no(ble) savage: class notes on Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is an 18th Century Genevan philosopher whose ideas about the state of nature and the birth of civil society were pivotal to the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and as such the current conceptual coherence of the modern world today. His “A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind” is his historico-philosophical attempt to outline the foundations of inequality in Man – understood by him, primarily in a biological sense where European Man represents the latest and most developed evolution of Man since its departure from the State of Nature. Rousseau, contra Thomas Hobbes, the English political theorist and philosopher who saw the State of Nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” constructs a counter-mythology of the State of Nature by depicting it as idyllic and harmonious. I invoke the word “myth” here not as a way to falsify or verify these obviously problematic proposals, but primarily because I think it is important to sit with the mythological structure of the text before discussing anything concerning its contents. Cedric Robinson, black political theorist trained anthropologist writes in his book Terms of Order that, “The myth is a statement of the paradox of human action and institution, but a statement which does not merely explore paradox but also deliberately signifies, in the layer upon layer of its stratigraphy, what man through culture cannot achieve.” (Robinson, 133)


  • In what ways does Rousseau place limits on what “Man” can achieve? If you know about Hobbes, what ways does Hobbes place limits on what “Man” can achieve?
  • Do you agree that we should/could read Rousseau and Hobbes’ work as myths? And what is gained in such an analysis? What is lost? And how do we capture the way that these mythic ideas have come to construct reality?

There’s an introductory note to the book (this copy doesn’t say who wrote it) that says, “Both historically and philosophically it is unsound; but it was the chief literary source of the enthusiasm for liberty, fraternity, and equality, which inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, and its effects passed far beyond France.” (Rousseau, 4) I think that this sentence is perhaps the most important sentence in the entire book, and I only slightly mean that facetiously. The normative reading of Rousseau’s work is that of the symbolic construction of the “Noble Savage” and the Utopic depiction of the “State of Nature.” The idea normally being that Rousseau tells a story of Man in the state of nature in communal harmony as a result of his valorization of the native as an emblem of pre-civilizational possibilities of peace. I was slightly disappointed (in a “damn, all knowledge really is propaganda” kind of way) to find that the term “Noble Savage” was wasn’t a term used by Rousseau himself. Even if I was already bothered by any attempt to make a paradigmatic archetype of multiply-differentiated yet irreducibly entangled group of people. But, when I kept reading further I felt that the issue was even deeper and that perhaps the “Noble Savage” was not actually noble at all and that perhaps, the unsoundness of Rousseau’s historical and philosophical logic wasn’t fully being wrestled with. For me, the nobility of Rousseau’s “Savage” rest squarely on its ignorance rather than anything else. Rousseau’s “Savage” is virtuous only because it has no concept of virtue. It is worthy of praise because it does not know what might deserve praise. I would like to quote two crucial passages (and there are many more) which help to situate this reading. Rousseau writes:

Let us begin by distinguishing between what is moral and what is physical in the passion called love. The physical part of it is that general desire which prompts the sexes to unite with each other; the moral part is that which determines that desire, and fixes it upon a particular object to the exclusion of all others, or at least gives it a greater degree of energy for this preferred object. Now it is easy to perceive that the moral part of love is a factitious sentiment, engendered by society, and cried up by the women with great care and address in order to establish their empire, and secure command to that sex which ought to obey. This sentiment, being founded on certain notions of beauty and merit which a savage is not capable of having, and upon comparisons which he is not capable of making, can scarcely exist in him: for as his mind was never in a condition to form abstract ideas of regularity and proportion, neither is his heart susceptible of sentiments of admiration and love, which, even without our perceiving it, are produced by our application of these ideas; he listens solely to the dispositions implanted in him by nature, and not to taste which he never was in a way of acquiring; and every woman answers his purpose. (Rousseau, 60-61)

Though we should suppose savage man as well versed in the art of thinking, as philosophers make him; though we were, after them, to make him a philosopher himself, discovering of himself the sublimest truths, forming to himself, by the most abstract arguments, maxims of justice and reason drawn from the love of order in general, or from the known will of his Creator: in a word, though we were to suppose his mind as intelligent and enlightened, as it must, and is, in fact, found to be dull and stupid; what benefit would the species receive from all these metaphysical discoveries, which could not be communicated, but must perish with the individual who had made them? (Rousseau, 35)


  • Is Rousseau’s understanding of the “Savage” actually noble at all? What are your thoughts on this figure he constructs?
  • What would it mean to not know beauty and merit? What would it mean to not be able to abstract? What is abstraction and what does it mean for what it means to be Human?

Susan Buck-Morris writing in “Hegel and Haiti” writes:

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” So writes Jean Jacques Rousseau in he opening lines of On the Social Contract in 1762. No human conditions appears more offensive to his reason than slavery. And yet even Rousseau, patron saint of the French Revolution, represses from consciousness the millions of really existing, European owned-slaves, as he relentlessly condemns the institution.” (Buck-Morris, 830)

In writing of the “Noble Savage,” I find that Rousseau doesn’t seem to repress the slaves – which were at the same time considered African savages – but treats the slaves as if they would have no knowledge of their own slavery since the savage is not noble but ignorant. The savage is essentially an animal. This “repression” then seems to not be much different than Hegel’s own repression of Haiti which while mentioned in his writing gets overdetermined in Susan Buck-Morris’ essay. In this sense, Rousseau and Hegel sound a similar chord when Rousseau writes:

“As an unbroken courser erects his mane, paws the ground, and rages at the bare sight of the bit, while a trained horse patiently suffers both whip and spur, just so the barbarian will never reach his neck to the yoke which civilized man carries without murmuring but prefers the most stormy liberty to a calm subjection.” (Rousseau, 102)


  • Hegel is known to have written Africa outside of history. Does Susan Buck-Morris’ attempt to re-tell Hegel’s story through a narrative relation to Haiti help or hurt our understanding of Hegel in relation to Africa? Is there something generative about recuperating Hegel to different context?
  • Does Susan Buck-Morris give Hegel a pass where she doesn’t give the other philosophes of Enlightenment in regards and relation to race?

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