One day in 1797 some farmers in the region of Lacaune, in the south of France, saw a feral child fleeing through the woods. The following day they saw him again, collecting acorns and digging for roots to eat. In the following year he was sighted several times, and eventually captured and put on display in Lacaune. He was described as “a disgustingly dirty child affected with spasmodic movements, and often convulsions.” He was the wild boy of Aveyron, and he held extraordinary interest for the scientists and philosophers of the age.
The interest lay in the fact that this child had grown up in the wild, outside human society; and therefore by studying him one could learn something about society itself and how it shapes us. There were opposite expectations. Would this child give substance to Rousseau’s belief in the “noble savage”, the human being in a state of nature, free, creative and beautiful, uncorrupted by society? Or would he prove, as most thinkers expected, that the human being is nothing without society? Some of the greatest scientists of the time took an interest in him; Jean Itard, a young doctor, even took him into his home and strove for five years to teach him to speak. Itard’s methods became the basis of modern techniques for teaching the mentally handicapped and the deaf. In modern times, Maria Montessori extended Itard’s methods to the teaching of ordinary preschool children.
One could say that Itard succeeded brilliantly, but not with the Wild Boy of Aveyron. The boy never mastered speech, despite Itard’s intense efforts and his genius for inventing new methods of teaching. “His emotional faculties likewise,” Itard admitted sadly, were still “subject to a profound egoism.” Reflecting on his attempts to socialise the boy, he wrote: “In the ‘pure state of nature’ the human being is inferior to a large number of animals. It is a state of nullity and barbarism that has been falsely painted in the most seductive colours, a state in which the individual pitifully hangs on without intelligence and without feelings, a precarious life reduced to bare animal functions.” So much for Rousseau’s “noble savage”.
Yet the myth of the noble save lives on, even to our own times. It thrives in much of modern psychology; for example in an earlier edition of the prestigious International Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Neurology you can find the following sentence: “Man is basically constructive, accepting, creative, spontaneous, open to experience, self-aware and self-realising. It is parental, societal and cultural controls, through manipulation of rewards and threats of punishment, which inhibit the otherwise natural development of self-expression and self-actualisation.” If you are a parent, read that sentence again, carefully. See how you, and schools, and all cultural influences are being blamed for everything that is wrong with your noble savage. You have to wonder if that writer ever witnessed the tantrums, the jealousies and the tyrannical will of an ordinary child.
Family and society blamed for everything that is wrong, the individual absolved from all blame: what a simple picture! It has all the signs of a reaction to the opposite view: when society was thought to be always right and individual always wrong.
Against this background, Christians stand up and speak about the Mystical Body of Christ. Briefly, it means that Christ is seen as an immense ‘Body’ of which he himself is the head and we the various members. This is expressed in many places in St Paul’s letters: "Christ is the head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18); "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another" (Romans 12:4-5). “In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13).
It is a profound affirmation of the place of others in our life: Christ first of all, and then all the members of the Church, and ultimately the whole human race. We are not saved as isolated individuals, whether noble or ignoble; we are saved as members of Christ's body. Yet the individual is not submerged in the collective: every individual member of your body is you; your hand is you, your foot is you, your eye is you. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). Likewise every individual person is indispensable.
The myth of the noble savage is a recurring dream through the centuries: from Romulus and Remus to Tarzan. It is like the fantasy that many children have at some point: that they do not really belong to the family, that they were adopted and that the best thing they could do is pack up and leave. The parable of the lost sheep is for children of every age.