The Noble Savage


“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754

So, what does this have to do with me? Well, for starters, I share a birthday with Jean-Jacques Rousseau: June 28. Of course he’s a bit older than me, being born in 1712, predating my birth in 1965 by 253 years. Secondly, I’m a fan of Rousseau’s philosophy of life. He has been credited as the founder of naturalism and environmentalism, and his writings on the equality of mankind in his/her natural state underpin today’s movement towards diversity, equity and inclusion.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 28Jun1712 – 2Jul1778

Rousseau’s politics were also ahead of their time. His publications, Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, were cornerstones of The Enlightenment across Europe and influenced the American and French Revolutions.

It is Rousseau’s concept of the Noble Savage that really brings it home for me. He believed that human beings achieved a third stage of enlightenment:

“Hence although men had become less forbearing, and although natural pity had already undergone some alteration, this period of the development of human faculties, maintaining a middle position between the indolence of our primitive state and the petulant activity of our egocentrism, must have been the happiest and most durable epoch. The more one reflects on it, the more one finds that this state was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never to have happened. The example of savages, almost all of whom have been found in this state, seems to confirm that the human race had been made to remain in it always; that this state is the veritable youth of the world; and that all the subsequent progress has been in appearance so many steps toward the perfection of the individual, and in fact toward the decay of the species.”

In essence, Rousseau theorized that the more humans take their cue from nature, the better off we all are. Starting with self-preservation (amour de soi) and continuing through compassion for others (pitié), we are at our best when we forego competition with our fellow human beings. It was the development of “polite society,” where we started deriving our self worth from others (amour propre) and trying to out-do our neighbors, that it all fell apart. Pride comes before the fall. Wars, genocides and slavery took this idea to its evil extreme.

On a cheerier note, the other aspect of the Noble Savage I appreciate is how it informs Tiki culture. Going all the way back to Paul Gauguin at the dawn of the 20th Century, we see where members of advanced society forego its trappings in search of a more primitive lifestyle. Gauguin hoped to reinvigorate his art by “going native” in French Polynesia, first in Tahiti and then in the Marquesas Islands.

Paul Gauguin, 7Jun1848 – 8May1903

Sadly, what Gauguin found when he arrived in the South Pacific was that French colonization had beaten him there, and the primitive lifestyle he looked to adopt was already tainted by European societal standards. Tahiti wasn’t as bourgeois as Paris, but it certainly wasn’t as natural as its beauty would imply. Paradise lost?

The spread of Tiki culture in Mid-Century Modern America was also a mixed bag. What started as an escape from modern society became a bastardization of the primitive Polynesian lifestyle Tiki had borrowed. Although the motives were pure, the execution felt a bit artificial and led to the eventual downfall of the first Tiki movement by the 1970s.

However, I believe the Tiki revival that begin at the dawn of the 21st Century is getting it right. Tiki devotees like me are much more sensitive to the feelings of native Pacific Islanders, and shy away from the garish cultural appropriation of Party City Tiki in favor of authentic cultural appreciation. When we understand the origins of a particular Polynesian carving style, and appreciate the history and skill of oceanic voyagers, we are practicing lei ka’apuni honua: the lei encircling the world. I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be proud.

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