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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The notion of primitivism gained new significance in
the eighteenth century because of the popularity of
certain allied notions with which it was compatible.
One of these was the doctrine of the so-called natural
goodness of man, expounded in the first decade of the
century by Shaftesbury and later by Rousseau. Obvi-
ously if man is inherently good, he must certainly be
so in the primitive state before he is exposed to cor-
rupting influences of any sort. Exponents of man's
natural virtue such as Lord Shaftesbury and Richard
Steele blamed defective education for acquired vices,
and others such as Rousseau found science and civili-
zation at fault.

Primitivism also merged with deism in a type of
rationalism which implied, that the truths of “reason”
or “nature,” since they are universal, must be at least
as well known to uncivilized men as to those in society
and that since the unsophisticated man is protected
from the corrupting forces of society, his insight into
God and nature will be all the more direct and certain.
In 1700 a Swedish missionary delivered a sermon to
a tribe of Indians in Pennsylvania. A native spokesman
in reply exposed Christian doctrine to such searching
questions that the episode was reported in a history
of the Swedish church in America printed in Uppsala
in 1731. An enterprising American deist translated
literally the reasoning of the Indian orator, who among
other points had asserted that since he and his ancestors
had always believed that a good life would be pleasing
to God, this opinion must have come to them directly
from heaven; and that although it may be possible that
the Christians have superior knowledge, it is at the
same time certain that their morals are depraved.
When this colloquy appeared as a deistical essay in
several American newspapers, it inspired Benjamin
Franklin's Remarks Concerning the Savages of North
(1784), in which an Indian replies to a doc-
trinal sermon on original sin, “What you have told us
... is all very good. It is indeed bad to eat apples.
It is better to make them all into cyder.”

A further major impetus to primitivism consisted in
the accounts of travels, real or imaginary, to uncivilized
regions of the world. By far the most influential were
those concerning North America and the Pacific Is-
lands, especially the sentimental romances of Chateau-
briand, and the sociological speculations induced by
the discoveries of Captain Cook.

The first major philosopher to rely extensively on
evidence concerning primitive tribes, John Locke, ac-
tually used it to refute suppositions of natural goodness
and wisdom. In order to destroy the doctrine of innate
ideas in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding,
Book I, Ch. III, Sec. 9 (1960) he cited a variety of
monstrous beliefs and religious customs existing among
savage tribes in Africa. At the same time Locke antici-
pated modern anthropology in recognizing that the
crude superstitions of backward peoples represent
definite stages in the evolution of thought. “Doctrines
that have been derived from no better original than
the superstition of a nurse, or the authority of an old
woman, may, by length of time and consent of neigh-
bours, grow up to the dignity of principles in religion
or morality” (ibid., Book I, Ch. XI, Sec. 22). Shaftesbury,
however, attacked Locke's credulity, without attribut-
ing the least glamor or superiority to primitive society
as later thinkers would do. He charged that books of
travel were to people of his day what books of chivalry
had been to their ancestors. Their leisure hours were
filled with “Barbarian customs, savage manners, Indian
wars, and wonders of the erra incognita.” According
to Shaftesbury, “they have far more pleasure in hearing
the monstrous accounts of monstrous men, and man-
ners; than the... lives of the wisest and most polish'd
people.” Rather than the accounts of diversity in reli-
gious observances which Locke had used to attack
innate ideas, Shaftesbury advised philosophers “to


search for that simplicity of manners, and innocence
of behaviour, which has been often known among mere
savages; ere they were corrupted by our commerce”
(Advice to an Author, Part III, Sec. III). Shaftesbury
was not praising the savage, but arguing that his exam-
ple could be used to support uniformitarianism just as
well as diversitarianism. He thus prepared the way for
later authors who cited the savage to prove natural
goodness and the universality of belief in God.

One of the most remarkable of the author-travelers
who drew upon personal experience to promote primi-
tivism was the Jesuit Father Joseph François Lafitau,
who had lived in North America and who wrote his
Manners of the American Natives Compared with the
Manners of Earliest Times
(Moeurs des sauvages
amériquains, comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps,

1724) in order to protest against travelers who spoke
of barbaric people as though they had no notion of
religion. Lafitau affirmed that both the barbarians of
the times of ancient Greece and Rome and the savages
of his time had the concept of God. He denied the
possibility that these nations, widely separated in their
customs and manners of thinking, would concur in the
same opinion if God had not “engraved the sentiment
in the heart of all men at the same time that it is
depicted without by the beauty of his works.” This,
he affirmed is what Lactantius calls “the evidence of
peoples and nations” (De falsa religione, Book I, Ch.
2). After citing the aphorism of Cicero and Seneca that
the universal belief in the truth of something is an
assured and infallible evidence that it is indeed true,
Lafitau quoted an earlier deistical work, Guedeville's
Dialogues or Conversation of a Native and the Baron
de la Hontan
(Dialogues ou Entretiens d'un sauvage
et du baron de la Hontan,
1704) to prove the existence
of religion among the Hurons.

Giambattista Vico also believed in the existence of
“universal and eternal principles,” including the belief
in God “on which all nations were founded and still
preserve themselves.” He lashed out, therefore, in his
Principles of the New Science (Principi di scienza
1725, 1744) at “the modern travelers who nar-
rate that peoples of Brazil, South Africa, and other
nations of the New World... live in society without
any knowledge of God.” Vico argued simply that
“these are travelers' tales, to promote the sale of their
books by the narration of portents.”

One of the major literary works of the century,
Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), provides a convincing
example of the pervasiveness of primitivistic concep-
tions even though Swift himself was highly mundane
and sophisticated. His ridiculing of the passion for
precious metals—represented by the odious Yahoos
digging for days to extract them from the earth and
then hiding them by heaps in their kennels—had been
preceded in Gueudeville's Dialogues by a passage in
which a Huron Indian condemns the prizing of pre-
cious metals and characterizes money as “the demon
of demons.” Swift's concept that only vicious nations
have words to express the vices of humanity, that the
vocabulary of the Houyhnhnms is totally inadequate
to portray “the desire of power and riches, of the
terrible effects of lust, intemperance, malice and envy,”
had been applied by Montaigne to the Brazilians: “The
very words that signify lying, treachery, falsehood,
avarice, envy, detraction and pardon were unheard of
among them” (“Of Cannibals”). Swift's most funda-
mental concept that the natural reason which the
Houyhnhnms possess penetrates directly to the truth,
that it strikes with immediate conviction, “as it must
needs do where it is not mingled, obscured, or dis-
coloured by passion and interest,” had been previously
suggested by Lafitau in Moeurs des sauvages améri-
“They think precisely about their concerns, and
better than the masses among us: they go immediately
to their ends by direct routes.”

Rousseau, who was generally considered during the
century as being almost fanatical in his dedication to
the natural man, actually depicted man in the primitive
state as little better than a brute or animal in his first
two major works. His primary doctrines, nevertheless,
supported primitivistic suppositions. In his Discourse
on the Sciences and Arts
(Discours sur les sciences et
les arts,
1749), in which he gave a negative answer
to the query whether the development of the sciences
and arts has helped to purify morals, Rousseau para-
doxically argued that the achievements of man's intel-
lect have brought about a corresponding decline in
man's happiness. This decline he attributed to the
failure of man's passions to adjust to his intellectual
progress. Man's inherent flaw consists in his perpetual
need to elevate himself above his peers. In his Dis-
course on Inequality
(Discours sur l'inégalité, 1755),
which traces social imbalance to the establishment of
the concept of property, Rousseau touched on an argu-
ment frequently used to vindicate primitivism in eco-
nomic theory—that luxury is an evil of mundane soci-
ety productive of most of its vices. Otherwise he
portrayed man in a struggle for self-preservation so
fierce that, had he remained in the savage state, the
human race would have been in danger of extermi-
nation. In common with Lord Monboddo, he wondered
whether the orangutang should be considered a savage
man. The only difference between man and brute
animals, he declared, was man's faculty of perfecting
himself, a concept obviously antiprimitivistic.

Rousseau vigorously denied, however, that human
perfection consisted in science or belles-lettres. In the


preface to a comedy, Narcissus or the Lover of Himself
(Narcisse ou l'amant de lui-même, 1752), he empha-
sized the doctrines of his first discourse: that the taste
for the refinements of society leads to idleness and
vainglory and that science corrupts the mental proc-

Although it is true that Rousseau did not exalt the
mythical state of nature, he nevertheless almost con-
stantly portrayed the advantages of life removed from
society. The famous opening sentence of his Émile or
Concerning Education (Émile ou de l'éducation, 1762)
epitomized his confidence in nature as the strongest
force in education: “Everything is good in leaving the
hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates
in the hands of man.”

The classical concept of the Golden Age continued
to flourish, particularly in England. James Thomson,
in The Castle of Indolence (1748), described the idyllic
state of the biblical patriarchal age.

Toil was not then. Of nothing took they heed,
But with wild beasts the silvan war to wage,
And o'er vast plains their herds and flocks to feed:
Blest sons of nature they! true golden age indeed!

(Canto I, Stanza 37)

Pope in An Essay on Man (1733-34) stressed the
benevolence of life in a mythical prehistorical period.

Nor think, in Nature's State they blindly trod:
The state of Nature was the reign of God:...

(III, 149-50)

Thomson in “Spring” (1730) gave essentially the
same portrayal of the prime of days before injurious
acts or surly deeds were known among the “happy sons
of Heaven.” Reason and benevolence were law, and
manners were pure, white, and unblemished (lines

Joseph Warton in The Enthusiast: or, The Lover of
(1744) paraphrased Lucretius' De rerum natura
to produce the same effect.

Happy the first of Men, ere yet confin'd
To smoaky Cities; who in sheltering Groves,
Warm Caves, and deep-sunk Vallies liv'd and lov'd,
By Cares unwounded

(lines 78-81).

Closely related to the Golden Age is another classical
concept that even in one's own day a richer way of
life may be found in rural retirement than in urban
centers, a concept which may be called domestic
primitivism. In English its best expression is the poem
The Choice (1700) by John Pomfret. The Georgic tra-
dition in English verse similarly celebrates agricultural
life for its wholesomeness, simplicity, and virtue. Ex-
amples are John Philips' Cyder (1708) and John Dyer's
The Fleece (1757).

The transition from the Golden Age of fable to a
state of nature in modern times is well illustrated in
the poem The Alps (Die Alpen, 1729) by Albrecht von
Haller in praise of his native Swiss mountains. He
described first of all the “happy golden age, gift of
the first good,” when wheat grew of its own accord,
honey and milk ran in the streams, and lambs lay down
with the wolves. But most to be prized in this idyllic
existence which might be called soft primitivism was
the absence of superfluous luxury and lust for wealth.
In the modern world as well, according to Haller, the
state of nature (represented by life in the country or
the mountains) is to be preferred to urban conditions
because of its simplicity and even its hardship. Life
in the Alps provides bodily health and inculcates vir-
tues of independence, self-reliance, courage, and for-
titude, the same virtues extolled by the Stoics.

Die Arbeit füllt den Tag and Ruh besetzt die Nacht.
(“Work filled the day, and rest possessed the night.”)

A humble Swiss peasant later attained considerable
celebrity for rising to the “sublime heights of philoso-
phy” entirely by devoting his genius to agricultural
pursuits. This unlearned but shrewd farmer named
Jacob Kleinjogg had turned a debt-ridden property into
a profitable enterprise. His achievements were her-
alded by Hans Caspar Hirzel in Die Wirthschaft eines
philosophischen Bauers
(1761) which was later trans-
lated into English as The Rural Socrates (1770). Herzel
argued that “in the country, humanity presents itself
to our view, in a state of innocent simplicity, resem-
bling in some degree, the state of nature.” The older
Mirabeau together with the physiocrats regarded Klein-
jogg as a modern hero, and Benjamin Franklin's dis-
ciple Benjamin Vaughan edited an American edition
of The Rural Socrates in 1800. No doubt a considerable
amount of the homage accorded to “the ploughboy
poet,” Robert Burns, as well as to such pedestrian
versifiers as Stephen Duck can be traced to this vogue
for living close to nature in the domestic environment.

An English novel of revolutionary tendencies in
education Sandford and Merton (1783-89), by Thomas
Day, contrasts a young farm boy, Sandford, a British
counterpart of Jacob Kleinjogg, with a wealthy scion
of an aristocratic family, Merton. The tutor of the two
boys, the Reverend Mr. Barlow, a disciple of Rousseau's
Émile, instructs them according to a pattern of close
contact with nature, and inculcates lessons through
practical experience. Day complements the domestic
primitivism of the English farm with innumerable
moral tales celebrating the virtues of faraway Negroes,
Laplanders, and Indians.

A more famous panegyric of the virtues of English
country life is Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village


(1770) which celebrates “Sweet Auburn, loveliest vil-
lage of the plain.” Thomas Gray in similar vein drew
attention in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
(1750) to the virtues and unrealized talents of the rural
dweller, “Far from the madding crowd's ignoble

Other English poets recognized that the rugged life
of the soil which may be called hard primitivism is
not always idyllic, but they found it nevertheless ad-
mirable and salutary because of the Spartan character
it developed. William Collins in his Ode on the Popular
Superstitions of Scotland,
written about 1749, de-
scribed the “bleak rocks” and “rugged cliffs” of the
Hebrides which contribute to the “sparing temp'rance”
of the inhabitants.

Thus blest in primal innocence they live,
Suffic'd and happy with that frugal fare
Which tasteful toil and hourly danger give,
Hard is their shallow soil, and bleak and bare.
These lines are based on Martin Martin's Voyage to
St. Kilda
(1698), an influential treatment of domestic

Even Warton in The Enthusiast tempered his rhap-
sodic portrayal of nature by recognizing that the fierce
north wind often smites the shivering limbs of shep-
herds and that wild animals may fright them from their
caves to rove “houseless and cold in dark, tempestuous
Nights.” But these rigorous conditions were, never-
theless, to be prized because they develop corre-
sponding virtues.

The primitivism based on the appeal of a simple life
in far away places may be termed exotic, the chief
characteristic of which is praise of “the noble savage,”
a phrase which seems to have been introduced into
the English language by Dryden in The Conquest of
Part I (1669).

I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
This is, of course, a description of the assumed political
state of nature rather than a portrayal of actual faraway
lands. The latter Dryden had earlier supplied in a
reference to the discoveries of Columbus in To My
Honour'd Friend Dr. Charleton

The fevrish aire fann'd by a cooling breez,
The fruitful Vales set round with Shady Trees;
And guiltless Men, who danc'd away their Time,
Fresh as their Groves and Happy as their Clime.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru does not
seem to have inspired any depiction of the noble savage
in Spanish literature, with a single exception, a treatise
on the Virtues of the Indian (Virtudes del Indio), by
Juan de Palafox first printed secretly around 1650 in
the town of Puebla, Mexico. It was republished in
Spain in 1661 and translated into French in 1666. The
work, written for the purpose of extolling the qualities
and virtues of the Indians of New Spain, stressed their
contentment with poverty, their frugality, modesty,
piety, and innocence. The Indian nevertheless did not
play a major role in Spanish or Spanish-American
literature until he was introduced in the nineteenth
century under the influence of Chateaubriand. In
France and England, however, translations of Spanish
chronicles of the conquistadores led directly to several
eighteenth-century dramatic and fictional repre-
sentations of noble Aztecs and Incas. Most important
was Marmontel's philosophical novel, The Incas, or The
Destruction of Peru
(Les Incas, ou la destruction de
l'empire du Pérou,
1779), which affirmed the moral
superiority of the state of nature.

The first influential work of prose fiction devoted
to exotic primitivism was an English work, Oroonoko;
or, The Royal Slave
(1688) by Aphra Behn, which
concerns the stoic sufferings of a princely African
Negro brought by trickery to Surinam in Dutch
Guiana. The author not only extols the handsome looks,
intelligence, and courage of Oroonoko, but also lauds
the Indians of Surinam.

These people represented... an absolute Idea of the first
State of Innocence, before man knew how to sin: and 'tis
most evident and plain, that simple Nature is the most
harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous Mistress. 'Tis she alone,
if she were permitted, that better instructs the World, than
all the Inventions of Man: Religion would here but destroy
that Tranquillity they possess by Ignorance; and Laws would
but teach 'em to know offenses, of which they have no

Undoubtedly the most famous literary savage of all
times is Friday of Daniel Defoe's, Life and... Adven-
tures of Robinson Crusoe
(1719), a work which Rous-
seau considered the best textbook of the natural sci-
ences in print and the only book which he allowed
Émile to read during the period of developing reason,
from 12 to 16 years. Crusoe, who in the novel is
described as living alone for twenty-five years on an
island near the mouth of the Oroonoko River, had no
high opinion of the natives of the area, who were
cannibals, but he acquired a strong affection for Friday
whom he had saved from death at the hands of two
other natives.

Crusoe himself may not have appeared to Defoe as
a happy child of nature, but he was considered in this
light by the Yverdon Encyclopédie. “After four years,
this European felt himself eased of the great burden
of social life, when he had the good fortune of losing


the habit of reflection and thought which used to take
him back to the past or torment him with the future”
(article “Sauvages”).

Most of the noble savages who appear as characters
in literature are masculine, but a notable exception
appears in Richard Steele's story of “Inkle and Yarico”
which appeared in the Spectator (No. 11, 1710/1711).
Based on Richard Ligon's True and Exact History of
the Island of Barbados
(1657), the story concerns the
sacrificial love of a beautiful native princess, Yarico,
for an avaricious English trader, Inkle. Fleeing a party
of hostile Indians on the American mainland, Inkle is
befriended by the nude and innocent Yarico. For sev-
eral months she shelters him in the woods and finally
leads him to the coast, where he embarks on an English
vessel along with the protectress, promising faithfully
to take her with him to England. At Barbados, how-
ever, Inkle sells her into slavery despite her tearful
revelation that she is carrying his child. For the benev-
olent Steele, the story illustrated the pernicious effects
of the love of gain overcoming natural impulses. The
sentimental overtones of the story were developed in
over forty-five imitations or variants in poetry and
drama in English, German and French produced before
1830 (Lawrence M. Price, Inkle and Yarico Album,

An entirely new element was added to exotic primi-
tivism when the French explorer Louis Antoine de
Bougainville touched at Tahiti in 1768, followed
shortly thereafter by an English scientific expedition,
including in its personnel, Joseph Banks, Daniel Carl
Solander, and Captain James Cook. Tahiti offered to
the delighted Europeans a beneficent climate with food
in abundance, a race of natives extremely handsome
even by European standards, an apparent community
of property, and sex habits which approached free love.
In addition, the Tahitians followed a religion rich in
fertility rites. All this contrasted sharply with the vari-
ous Indian tribes of America, who for the most part
lived in difficult climates, were hostile and cruel toward
foreign tribes, and aroused very little sex interest in
each other or in their European visitors. Bougainville
gave Tahiti the French name “Nouvelle Cythère” be-
cause of the sexual appetites of its inhabitants as well
as “the beauty of its climate, its soil, its situation and
its produce” (Chinard, Supplément..., p. 29).

When Diderot reviewed Bougainville's report on his
expedition, Voyage Around the World (Voyage autour
du monde,
1771), he affirmed that this was the only
account of a voyage which had given him the taste
for any country other than his own. Aware of the
dangers of corrupting the island paradise of Tahiti, he
implored Bougainville to leave the innocent and fortu-
nate natives in peace and happiness, free to follow their
way of life based on “the instinct of nature.” For
Diderot, this meant that they had no conception of
“the baleful distinction between yours and mine” and
that their wives and daughters were shared in common
without the furors of love and jealousy which existed
in European society. Changing any of this, according
to Diderot, would be equivalent to forging the chains
of their future slavery. (Chinard, Supplément...,
p. 207).

The voyage of the English scientists was described
first of all in a work in French, Supplement to the
Voyage of Bougainville, or Journal of a Voyage Made
Around the World by Messrs. Banks and Solander

(Supplément au voyage de M. de Bougainville, ou Jour-
nal d'un voyage autour du monde fait par MM. Banks
et Solander,
1772) by de Fréville. The author described
the South Sea islands as “a happy land,” with “the best
built and most handsome inhabitants one could ever
see. The women especially seemed to have been em-
bellished with all the graces.” More important, de
Fréville also found among these islanders “humanity,
rectitude, and the frankness of the Golden Age.” In
1773 John Hawkesworth compiled and adapted the
observations of Cook, Banks, and Solander in a single
narrative, New Voyage Round the World. In describing
the happiness of the natives of Tahiti, he formulated
the essential dilemma of the theory of progress. “If
we admit that they are upon the whole happier than
we, we must admit that the child is happier than the
man, and that we are losers by the perfection of our
nature, the increase of our knowledge, and the en-
largement of our views.”

Bougainville brought back to France with him a
native of Tahiti, Aotourou, whom a minor social critic,
Nicolas Bricaire de La Dixmerie, used as an instrument
for satirizing French culture and the ideas of Rousseau
in The Native of Tahiti to the French People; with a
message to the philosopher, friend of the natives
Sauvage de Taiti aux Français; avec un envoi au phi-
losophe ami des sauvages,
1770). Another Tahitian,
Poutaveri, was described poetically by Jacques Delille
in The Gardens (Les Jardins, 1782), as visiting the royal
gardens and breaking out in tears at seeing a tree which
reminded him of his own land.

Les champs de Taiti si chère à son enfance,
Où l'amour sans pudeur n'est pas sans innocence.
(“The fields of Tahiti so dear to his childhood,
Where love without bashfulness is not without
The English similarly brought back to London a hand-
some and agreeable young man, Omai, who was lion-
ized and portrayed in several poems, dramatic per-
formances, and paintings.


Diderot took advantage of the vogue of Tahiti to
publish a Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville
(Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, 1796) in which
he unequivocally denounced the evils of private prop-
erty and the restraints of the Christian religion. He
attributed to Tahiti the concept which a century earlier
Aphra Behn had applied to the Indians of South
America, that “Religion would here but destroy that
Tranquillity they possess by Ignorance; and laws would
but teach 'em to know offenses of which they have
no notion.” Diderot's Supplément, bearing the subtitle,
On the Inconvenience of Attaching Ethical Concepts
to Certain Physical Actions to which They are not
enlarges the erotic and exotic elements
suggested by Bougainville. The notions of jealousy,
fidelity, chastity, and modesty associated with sexual
gratification represent, according to Diderot, moral
concepts improperly attached to a physical act. In
protesting against the taint of vice being associated in
civilized societies with the sexual act, Diderot wrote
caustically: “Bury yourself, if you wish, in the dark
forest with the perverse companion of your pleasures,
but allow the good and simple Tahitians to reproduce
without shame in the sight of heaven in broad daylight”
(Chinard, Supplément..., p. 125). Like Rousseau,
Diderot attributed all violent sex passions to the re-
straints placed on indiscriminate lovemaking in society.
For both authors, the limitation of one man to one
woman was a type of unhealthy restraint. The moral
principle of Diderot's subtitle, however, certainly does
not apply to any work of Rousseau. Indeed, it repre-
sents an opinion which Shaftesbury in his Charac-
(1711) had particularly condemned travel
writers for affirming: “That all actions are naturally
indifferent; that they have no note or character of good,
or ill, in themselves; but are distinguish'd by mere
fashion, law or arbitrary decree.” In the dialogue itself,
Diderot comes to no conclusion concerning whether
a distinction exists between vice and virtue—or
whether some vices may also appear in a state of nature
as well as in artificial society. Taking just the opposite
position to Saint Paul's in the dichotomy between the
natural man and the spiritual man, Diderot described
the inner conflict raging within each man in society
between his natural impulses and his moral prejudices.
“There existed a natural man; inside this man an arti-
ficial man has been introduced, and there takes place
in the cavern a civil war which lasts throughout life.”
By extolling the sexual freedom existing in Tahiti,
Diderot gave his answer to a question which Hawkes-
worth had raised in his New Voyage...: “Whether
the shame attending certain actions, which are allowed
on all sides to be in themselves innocent, is implanted
in Nature, or superinduced by custom?” Diderot pro
vided a further answer to this question by inserting
in the midst of his dialogue on Tahitian sexual rites
a translation of Benjamin Franklin's hoax, The Speech
of Polly Baker
(1747). Franklin's mythical Polly had
supposedly been tried in New England on charges of
bearing five bastard children. In defending herself be-
fore the court, she pleaded that she had merely been
performing her religious duty—“the Duty of the first
and great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God,
Encrease and Multiply.” The story combines two of
Franklin's favorite themes, rational religion and philo-
progenitiveness, the latter of which is a theme of
Diderot's Supplément as well.

Before the discovery of Tahiti, Lafitau had merged
the concepts of chronological and cultural primitivism
by drawing a parallel between the Greeks and Hebrews
of the ancient world and the American Indians of the
modern. A traveler to Africa, Michel Adanson in his
Natural History of Senegal (Histoire naturelle du Séné-
1758) saw the blacks in the same light. Their “ease
and indolence” together with “the simplicity of their
dress and manners” brought to his mind the concept
of “the first man,” and he “seemed to see the world
at its birth.” After Cook's voyages, Lord Monboddo
similarly observed in his Origin and Progress of Lan-
(1774) that the “golden age may be said yet to
exist... in the South Sea, where the inhabitants live,
without toil or labour, upon the bounty of nature in
those fine climates.”

At the turn of the century, Chateaubriand's senti-
mental romances Atala (1800) and René (1802) con-
cerning incredibly noble Indians of North America
left an indelible impression on his readers and kept
the stream of primitivism alive in literature until it
was later again replenished by James Fenimore
Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. The portrayal in René
of “happy savages,” seated tranquilly under their oaks,
letting their days pass without counting them, is ideal-
ized and sentimental. According to Chateaubriand, the
rational activity of the happy Indians is limited to
satisfying their needs, and they “arrive at the result
of wisdom, like a child, between play and sleep.” Their
excess of happiness occasionally induces a transitory
melancholy, from which they are diverted by looking
toward the sky for God. Despite this idyllic portrayal,
Chateaubriand admitted in his later account of his
travels in the United States (Voyage en Amérique, 1827)
that the American Indian had passed the savage state
long before the eighteenth century and that European
civilization had, therefore, not been brought to bear
upon “the pure state of nature,” but upon a native
American civilization then beginning. For Chateau-
briand as well as for Rousseau and most eighteenth-
century authors, no matter how rhapsodically they


pursued the themes of primitivism, exotic or domestic,
the pure state of nature was largely myth.

Antiprimitivism. Because of the popularity of the
Noble Savage, it was only natural that the Ugly or
Ignoble Savage should also be introduced in literature.
Polyphemus in classical antiquity followed by Shake-
speare's Caliban are the prototypes. In the eighteenth
century, the Ugly Savage was represented by the Negro
as portrayed in many travel books. Apologists of the
slave trade used a brutish stereotype to argue that the
blacks were better off as slaves in the New World than
in the cruel environment of their native Africa (J. R.
Constantine, “The Ignoble Savage, an Eighteenth
Century Stereotype,” Phylon, 27, 171-79). William
Bosman, in his New and Accurate Description of the
Coast of Guinea
(1705), charged for example that the
“Negroes are all without exception, crafty, villainous,
and fraudulent, and very seldom to be trusted.” A
former governor of Jamaica, Philip Thicknesse, based
racism upon biology in his Memoirs and Anecdotes
(1778). He admitted that Negroes are “a species of the
human race,” but of “an inferior and very different
order.” Their bile, he observed, is black; that of the
white man, yellow, “proof of their being of a very
distinct race of the human kind.”

Theories of climate which attribute physical and
intellectual backwardness to the Negro also represent
important aspects of antiprimitivism. Other strains
contrary to primitivism exist in portrayals of the rigors
of climate and dangers from wild animals in distant
lands. Captain Cook himself declared that the natives
of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America were
“perhaps as miserable a set of people as are this day
upon Earth.”

Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770), portrayed
the “dreary scene” and “various terrors” of the “horrid
shore” of Georgia. “Matted woods are filled with silent
birds and silent bats; and poisonous fields” crawl with
snakes and scorpions.

... crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men, more murderous still than they.
In Animated Nature (1774) Goldsmith viewed the
naked savage as “a poor contemptible being, standing
on the beach of the ocean, and trembling at its tu-
mults!” He is incapable of converting its terrors into
benefits or aesthetic pleasure. “He considers it an angry
deity, and pasy it the homage of submission.” Accord-
ing to Goldsmith, the savage remains without dignity
in this degraded condition until he begins to use his
mental powers. Another English poet, William Fal-
coner, gives a similarly denigrating portrait of the
primitive state in The Shipwreck (1788). Here poetry
is the civilizing influence which elevates the savage
from his degraded condition.

When in a barbarous age, with blood defiled,
The human savage roamed the gloomy wild;
When sullen ignorance her flag displayed,
And rapine and revenge her voice obeyed;
Sent from the shores of light the Muses came
The dark and solitary race to tame.

The Hottentots, inhabitants of the southern tip of
Africa, were widely considered as the most disgusting
of all primitive peoples. Sir William Petty regarded
them as the most beastlike of all men encountered by
travelers, and Sir John Ovington described them as “the
very reverse of Human Kind,” wondering whether they
should be classed as midway “between a Rational Ani-
mal and a Beast” (A. O. Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being,
p. 363). A satirical essay in The Connoisseur (No. 21,
1754) portrayed the infatuation of a Hottentot prince
with a virgin of his species. “He was struck with the
glossy hue of her complexion, which shone like the
jetty down on the black hogs of Hessaqua; he was
ravished with the prest gristle of her nose; and his eyes
dwelt with admiration on the flaccid beauties of her
breasts, which descended to her navel.” Lessing in
Laokoön (1766) cited this and a related passage as an
example of the disgusting mixed with the sentimental
to produce laughter. Quite possibly it was intended
as a burlesque of the story of Inkle and Yarico.

James Boswell scattered throughout his Life of
Samuel Johnson
(1791) numerous remarks of the great
lexicographer, directed against “cant in defense of
savages.” Johnson apparently overlooked the fact that
early in his career he had portrayed a wise Indian chief
in the manner of the deists, except that he allowed
his philosophical Indian to repeat Christian doctrine
(Idler, No. 81). Johnson nevertheless insisted that In-
dians have no physical superiority over civilized man,
attributing their reputed health and development to
a high incidence of infant mortality. “As to care of
mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below
it, like bears.” Rhapsodies over the state of nature,
Johnson dismissed as gross absurdity. “It is sad stuff;
it is brutish. If a bull could speak, he might as well
exclaim,—Here am I with this cow and grass; what
being could enjoy greater felicity?” In response to the
often-repeated argument that savages scorn the com-
plications and cares of civilized life, Johnson roundly
declared that their opinion comes from ignorance
alone. If savages were told about the labor, time, and
risk involved in building a house, Johnson averred,
“they would laugh heartily at our folly in building;
but it does not follow that men are better without

The strongest voice raised anywhere against primi-
tivism was the ultra-sophisticated and highly cultivated
Voltaire. In his poetic defense of luxury, Le Mondain
(1736), developing the theories of Mandeville's Fable


of the Bees (1727), Voltaire cleverly mocked both cul-
tural and chronological primitivism. It is true, accord-
ing to Voltaire, that in the earliest times our ancestors
lived in ignorance, not recognizing private property.
Indeed they could not, for they were naked and had
no property of any kind. He who has nothing has no
sharing to worry about. Later in the article “Homme”
of his Philosophical Dictionary (Dictionnaire philo-
1765), Voltaire seriously and vehemently
repudiated the notion of man's nobility in the pure
state of nature. Such a man he argued would be far
below the Iroquois of America. “The inhabitants of
Kamchatka and the Hottentots of our days, clearly
superior to the completely savage man, are animals
who live six months of the year in caves, where they
eat with their bare hands the vermin by whom they
are eaten in turn.” Like Rousseau, Voltaire recognized
that the “pure state of nature” does not exist, and he
was fervently persuaded that if it did, it would be


An extensive bibliography appears in Paul Hazard, La
Pensée européenne au XVIIIe siècle
(Paris, 1946). A pioneer
study, still not superseded, is Gilbert Chinard's L'Amérique
et le rêve exotique
(Paris, 1913). A discussion from a socio-
logical perspective is René Gonnard's La Légende du bon
(Paris, 1946). Studies primarily devoted to English
literature are H. N. Fairchild, The Noble Savage (New York,
1928) and M. M. Fitzgerald, First Follow Nature (New York,
1947). A superb study of the “Gothic” background is North-
ern Antiquities in French Learning and Literature
by Thor
J. Beck, 2 vols. (New York, 1934-35). E. A. Runge covers
the German phase in Primitivism and Related Ideas in Sturm
and Drang Literature
(Baltimore, 1946). Two of the most
valuable sources are editions of Diderot's Supplément au
voyage de Bougainville
edited by Gilbert Chinard (Paris,
1935) and by Herbert Dieckmann (Geneva, 1955).


[See also Deism; Nature; Primitivism; Progress; Romanticism
in Literature;
Social Contract.]