The Noble Savage, Caliban, and Hobbes

The great divide in early modern philosophy is still that which fundamentally divides politics today: what is man in the state of nature, when without state or society? To the romantic imagination it was the noble savage roaming the virgin plains of America without sin or care, but this opposed all experience and Biblical principle. The attraction of the ‘noble savage’ idea is obvious – if only we could cast off all the constraints and expectations of society and be free, then we might find a prelapsarian idyll. The realist and the theologian (which are by no means exclusive terms) will look with pity at the naïvety, while wishing in the dark hours of the soul that they could find the idyll themselves.

The ills of the world, the evils committed and the relentless need to labour without relief for little reward until death have been the realities of life forever, so it is a very attractive idea that all this is the result of oppressive powers and the dead hand of previous generations’ ideas. If that so then there must once have been that wild idyll and it is possible to reach it once again.

The Biblical picture has Adam and Eve living in a garden where all is provided for them until they eat of the fruit of knowledge, after which all is toil and a struggle with inborn sin. This fruit of knowledge is the moment when they became human. The brief prelapsarian age cannot be regained unless we cease to be human.

Hobbes in Leviathan burst the noble savage idea. The natives of America were not sinless dwellers in an idyll, and for man, the state of nature is such that:

they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man . . . Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall.

In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

This observation naturally upsets all those who believe in the perfectibility of mankind as it overturns the fundamental idea on which such a project must be built, but every experience of human nature proves Hobbes right.

Hobbes did turn to the ‘noble savages’ of America (whom the English settlers in America knew far better than the romantic philosophes of Paris):

For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before. Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common Power to feare; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government, use to degenerate into, in a civill Warre.

The idea of the noble savage and the inherent goodness of natural man is too attractive to have been lost though. It is strongly held by some today.

Anthony Burgess, in the commentary section of his book 1985, characterises the division of ideas as ‘Pelagian’ and ‘Augustinian’ after the two theologies which battled in the twilight of the Roman Empire; Pelagius claiming that men are good but corrupted by society and Augustine of Hippo asserting that all are born in sin and must seek salvation. Burgess acknowledged the attraction of the Pelagian idea, but who could ever believe in the basic goodness of man after the Holocaust?

The same divide – Augustinian v Pelagian or noble savage v Caliban – echoes in the division of conservative and radical, and specifically socialism. The attraction of the Pelagian idea is what keeps the latter discredited, disproven philosophy alive: the idea that all ills are caused by state and social structures which could be dismantled. Conservatives in contrast see the seething evil lurking in the pit of man’s soul and recognise that only a strong, established society and the apparatus of state can prevent it from bursting out. The two seem irreconcilable.

Burgess wrote in an age when idealists wanted to remake man and honestly believed they could do better than the Creator, and he satirised this more famously in A Clockwork Orange. Other writers have done the same – H G Wells wanted to believe in the scientific perfectibility of man, which he planned out in In The Days of The Comet and The Shape of Things to Come, but his own works knew the uselessness of the idea, in The War in the Air, which reaches a Hobbesian conclusion, and The Island of Doctor Moreau where a scientist literally tries to make men. Best known of all is The Time Machine, where he imagines a bifurcation of the human race – Wells though sympathised with the useless Eloi who are merely farmed cattle for the Morlocks, the latter a far better representation of humanity. His Pelagian view was comprehensively refuted by a better writer, and his old tutor’s son, Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, where ironically the Savage is noble, as having been brought up not in a state on nature but in a strong, tribal society.

In every age we see proof that natural man is Caliban and in every age are many who convince themselves and others that the prelapsarian idyll can be achieved, and so society and political philosophy can never reach a consensus.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short