The ‘Noble Savage’ Is a Myth
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by modernity? When sitting at your computer staring at a spreadsheet, or hunched over your phone waiting for the likes to roll in for your latest post, do you ever question whether the information age was worth it?
Surely we would be better off if we did not measure our self-worth based on superficial digital affirmations delivered via a vast impersonal network that has woven itself into every aspect of our lives?
Getting away from technology is impossible when it is so pervasive. Not only are our devices all connected, but our brains are becoming hardwired to our device, creating a chemical dependency that keeps us hooked. We might feel like taking a break every now and then, but very soon we find ourselves dragged back to our screens, often without any conscious awareness of what we are doing.
Finding a cure for the malady of the modern world is something philosophers have sought even before our current notion of ‘modernity’ took shape. Looking back to antiquity, the best thinkers of the time were looking for ways to ease the pain of the disruptive social and political currents brought about by new technologies, fashions, and ideologies.
The rise of the Greek stoic school, carried on by the Romans and popularized today by writers like Ryan Holiday, grew in step with the expansion of civilization, which even back then was considered something of a double-edged sword.
Dealing with civilizational exhaustion
Reading the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epicurus, one gets a sense that people from all walks of life — emperors, merchants and slaves — were grappling with modernity and the new impositions that were foisted on them.
Their thoughts were not dissimilar to the great Enlightenment thinkers, who lived at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and certainly expressed misgivings about the nature and pace of change.
On the matter of civilization, there were thinkers pro and contra. In fact, much of the Enlightenment project was an attempt to make sense of this thing called civilization, and to determine how much of it was good and necessary, and how much of it needed to be tamed and possibly rolled back. Even as religion and superstition gave way to scientific discovery and rationality, there seemed to be no guarantee that people would be happier and more content with their lives.
David Hume was someone who generally held an optimistic view of the human flourishing enabled by civilization. Humans, in pursuing the necessities of life, were able to lift themselves out of a state of subsistence and, through the formation of political and commercial structures that extended beyond family and tribe, to generate a greater overall wealth. Through this process they were able to allow a great part of the population to focus on leisure and learning.
There was just one catch: to participate in this new world of human cooperation, one was required to adopt a certain sociability. This meant adhering to a moral and social consensus, which was the glue that held the system together. Going against the tide of this consensus was costly and could see individuals shunned and cut off from friendships and employment.
Naturally, not everyone was content with this. Bernard Mandeville, who shared Hume’s view of how commercial society took root, was nonetheless more cynical. The civilizing process, while it had delivered vast material gains, had ultimately led to the enslavement of human personality. Primitive humans may have lived in a state of wretched insecurity and indigence, but they had at least been their own masters. Now, cunning rulers and alienated institutions had robbed them of a sense of self and forced them to submit to new canons of taste, manners, and morals.
Can we ever return to our ‘natural’ state?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau took this cynicism a step further. The term ‘noble savage’ did not originate with Rousseau, but his works have become the most well-known embodiment of it.
His work Émile is a long treatise on the corrupting influence of education, while his autobiographical Confessions reaffirms the basic tenets of humanity’s innate goodness. Dreams of a Solitary Walker is steeped in romanticist descriptions of our relationship to nature, and our deep desire to commune with it.
As Adam Smith wrote in his most important work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
“Dr Mandeville represents the primitive state of mankind as the most wretched and miserable that can be imagined: Mr Rousseau, on the contrary, paints it as the happiest and most suitable to his nature.”
Rousseau believed the original “man” was free from sin and lived a life in full accordance with “his” nature. This is far from today’s anthropological understanding of human development. Our morality may exist to support a highly evolved commercial system, but that does not mean that returning to nature will make us happier, more morally pure, or more content. We are stuck with modernity, and any attempt to unscramble the civilizational omelet could be disastrous.
It is hard to resist a Mandevillian cynicism, which spurs us to rid ourselves of digital distractions and our addiction to the small packets of serotonin that our social media accounts feed us. It can even be tempting to adopt a fully-fledged Rousseauian attitude that pits us directly at odds with the digital age. But we cannot extricate ourselves from it entirely. We can only mitigate the effects.
All of us are required to be online. It is not something that we can hope to avoid if we want to enjoy the fruits that rapid exchanges of information allow. We are in the midst of a second Industrial Revolution, and it is proving to be just as dislocating. What is needed then is a second Enlightenment that can help us navigate this second wave of civilizational change. We cannot avoid it, but we can tame it and make it more agreeable to our primitive egos.
Perhaps the stoics were right after all. Raging against the system will not grant us the life we want. It is up to us to make it work, which means accepting modern life with all its imperfections. We can find ways to return to nature without destroying the bonds that connect us with society.