The noble savage

Rousseau is derogating the social man when he says "the savage lives in himself; the man accustomed to the ways of society is always outside himself and knows how to live only in the opinion of others. And it is, as it were, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence" (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). The problem with his view is not just that he romanticizes the savage, but also that his evaluation of our social nature is one-sided. It is not true, as Rousseau thinks, that we are "always asking others what we are and never daring to question ourselves on the matter". Being social, we have to question ourselves as well as ask others; being social, we do not simply conform to the values and reasons of others but share many of those values and reasons. This is the case when we make normative judgments generally, and when we make judgments about meaningfulness particularly. A savage, even a noble one, if completely non-social, cannot have a life that is meaningful (or meaningless).


  1. you are not paying enough attention to what Rousseau is saying in Discourse on the inequality of man. he is saying that man was at that meaningful/meaningless state in nature. what brought him out of that was contact with other people. then when a man had someone else to compare himself to, that was when inequality came about which is what he is argueing about. he is saying that as savages we were relatively happy. as opposed to now when we are only happy when we can feel better than others.

  2. I am no Rousseau scholar, but it should be noted that what I said was about meaningfulness, not about happiness.