Although they seemed radical for their time, most Enlightenment thinkers were not egalitarians by contemporary standards. Europeans were fascinated by the so-called hierarchy of the races, sometimes referred to as scientific racism. By the end of the seventeenth century, “the idea of the hierarchy of cultures and races was in place,” and “attempts at scientific explanations for the inequality of races clearly appeared” in philosophical works. Thus, the philosophy of the Enlightenment is saturated with racism from the previous century. Adam Smith, famous for his economic theories, emphasized the hierarchy of the races in his Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Even Francois-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) renowned for his ethical critiques of the Church, believed that each race had their own, separate origin. John Locke, another economic philosopher, invested in The Company of Royal Adventurers in England Trading into Africa. Locke actually “provided the metaphysical foundation upon which anthropologists over two hundred years later were to rear the first formal definitions of culture,” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. But there were preexisting and well established theories which supported their claims, such as the Great Chain of Being, which began with God, who was followed by man, then animals, then insects, then plants. But the white man’s ability to reason placed him above all other races.
However, it was also during the Enlightenment that the image of the Noble Savage became widely accepted. Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted, “The imagination causes so many ravages among us, never speaks to the heart of savages, who peaceably wait for the impulses of nature, yield to these impulses without choice and with more pleasure than fury; and whose desires never outlive their necessity for the thing desired.” In his view, indigenous cultures were not yet corrupted by civilization, and displayed the natural goodness of humankind.
Kant used the same model in his geography classes; “humanity is in its highest degree of perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians already have a somewhat lesser talent. The Negroes are much lower, and lowest of all is a part of the American races.”
This map is an iconic example of the accepted hierarchy of the races.
Eva van Alphen and Nicolas Visscher, Hand-colored Copper Engraving, Amsterdam, 1663
Allegorical America is shown from two very different perspectives in this map. In the upper right corner, she appears as a fierce, cannibal warrior. The severed head at her side is her defeated opponent, who she will most likely eat. Left of the cartouche, she is a nursing mother; generous to all who land on her shores.
Charles Price, Hand-colored Copper Engraving, 1714