Noble savage

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The term noble savage originally expressed the concept of a Christian prince disguised as a Spanish Muslim. The phrase first appeared in the seventeenth century in Dryden's heroic play, The Conquest of Granada (1672), but later became identified with the idealized picture of "nature's gentleman", which was an aspect of eighteenth-century sentimentalism.

Noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, who wished to disassociate himself from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century romantic primitivism.

The idea that in a state of nature humans are essentially good is often attributed to the Earl of Shaftesbury, a whig supporter of constitutional monarchy (such as England possessed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688). In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue (1699), Shaftesbury had postulated that the moral sense in humans is natural and innate and based on feelings rather than resulting from the indoctrination of a particular religion.

Like many of his contemporaries, Shaftesbury was reacting to Hobbes's justification of royal absolutism in his Leviathan, Chapter XIII, in which he famously holds that the state of nature is a "war of all against all" in which men's lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". The notion of the state of nature itself derives from the republican writings of Cicero and of Lucretius, both of whom enjoyed great vogue in the eighteenth century, after having been revived amid the optimistic atmosphere of Renaissance humanism.


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