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Noble savage

The noble savage is the romantic concept of man unencumbered by civilization; the natural essence of the unfettered person. The concept is symbolic of the idea that without the bounds of civilization, man is essentially good. The concept is particularly associated with romantic philosophy[?], especially that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and with romanticism in general. However, it was John Dryden who first used the phrase 1672.

The concept appears in many books of the 18th and 19th centuries, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein being one of the better known examples, in which the monster is the embodiment of the ideal. A later example can be found in Aldous Huxley's 20th century novel Brave New World.


Around the 15th century certain European states began expanding, especially in the Americas. In general they were in search of mineral resources[?] (such as silver and gold), land (for the cultivation of export crops[?] such as rice and sugar, and the cultivation of other foodstuffs to support mining communities[?]), and labor (to work in mines and plantations). In some cases the people already living in the Americas were merely occupying land, and were killed. In other cases, the people were incoroporated into the expanding states to serve as labor.

Although Europeans recognized these people to be human beings, they had no plan to treat them as equals politically or economically, and consequently they began to speak of them as inferior socially and psychologically as well. In part through this and also through other, similar processes, Europeans developed a notion of "the primitive" and "the savage" that legitimized genocide and ethnocide[?] on the one hand, and European domination on the other. This discourse extended to people of Africa, Asia, and Oceania as European colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism expanded. There are no more "neolithic" people on this planet; the word "primitive" does not refer to people living in a former stage in cultural evolution, it refers to people who are at the periphery of the world capitalist economy who have been, are, or are about to be victims of Western colonial or imperialist expansion, ethnocide, and genocide.

There have been some -- many, but not all, anthropologists, and many non-anthropologists -- who developed a critique of European ethnocentrism, and sought to develop more objective understandings of non-Western peoples. They continue to challenge the presumption of European (or Western) superiority, and to challenge specific claims made by Westerners concerning human nature and the world in which humans live and act. Those who are committed to the superiority of the West and Western ideas, colonialism, ethnocide and genocide, are profoundly threatened by such attempts.

Citations: see Fabian Time and the Other, Wolf, Europe and the People without History, and Torgovnick, Gone Primitive.

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