The “Noble Savage” character is an idea about a distant culture or group of people (often used in works of fiction) that are uncorrupted by the evils of society. It’s usually an oversimplification of an indigenous people who are in touch with nature, and, while misunderstood by the industrial powers at large, they are innately spiritual and closer to what it means to be human.
Examples date back to ancient Greek literature. The Romans had a Noble Savage sort of awe about the Celts, especially past Gaul and into what is now the United Kingdom. The key part here is that they still regarded them as savages, but as noble ones who were in touch with nature in a mystic, admirable way. Imagine rich, upper echelon Romans, fed by their slaves and hearing updates as Caesar burns through civilian populations throughout Gaul, slaughtering untold numbers of people — and musing among one another, “Those savages, their druids in particular, they really have it right. I was out on a walk in the woods the other day and it was just delightful, no doubt they really get it up there.” And they continue to live their lavish lifestyles, daydreaming and perhaps even going out camping from time to time. Just as the “savages” do.
Of course, we don’t use the term “noble savage” much anymore in America, but the idea still permeates our society. No doubt, a large part of it is due to our geography and the vast oceans that stand between us and the rest of the world. Everything foreign seems that much more foreign from all the way over here.
For example, take many perceptions of the Buddhist world from over here. Many people claim to have this idea that far eastern Buddhism is this transcendental philosophy, while breezing over the whole religion part that may threaten to remind them of religion back at home.
I lived in Thailand for five years, and have gone back to visit pretty much every year since 2007. I love it there and I love the people there — for all their fascinating differences and surprising similarities to my home culture in the U.S. There are absolutely boatloads of wisdom to be obtained from all facets of their culture, but it’s not the odd, all-knowing, namaste trope that I’ve seen expected by so many tourists passing through.
The same lens has been used to look at the Muslim community too. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen of Muslim families in places like Afghanistan, that are basically just American families, but the wife wears a hijab (sort of). Oh, and they are far more in touch with the spiritual side of things than Americans will ever be, as they would have you believe. Some stories even present them as wise shaman-like characters.
Before I lived in Thailand, I lived in northern Pakistan for nine years. And again, I love the people there, respect and draw wisdom from their religious and philosophical beliefs alike — though no two people there are the same, just like here. Most people there are just people, like everywhere else. Some things are different; many things are the same. I would say that right now the deep middle east has some serious issues that they need to work through, namely in regards to women’s rights, education and religious freedom, but by and large grouping them into one generalization (positive or negative) would be just as ridiculous as lumping together all Americans as the same — which I think we can all agree is very untrue.
As someone who has never really had much exposure to Judaism, I am skeptical of any thoughts or ideas about it from an American perspective, simply because of how weird and off people are about the groups that I do have experience with. I would also not presume to know anything about the Muslim population in a place like Iran or Turkey, or the Buddhist beliefs in Cambodia or Sri Lanka. It’s like people have some kind of agenda or idea in their heads, and they apply that as some blanket statement to entire groups of people that they have limited to no experience with. They treat them with that “Noble Savage” attitude, as if they lack sophistication or the desire to assimilate into all the advantages modern society has to offer.
Of course there is a lot to be gained from simple living, or to living in distant and different cultures (many of which are extremely sophisticated and advanced). I would recommend it to everyone, though once you live there for a while, just realize they won’t be distant or different anymore, and you’ll find the same frustrations that you have in your own society now … just in different forms. You just have to keep your ears and eyes open, even in the culture you live in now, and try to see what it has to offer, not what constantly pisses you off.
If you do go to these far away places, just work on keeping an open mind and just learning what there is to learn — it will likely be far different from what you expect.
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.