One misconception that has arisen in the two and a half centuries since Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Discourse on Inequality is that he presented an idyllic view of the state of nature in it. He did not. While Rousseau is clear that the state of nature is not at all "poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan—and while Rousseau contrasts the state of nature favorably with the current manifestations of civil society—he does not idolize it.

Rousseau maintains that in the state of nature man is indolent, without shelter, without emotional or conjugal attachment, and he has to fight wild beasts. While his life and prospects are better than those of civilize man, it could be argued that his life is good only in contrast to the modern condition. Rousseau does not idolize savage man simply because he constructs a full picture of his capabilities and limitations. It is accurate to argue that he holds a more positive view of natural man than almost any other theorist, but beware of caricaturing his vision.

There is also a very good chance that you have heard the phrase, “noble savage,” and have heard it attributed to Rousseau—even in some books on the subject. However, Rousseau never used the term, nor did he ever refer to it. To Rousseau, savage man is simple and happy, but not particularly noble.