The Noble Savage is not a person, but an idea. It is cultural primitivism, the belief of people living in complex and evolved societies that the simple and primitive life is better.
The Noble Savage is the myth that man can live in harmony with nature, that technology is destructive and that we would all be happier in a more primitive state.
In 1755, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that what appeared to be human progress was in fact decay. The best condition for human beings to live in, according to Rousseau, was the “pure state of nature” in which savages existed. When men lived as hunters and gatherers, they were “free, healthy, honest and happy.”
The downfall of man occurred when people started to live in cities, acquire private property and practice agriculture and metallurgy. The acquisition of private property resulted in inequality, aroused the vice of envy and led to perpetual conflict and unceasing warfare.
According to Rousseau, civilization itself was the scourge of humanity. Rousseau went so far as to make the astonishing claim that the source of all human misery was what he termed our “faculty of improvement,” or the use of our minds to improve the human condition.
Since Rousseau wrote, more than 250 years of archeological and ethnographic research have shown that most of the imaginative conceptions associated with the Noble Savage are simply wrong. Archeologist Steven A. Leblanc wrote that “warfare in the past was pervasive and deadly.” Conflict between bands of hunter-gatherers was universal and intense, and the practices of cannibalism and infanticide were common.
Before the Industrial Revolution disease and poverty were endemic, even in civilized societies. In 18th century Europe half of all children died before their 10th birthday, and life expectancy at birth was only 25 years.
Neither did pre-industrial civilizations live in a state of ecological harmony with their environment. Their exploitation of nature was often destructive. The Mediterranean islands colonized by the ancient Greeks were transformed into barren rock by overgrazing and deforestation. The Bay of Troy, described in Homer’s Iliad, has been filled in by sediment eroded from surrounding hillsides destabilized by unsustainable agricultural practices.