The savage is back

Happy 2015! I haven’t gone the way of the dodo/post-inspired blogger who realizes how much she’d rather stay in bed/stay out/stay away from the keyboard than write her daily post like she damn well said she would. I did take two weeks off at Christmas, during which time I was sick and then disconnected from the Internet…and here I am again.


Last week I wrote my hardest to produce what is no doubt a blindingly mediocre political philosophy paper for my hardest and most stimulating course this fall at CUNY. In spite of my self-deprecation, I learned quite a lot in the process…

The Abstracted, Subordinated, and Uncultivated Savage as Rhetorical Device and Justification in the Work of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill

Since ancient times, philosophers have struggled to find answers for both the current and universal questions asked since the waking of man to his capacity for intellectualization. Such questions explore the nature of the universe and humankind’s place in it, the existence of a Supreme Being, the possibility of free will versus fate, the definitions and limitations of morality, the nature of happiness, and so on. An important philosophical question of similarly broad implications is that of the relationship between the individual and the State, which has been of particular important in Dr. Uday Mehta’s class this fall at the Graduate Center at City University of New York; reading the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill requires one to explore such challenging territory through the lens of each thinker and to absorb his particular ways of establishing what is generally “true” within his social and historical context vis-à-vis political life within the nation where he lived as well the geopolitically complicated context within which his nation was situated. So it is no doubt true today with modern public intellectuals.

The following may be asked in attempting to articulate how the individual exists as a member of the body politic: What constitutes a “citizen”? He[1] who is recognizable, he who acts according to the values, principles, and laws of the land, he who contributes meaningfully to the body politic. Seemingly simple, the counter-question might be posed: Who and what remains to be legitimized outside this body politic, and how? Each of the four writers makes use of a rhetorical device, the conception of the savage – a category forged in contrast to the norms of the times in which he wrote – in a subtle, powerful response to this question and to questions of moral rightness, education, equality, liberty, and progress, among others. The savage in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill is used rhetorically to persuade others of the verity of his work, an entity characterized as: 1) idealized, abstracted from reality in order to offer a contrast to dominant modes of thinking and being; 2) inferior vis-à-vis these dominant modes of existence; and 3) having the possibility to be made useful and/or converted into a more useful state for accommodation/assimilation into the dominant paradigm. Such an articulation implies power relationships and historical context in which this definition has particular meaning, ranging from Hobbes’ anxieties about man’s potential for self-destruction in the State of Nature to John Stuart Mill’s vision of the savage as a subject in consequence of European imperialist expansionism. It could further be argued that the development for some of the justification of paternalistic and expansionist policies vis-à-vis the conquering of peoples and lands and the colonized territories that resulted was rooted in Hobbes work in the 1600s, progressing into a sort of logical philosophical ethic by the time of John Stuart Mill.

Hobbes’ Leviathan, written in the mid-17th century during the Civil War in England, is generally understood to be a response to the anxieties he felt at a time of great political instability. In writing a work which employed Euclidean logic – an approach which Hobbes believed would provide the incontrovertible structure required for the sort of philosophical work he was undertaking, rather than follow earlier modes of thought in philosophy which argued that on the basis of Divine Righteousness or on history and civil discourse which were considered inscrutable in their elaboration of new territories of thought (Mehta, Class Lecture on 9/2, 2014) – Hobbes undertook in Leviathan the resolution of a most profound question in social existence of its time, namely, by what means can man exist in contact with others and yet avoid the “violent and painful death” that would result from remaining in the State of Nature, a death that Hobbes clearly dreaded. (Hobbes, 1651, p. 110)

In entering into the social contract — a mutually agreed-upon shared existence in which all participants are bound to the rules of the contract in order to benefit from the protections it generates – Hobbes argued that man sacrifices his natural freedom to acquire the protection afforded by the Commonwealth (the Leviathan), as his main motivation of self-protection superseded all other desires, including those Passions which drive men to act in ways or to make judgments which may be contrary to this motivation for safety. (pp. 30-31) The absolute and unified power of the sovereign as the soul of the Leviathan provided this protection; thus, Hobbes’ work constituted a defense of monarchy through what Sanford Lakoff termed “an equality of domination” (Lakoff, 1964), an idea which created political tensions for him at a time when the notions of royalty and absolute power were being challenged. According to Hobbes, “[t]he attaining to this sovereign power is by two ways. One, by natural force: as when a man maketh his children to submit themselves, and their children, to his government, as being able to destroy them if they refuse; or by war subdueth his enemies to his will, giving them their lives on that condition.” (p. 152) The relating of power to the subject-as-child is significant, and this allegory finds echoes in later works by philosophers and political thinkers justifying imperial expansionism and the treatment of native peoples.

Hobbes in fact directly references the savage peoples of America – whose existence had been discovered in the century preceding his work through the explorations of John Cabot and others who wrote travel journals and accounts to provide much of what was considered common knowledge about native Americans – and cautions the reader of what may occur when men are left to exist in the State of Nature:

“For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner…” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 111)

Avoidance of the “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 110) existence of a man living in the State of Nature was primary to securing a stable social existence in Hobbes’ view; Hobbes employed the allegory of the American native, a savage who, without the protection of a centralized, unified government, Hobbes argued, remained subject to the caprice of the innate Passions of all men. (p. 58, 119) This position, Hobbes argued, was one of perpetual vulnerability and existential uncertainty, leaving man with a simple decision: to accept the social contract and sacrifice one’s freedom, in the form of obedience to the dictates of a unified, absolute authority (a sovereign taking the form of an authoritarian monarch), for protection from an uncertain and potentially bellicose existence like the one experienced by the savages abroad, an abstraction based on travel logs and accounts from returned voyagers but powerful in its exoticism and seeming opposition to civilized society. (p. 195) Not only a cautionary tale as to the fate of civilized man if he chose not to submit to the conditions of the Leviathan, it might also be argued that underlying Hobbes’ argumentation lay a cultural superiority vis-à-vis the less developed savage and his form of existence. Indeed, later in the text, Hobbes refers deprecatingly to native Americans as “savages” and “idolaters,” describing their less developed understandings in areas of construction (p. 299), philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge (pp. 603-604), and religion (p. 621) in contrast to those of the British; he also uses the term “brute beast” in discussing the limitations natural beings (perhaps including native peoples) would have in entering into the sort of covenant he proposes:

“To make covenants with brute beasts is impossible, because not understanding our speech, they understand not, nor accept of any translation of right, nor can translate any right to another: and without mutual acceptation, there is no covenant.” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 120)

Such a commentary likely reflects the Eurocentric thinking of the times about the contrast between citizens of European powers and the savage peoples they found in their imperialistic explorations, a perception which would set the stage for future visions of discovered savage life as unequal and in need of conversion into useful forms in order to be accepted.

An important parallel thread which reflects first a literal meaning and then a metaphorical one vis-à-vis the savage in Hobbes’ Leviathan is his consistent mention of children as individuals requiring guidance and custodial protection. This might be seen as an obvious statement irrespective of the times in which it is written, but Hobbes’ wording is important as it outlines the ways in which children are “ignorant” of the rule of law due to their undeveloped rationality, a viewpoint to be echoed by Locke and Hegel later:

[C]hildren, fools, and madmen that have no use of reason may be personated by guardians, or curators…” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 143)

For the uneducated, undeveloped, uncultivated mind – that of “children, fools, and madmen” – reason is useless, a fact which requires the subordination of these individuals to the custodial protection of a guardian. As reason is the means by which man is able to define his own salvation from the State of Nature (by choosing to exist within the social contract of the Commonwealth), those who do not possess and/or cannot employ this faculty must remain the ward of a guardian. This form of power over one’s children is named “paternal” by Hobbes, a dynamic which he deems “the right of dominion by generation” (p. 176), heralding later descriptions of imperial power and their presumed custodianship over their colonies. In fact, Hobbes’ following claim might be said to act as a harbinger of such a vision:

“The procreation or children of a Commonwealth are those we call plantations, or colonies; which are numbers of men sent out from the Commonwealth, under a conductor or governor, to inhabit a foreign country, either formerly void of inhabitants, or made void then by war…[T]he right of colonies, saving honour and league with their metropolis, dependeth wholly on their license, or letters, by which their sovereign authorized them to plant.” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 224)

Thus the lands conquered by an imperial power – and their residents – are like “children” according to the Hobbesian view of colonization; in order to expand, to develop beyond one’s own limits, one must continue to generate and cultivate new territories from untilled, “uncivilized” lands which await the reason and guidance of an occupying power such as Hobbes’ Britain in the 1600s. While children – or those existences for which the metaphor of “child” stood – were not explicitly called savage by Hobbes, the differentiation between the child and the parent, likewise the colony and the imperial power, was based on characterizations that places the former of each pair into a position of inferiority, of awaiting the process of being educated/cultivated in order to be transformed into participants/territories useful to the larger community (empire).

As in the work of Hobbes, the savage factors as an effective rhetorical device undergirding the development of the political philosophy of Locke. Writing during the latter part of the 17th century, in a time when imperialistic expansion was well underway not only in connecting Europe to new economic and geopolitical opportunities but also in creating new dialectics of “civilized” vs. “native” life, Locke’s work, including Second Treatise of Government (1689) championed freedom, equality, and property, concepts that would be reappropriated almost 100 years later by Thomas Jefferson in crafting the Declaration of Independence for the establishment of the United States as a nation free from the imperial control of England (though Jefferson famously changed out the principle of property for that of “happiness”). Locke controverted the support of a monarchy advocated by both Hobbes and Locke’s contemporary, Robert Filmer, arguing instead for a limited government rather than an absolute one, and established that the people use their rationality to legitimate those in power – through the democratic relationship between the citizens and the government – and to establish a set of laws which would provide the means to and the convenience of a safe and stable society. Through the human capacity for reason, Locke averred in Second Treatise of Government, did men “join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives” (p. 66) as well as preservation of their private property; this notion of property was particularly important to Locke, who stated that “the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men” and further, that this common possession may be transformed into private property through one’s labor. (pp. 19-20)

Locke described what he saw as categorical power relations in human society, including those taking place within the family, in professional activities, and in political life, a move which established him as one of the forefathers of what is now known as modern sociology (Mehta, Class Lecture on 10/8, 2014); in particular, Locke contrasts the political relationship typified by “the power of the magistrate over a subject” to that of “a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave” (Locke, 1689, p. 7). Each of these power relationships illustrates a different form of political limitation necessary to its success within the framework of political society; for example, a father educates his child until such time as the child has developed his capacity for reason and can therefore participate in democratic society, while the husband in a “paterfamilia” is the master of his wife and children in order to act as a representative in greater society outside their household. (p. 71) In terms of the relationship between children and their parents with respect to education, it has in fact been suggested by modern thinkers that Locke’s envisioning of childrearing could be likened to the cultivation of the raw, natural mind of a child through “tutelage as a necessary stage” of their development without which they cannot enter into contractual agreement as members of the polity. (Mehta, 1999, p. 32)

In using the lens of the savage – an entity which is abstracted from its true nature, seen to be inferior, and made to be of use to the dominant paradigm – Locke also appears to establish in his philosophy a proto-political relationship between man and his natural environment as well, what modern non-Western thinkers like Russell Means (Means, 1980) might characterize as a hopelessly Western view of Nature as a source of sustenance, opportunity, and growth for expanding civilizations. In Second Treatise of Government, little direct allusion is made to other peoples as savages; rather, Locke alludes to “wastefulness” and utilizes the prospect of the taking of virgin lands in territorial acquisition and the subsequent creation of productive colonies and lands in order to “improve the common stock of mankind” (p. 23), thus contributing to a means to peaceful human civilization (p. 25), illustrating Locke’s paternalistic vision of the acquisition of lands to be used in the service of the population of men in the acquiring, “rational” nation. Locke’s reasoning is that property (“estate”) is one of the natural rights of man, along with life and liberty; taken through the lens, it is not the outsider-as-man but the outsider-as-virgin-territory in which Nature is savage, to be subjected to the moral imperative of the acquisition and conversion of territory into property:

“[I]n the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated?” (Locke, 1689, p. 24)

It is not coincidence that this paternalistic, expansionist view leads to the support of colonial acquisition, which Locke supports, stating that “the increase of lands, and the right employing of them, is the great art of government” (p. 27).

Any a priori claim to such lands by their inhabitants remains a question mark in Locke’s work, though it could be construed that because these foreign peoples did not employ the Western form of reason that Locke so prized as a means to freedom and peaceful social and political existence, they would require the care of a paternal European power to guide them. Ironically but perhaps not oxymoronically, another form of savage contained in the worldview of Locke’s philosophy of natural rights is attributed a form of nobility while his lands are critiqued as relatively unproductive. The archetypal “noble savage,” to Locke and his contemporaries, provided a model for a form of political coexistence that contrasted Europe’s tradition of monarchical government undergirded by Adamic law, as “American Indian societies were working democracies that drew the attention, and often the admiration, of Europeans from the time of the first contacts” (Grinde, Jr., 1990); these models surely played a part in Locke’s envisioning of harmonious communal existence both on the Continent and in the colonies of the New World:

“[W]e must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” (Locke, 1689, p. 8)

The savage appears to be the source of the origins of mankind whose shared social existence is one of the freedom to which each individual is born. It is through the formation of government – the conversion of this savage social organization into a mutually agreed-upon contractual political system – that the “inconvenience” of living in the natural state is removed (Mehta, Class Lecture on 10/8, 2014). The existence of American Indians in a body politic founded on mutual decision-making could represent a clear example of what might be possible when the older European model of absolutist government, which could incur abuse of the rights of their subjects like those of Europe, was rejected; in contrast, “[t]ribesmen in North America seemed to be free of such abuses.” (Grinde, Jr., 1990)

The word “seemed” in the above quote is not a coincidence; the author chose well to use a less affirmative word in the sentence as it implies, too, the distance with which European thinkers like Locke viewed native American life. The process of idealization is important to the image of the savage in modern political philosophy as doing so strips it of any concrete, local examples, making it both incontrovertible and universally applicable (and, thus, particularly effective in philosophical discourse). However, while Hobbes’ allegorical characterization of the savage brought validity to his claim that life under an absolute and unified authority was preferable to the life of the native inhabitants of America, Locke derived the essence for his political philosophy through an envisioning of conversion, of adoption for use, even perhaps of subordination of that which is natural, savage, to the forms and ends of freedom in Western colonizing powers.

It bears mentioning that Locke’s idealized vision of freedom for all men was aided by the inaccessibility of first-hand and objective evidence[2] as to the way colonies were managed by occupying powers, thus permitting an application of his ideas of freedom and equality of all men that acted to serve the mission of the conquering imperialistic forces in their colonial territories. According to Uday Mehta:

“[F]rom the seventeenth century onward, the British, the Dutch, and the French rightly conceived of themselves as having elaborated and integrated into their societies an understanding of political freedom, and yet during this very period they pursued and held vast empires where such freedoms were either absent or severely attenuated for the majority of the native inhabitants.” (Mehta, 1999, p. 7)

This seems to indicate the tragic flaw in much of philosophy: that a formalism such as the notion that all men should be equal and self-governing in the eyes of the law – a generally liberalist view – becomes a substantively different version of itself depending on where and when it is applied. (Lakoff, p. 6) Mehta goes on to suggest that while this may appear a form of hypocrisy, the reality is that the conflict between the view that all men are born equal – an a priori political vision of humanity – and the relative value placed on the worldviews and ways of being of the various constituents of an empire (Anglo-Saxon versus Indian or Native American) – a sociohistorical and geopolitical position – is nonetheless accommodated by Locke and others after him. According to Mehta, “[Locke’s] ideas were no longer the vehicle for making people equal, because here they were assumed to have been born equal.” (pp. 10-11) While problematic and of course establishing a justification for the abuse and exploitation of native inhabitants of occupied territories during the colonial era, Locke’s writings inspired much of the foundational text of the new nation of the United States of America nearly 100 years after he proposed such radical thinking, text which persists even into what might be described as America’s move into a decidedly neoliberal version of itself in the last 40 years.

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel’s seminal work Philosophy of Right (1820) articulated a vision of society where individuals pursue particular interests, in turn willing the good of mankind as the primary universal human desire for freedom, mediated through the existence of a State which supports the actualization of this desire. Hegel believed strongly that at the sociohistorical time of his writing, mankind had been progressing towards this realization of the desire to be free, a fact which finally became possible in Prussia (his home country) in the early 19th century; the collective self-consciousness of humankind, engaged through the “intrinsic rationality of the state” and its institutions (Hegel, pp. 202-203), indicated a reflective ethical order necessary for the fulfillment of its political destiny. Notwithstanding the fact that Hegel held as a core value of actualized human existence the desire for freedom, he did not agree with Locke that man is born free. Hegel instead asserted that the priority and definition of freedom as a universal had developed over time through various sociohistorical moments localized in certain places in the world (Hegel, pp. 201-202); this was achieved, according to Hegel, as the universal Spirit thrust man toward his destiny, motivating him to develop over time the power to ratiocinate and, consequently, achieve awareness of the universal human objective of freedom.

Rationality is thus a key feature of Hegel’s writings and it is in his comments about reason and the rational mind of man that we find references to the abstraction of the savage. Hegel saw the State of Nature of the uneducated mind as a locus of savage existence, the starting point whence came the rational man, moving into self-consciousness of his quest to be free:

“[A] state of nature is a state of savagery and slavery. Freedom is nowhere to be found except in the return of spirit and thought to itself, a process by which it distinguishes itself from the natural and turns back upon it.” (Hegel, 1820, p. 162)

The rational man is not a slave, according to Hegel, though the savage state into which he is born is in fact inherent to his nature; likewise, the enslaved “natural” man is only liberated through the application of his own capacities, developed “through the education of his body and mind” via which “does he take possession of himself” as a subjective being. (Hegel, p. 65) The savage has moved from outside the political subject – as in the case of Hobbes and Locke – to within him.

Hegel argued that just as education was a means to becoming a rational being, it was through work that one is a rational contributor to society; in order to characterize this perspective, he invoked the contrast between the “barbarian” and the “civilized” man:

“The barbarian is lazy, and is distinguished from the civilized man by his brooding stupidity. Practical training consists in habitual employment and the need of it.” (Hegel, 1820, p. 163)

What can Hegel mean by “barbarian”? Is it someone who has not reached the level of rational ability that Hegel so champions in viewing human progress as a means to achieving its potential for freedom? The obvious question to follow up would be whether man could ever be civilized outside of Western Europe (if outside of Prussia at all). Wendy Hamblet (2008) might say in her discussion of Hegel’s view of African cultures that Hegel would be decidedly against this possibility, on the very basis of his arguing for the development of the reason of man through the conversion his savage and untilled intellect into the civilized, rational mind:

“In Hegel, the Cartesian cogito becomes governor of the world, and since every governor needs its subordinates, the Africans serve nicely as the primal point of reason’s initial moment of unfolding…they could be said to be ‘primitive,’ having no history, no culture, and no development.” (Hamblet, 2008, p. 139)

This issue becomes especially complicated when attending to the unavoidable preeminence of Western economic and military might derived in part from the possession of colonies. While Hegel avers that “[i]n modern times colonists have not been granted the rights possessed by the inhabitants of the parent country,” he still accepts this as a necessary evil of his times. (Hegel, pp. 190-191) He still, however, veils his judgments of the relative civility of men by establishing the priority of education and work, a perspective which cannot avoid implicating itself to an extent as an ethnocentric, paternalistic, and even classist view that puts Prussians at the top of the scale of the process of self-actualization and other, more “savage”/less cultivated peoples below them, as in the case of the Lazzaroni population in Italy. (Hegel, p. 188)

The paternalism of Locke and Hegel – justified at a profound, almost unconscious level by characterizations of the inferior, abstracted savage needing conversion into usefulness – extended into the 19th century in the work of John Stuart Mill, though like his predecessors, Mill was powerfully committed to notions of self-governance and/or the limitation of government, equality, and the freedom to define one’s existence according to one’s will. Mill, a British writer in the 19th century famous for continuing Locke’s prioritization of the limitation of government (also known as liberalism) and for developing, along with Jeremy Bentham and others, the concept of utilitarianism, conceived of a philosophy based on the idea that the pursuit of happiness constitutes a foundation for moral existence. The determiner of the value of a particular action, according to Mill, is its utility, what some call its “the greatest aggregate good”; when an action promotes happiness (goodness) for the greatest number of people, it is considered a better, more moral act than something which produces less happiness or happiness for a smaller number of people. (Mill, 1861, p. 5)

Mill appeared to step forward to clarify the position of ethnocentric judgment of the undeveloped intellects of savage peoples in other countries and their need for saving from their “natural,” inchoate state that Hegel seemed to espouse; Mill argued that he was “not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.” (Mill, 1859, p. 109) Yet Mill, in a seeming contradiction, also makes it clear that there is a hierarchy of civilization via the intellectual superiority of citizens of civilized countries (Mill, 1861, p. 10) in contrast to those who come from places less “developed”; further, he goes so far as to suggest that despotic rule over “barbarians” insofar as they can benefit from such governance (a judgment made, of course, by the ruling power), which would seem an illustration of the claim of utility in questioning the morality of particular actions:

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” (Mill, 1859, p. 14)

This consequentialist argument obviously contains problems, to be articulated by post-colonialist scholars such as Uday Mehta and others; Mill in fact leaves the door open for broad and potentially dangerous interpretations of his writing in making statements like the one above or in his claim that all people deserve to be treated equally except in the case of “social expediency.” (Mill, 1859, p. 32) Such a broad statement might well have found concrete examples of the need for differential treatment based on “social expediency” in the case of colonial subjects in occupied territories such as India; the obvious paternalism implied by such a posture which refers to the people living in “less developed” parts of the world seeks to abstract the native occupants of the colonies into pre-converted, “barbaric” territory. According to Uday Mehta:

“[F]ollowing Locke, there was a broad consensus that linked the exercise of political power with the rights of citizens, and yet the existence of the empire meant that British power was overwhelmingly exercised over subjects rather than citizens…by the mid-nineteenth century among radicals and liberals, the conditions for good government had been recognized as intimately linked with the conditions of self-government, and yet in someone like John Stuart Mill, who most forcefully articulated this argument, it applied only to the Anglo-Saxon parts of the empire.” (Mehta, 1999, p. 7)

The sum of a nation’s political subjects equated philosophically to one body and yet was split into a separate group based on geography, racial distinctions (according to Mehta and others), as well as modes of existence that didn’t fit categorically with British definitions of progress and civilization. It was not, of course, that the savage in this view was irrelevant or rejected; on the contrary, he was to be protected, made a subject of the occupying power while adopting the values espoused by this power’s leading intellectuals, all for the greater common good.

Mill even went so far as to argue that the subordination of the colonial subject to the power of invading forces (like, perhaps, the British in South Asia or the Spanish in Central and South America) was an event which expressed much about the capacities of the vanquished to embrace the more civilized form of self-rule that the British supported. He wrote:

“[L]et them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order and decision. This is what every free people ought to be: and a people capable of this is certain to be free; it will never let itself be enslaved by any man or body of men because these are able to seize and pull the reins of the central administration.” (Mill, 1859, p. 133)

Could it be that Mill was attempting to show that because the native peoples of America, of India, of parts of Africa, of other occupied/colonized territories conquered by the British, they were incapable of “intelligence, order and decision,” let alone freedom and self-governance? If resistance to a foreign invader (in the form of an imperial power, for example) proved impossible, their inequality and need for governance by this invader might according to Mill be justified, a perception that again defended the paternalist vision of British expansionism.

This rather complicated and problematic posture would be impossible to support without making clear that the overriding imperative of imperial expansionism paired with cultural superiority to establish a vision of the savage as an abstract entity in need of saving, of inferiority desperate to find a means to the “progress” – meaning, in some respects, cultural assimilation and even indoctrination – raised as a banner under which colonizers flew to expand ever outwards into new and undeveloped territories. Uday Mehta moves to articulate this ethos of progress that undergirded Western imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries and its articulation of the uncivilized native as subject to its claims:

“I believe that liberals…view the stranger merely as the embodiment of an abstract type that is then judged, reformed, and often assessed as moribund in his extant situation; all this, by reference to another set of abstract ideals of rationality, individuality, the morally sanguine, the imperatives of politics, and most generally, to the requirements of progress.” (Mehta, 1999, p. 25)

Mehta goes on to suggest that such liberalist thinking denies the colonial subject the validity of what Oakeshott deemed “modes of experience” (as cited in Mehta, 1999, p. 25) let alone his option for self-definition under the occupying aegis of the empire, and maintains his position as an abstraction belonging to the category of “uncivilized” and savage, inferior, culturally and intellectually lost without the intervention of the imperialist rescuer, whose coming brings conversions and subversions into strangled forms of being under the auspices of European progress.

In the syllabus for Modern Political Thought at City University of New York as taught by Dr. Uday Mehta in the fall of 2014, the following question is asked: “Does the organizing of political life do violence to other conceptions of human potentiality and social order?” (Mehta, Course Syllabus for “Modern Classics in Political Philosophy”, 2014) Through the creation of the abstraction, the allegory, the rhetorical device, and the colonial subject embodied in the savage in the work of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill, the response to this question appears to be a decided “yes.” Before liberalism took hold as a dominant political philosophy, Hobbes employed the image of the childlike savage in Leviathan as a warning to those who did not heed his admonitions to adhere to a monarchical sociopolitical structure; while his ideas did not create the direct opportunity for justification of violence and oppression, it would not be long after his writings were known that the seeds he sowed would begin to grow. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published decades later and inspirational to new democracies like the United States of America, revisited the notion of the savage as unexplored, virgin territory to be developed for use, “child-as-future-citizen” awaiting intellectual cultivation through the guiding hand of the guardian, and the “noble savage,” an idealization which he attributed to native Americans and yet appeared to tolerate the exploitation of occupants of colonized territories so long as the idea that all men were born free could be maintained, either through the distinction between the political and the sociocultural or through the mystification of distant lands. Hegel moved the discourse of political philosophy to the internal, arguing that the cultivation of the savagery of the mind was the means of liberating man, a perspective that would honor well-educated citizens in his native England and depict as “barbarian” those living outside of the Continent in a more “primitive” point in history, a history based of course on the support of Western progress and expansion. Lastly, Mill’s liberal consequentialism supported the expansionist imperative of imperial powers reaching their zenith implicitly by turning a blind, ethnocentric eye to the unequal distribution of rights and the pejorative vision of life in India and other colonies under the British flag as “barbaric” and subordinated to the utilitarian view that the machine of growth stemming from Europe would benefit all of her subjects in time. It would be warned by David Hume in the 18th century that “though free governments have been commonly the most happy for those who partake of their freedom; yet are they the most ruinous and oppressive to their provinces” (Hume, 1752); through the conception of the savage – as abstraction and representation of barbaric, uncivilized life, as inferior to the central and occupying power, as territory, both proverbial and literal, to be cultivated – this commentary leaves the reader of modern political philosophers of the highest caliber and fame with an important supplementary text.

Works Cited

Grinde, Jr., D. A. (1990). Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from The Six Nations: Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth:

Hamblet, W. (2008). Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery. Retrieved December 29, 2014, from

Hegel, G. (1820). Philosophy of Right. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books.

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. Retrieved September 1, 2014, from Renaissance Editions (University of Oregon):

Hume, D. (1752). Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from The Gutenberg Project:

Lakoff, S. (1964). Equality in Political Philosophy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Locke, J. (1689). Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

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End Notes

[1] The author of this paper submits an apology for what seems like an overuse of the masculine pronoun as a gloss for the citizenry – who were of course adult, male, and European – these writers described as political participants as they penned their philosophies.

[2] This claim to objectivity, of course, is one that progressive academics argue is impossible to substantiate in the process of observation of one people by another in, for example, anthropological or ethnographic research.

You know you want one more GIF of weird dancing…