotel'] is one of the most passionate, articulate love letters to the King I have ever read.” --Jake Austen, Chicago Journal
  • 4/7/07
    "Merrily throwing in references from R. Kelly to Mississippi John Hurt to the KLF, . . . Faking It is dynamite for the pop subversive. . . . The arguments are very persuasive." --Bob Stanley, The (London) Times
  • 4/1/07
    “What Faking It shows us, through an impressive array of eras and musicians, is that the quest for purity in pop is a fool’s errand. . . . Faking It is a fascinating read based on a truly provocative and enlightening argument. It will be hard to think about pop music in the same way again.” --Nora Young, Toronto Star
  • 3/28/07
    “Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor certainly know their stuff and have fun poking and prodding at our idols.” --Jonathan Gibbs, Metro
  • 3/28/07
    “In 10 chapters--each addressing a particular song or song cover as a starting point before running rabid over all kinds of cultural, racial, and social terrain--[the authors] trace the shifting importance of originality in popular music from the early 20th century to the early 21st with diplomatic élan and overachieving gusto, . . . smashing precious illusions like microbrew bottles along the way. . . . Faking It is certain to inspire some awesome conversations among readers.” --Raymond Cummings, Baltimore City Paper
  • 3/22/07
    "Sure to fuel arguments among music nerds for years to come. . . . Taken as a whole, the book becomes a fascinating, complex study of the increasingly blurred line between actuality and artifice." --Ira Brooker, Time Out Chicago
  • 3/14/07
    "A brutal attack on what professor David Lowethal called 'the dogma of self-delusion,' which basically kills the entire concept of 'authentic' alternative culture, eats it, shits it, buries it, digs it up, burns it, eats it and shits it out again. And then nails it to a canvas and calls it art. I intend to carry this book around with me. And the next time I meet a DJ who looks like he might be about to use the phrase 'keeping it real,' I shall smack him in the head with it. Repeatedly." --Steven Wells, Philadelphia Weekly
  • 3/4/07
    "Combines a strong point of view, intelligent and informed musical analysis, and rigorous historical research." --Ben Yagoda, The New York Times Book Review
  • 2/18/07
    “Essential . . . a model of lucidity and concision. . . . Barker and Taylor might make great house builders. They lay a solid foundation for their argument that popular music is inherently 'impure.' . . . Part of the fun here is the way the writers trust their ears. . . . [A] smart, passionate book.” --Charles Taylor, Newsday
  • 2/15/07
    "With plenty of interesting and contentious assertions to stimulate even casual readers, this is a heck of an argument starter." --Booklist
  • 2/15/07
    "Insightful. . . . Faking It delivers lots of good stories." --Michael Washburn, Time Out New York
  • 2/9/07
    “Provocative . . . incendiary . . . fascinating.” --Ron Wynn, Nashville City Paper

The most essential songs discussed in Faking It