Publication Date

Spring 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Foreign Languages


Danielle Trudeau


bon, civilisation, Rousseau, sauvage, tolerance, Voltaire

Subject Areas

Language, Modern; Philosophy; History, European


This thesis explores Voltaire's interpretation of human nature, society, and progress vis-à-vis the myth of the "noble savage," an image that was widespread in the literature, imagination, and theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. For many people at that time, the "bon sauvage" embodied a certain happiness, simplicity, and equality that were lost when humankind exited its "primitive" state and became "civilized." Rousseau's "Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes," which was vehemently criticized by Voltaire, greatly popularized the myth of primeval bliss, a myth which is still with us today.

In various works by Voltaire, such as Alzire, ou les américains, L'Ingénu, Candide, and Dialogues, "savages" play important roles. This research demonstrates that, despite his disdain for the theory of humankind's natural goodness in its primitive state, Voltaire himself created his very own "savage." While Rousseau's "noble savage" leads one to condemn civilization as the root of human degeneration while at the same time inspiring a return to primitive nature, Voltaire's "savages" exalt civilization, education, and the scientific ethos of the Enlightenment. They are his advocates, or mouth pieces, for his call to tolerance, justice, scientific enterprise, and a government guided by reason.