“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided a wide basis for arguments with his theory of natural man. From politics, human nature, commerce, economics, environment to human psyche, he has influenced a continuing debate on many issues that concerns humanity.
This paper will examine Rousseau’s notion of the state of nature and what is the significance of this notion for his political thought.
A Summary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
Rousseau is known to have proposed that to know about the failures of man, one needs to know wore the nature of man. This gave way to the Discourse on Inequality where he asked, “how shall we know the source of inequality between men, if we do not begin by knowing mankind? And how shall man hope to see himself as nature made him, across all the changes which the succession of place and time must have produced in his original constitution? How can he distinguish what is fundamental in his nature from the changes and additions which his circumstances and the advances he has made have introduced to modify his primitive condition?” (Constitution Society, 2009).
The two kinds of men’s inequality are:
- natural or physical as provided for by nature encompassing age, health, body strength, and mind or soul quality
- moral or political inequality dependent on convention and will of men that consists of different privileges and prejudices on riches, honor, power or position to exact following (Constitution Society, 2009).
Rousseau has placed a high esteem on “reasonable and free men in search of the truth” who are beyond discussions on power, inequality, strength and wealth. Using conditional and hypothetical reasoning, he has seen men have the affinity to want, oppress, desire and be proud of as influenced also by society. He proposed that through the conveniences men sought in order for him to live lightly and safely as he perceived, he has sought that which gave him more harm and “additional causes of their deeper degeneracy,” (Constitution Society, 2009).
On the metaphysical or moral side, men had found to have choices and a will, to acquiesce to excesses. Rousseau found men to have resisted nature in spirit and this phenomenon is irrational by the laws of mechanism. Man however was seen to self-improve, as compared to other animals which remained the same way of living and existence from the start of observation to a thousand years later. However, man is the only animal observed to return to a state of primitiveness or senility, where he acts lower than the beast. He proposed that the human understanding is influenced by his passions which in turn developed reason. Knowledge became desirable because of the wish of man to enjoy for man “cannot desire or fear anything, except from the idea we have of it,” (Constitution Society, 2009). The savage man is limited to wanting physical goods of food, female and sleep and only feared of pain and hunger, and not even death, for the savage does not know what is it but when he does, he has elevated himself away from his animal nature.
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Man first knew of his existence then started to preserve the self through the bounty of nature and instinct serving as his teacher. His nature hungered, experienced existence that urged him to propagate, his acts limited by sensation. Challenges made man find ways to surmount: he had a need for ladder to take fruits from trees, the lack of rain that nurtured plants required agriculture, and so on. Until then, men as Rousseau compared, “The savage and the civilized man differ so much in the bottom of their hearts and in their inclinations, that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair. The former breathes only peace and liberty; he desires only to live and be free from labor […] Civilised man, on the other hand, is always moving, sweating, toiling and racking his brains to find still more laborious occupations: he goes on in drudgery to his last moment, and even seeks death to put himself in a position to live, or renounces life to acquire immortality […] always asking others what we are, and never daring to ask ourselves, in the midst of so much philosophy, humanity and civilization, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness,” (Constitution Society, 2009).
It was noted that while the understanding of man’s natural sensitivity led to establishing a moral being with soul, free will and reason, Rousseau also proposed that this human development and the gaining of culture that let us away from the “sensible voice within our nature,” (Boyd, 2004, p 522). While man has lifted himself up away from the level of beasts, he has burdened himself of imperfection of the intellect and freedom. He then requires that man must be moral, self-conscious, imaginative and reasonable in order to stop being a stupid and lowly animal.
The human’s separation of beast has become a bigger obstacle that could have remained status quo had man satisfied only his natural needs. Want has led to one thing and one thing to another so that man has not stopped wanting, perfecting, in pursuit of enjoyment. Along the way, he has developed ways and means, right and wrong processes that evolved through time and practice, difficult to abandon as it has been with him for quite some time.
It is quite difficult to place the political leaning of Rousseau through a passing reading and by choosing his stronger lines from the less appealing. He could be a socialist for promoting physical or material equality between men. But he could be a liberal democrat for insisting on freedom to be The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political (Bailey et al, 2008).
There are variations as well as clashes as to the interpretation of his treatise. As in a democratic politics, In a bid to link democracy and compassion, Nancy Hirschmann proposed that “the concept of sympathy is not a major player in the world of political theory, which is generally more concerned with justice, freedom or rights,” (1996, p 49). In arguing that compassion is one of the most important accomplishments of modern democracy leading to charitable institutions contributed by the wealthy, enlightened and humane society, Boyd (2004) argued that the general understanding is of Rousseau’s defense on pity on the state of nature opposes that which is vain, cruel and unequal. Boyd challenges that “pity is a pleasurable sentiment” that has come from the understanding of human nature as opposed to suffering that has led to “reluctant spectators,” (p 520).
Boyd’s argument points out that “No less than modern bourgeois consumed by envy and self-doubt, commiserating with someone else means living outside ourselves,” (2004, p 524). Bourgeois society has maintained comparison of self to others, which was deplorable in the eyes of Rousseau.
Other influences of Rousseau have been pointed at on commerce as well. Hanley (2008) proposed that Roseau influenced even Adam Smith, a founding father of liberal commercial modernity. While it was argued that modern liberalism lowers the standard for virtue, Smith carefully studied Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality in preparation for the defense on liberalism’s attack: “liberalism constitutes an assault on the sort of human excellence at the heart of pre-modern political thought insofar as it elevates self-preservation and the pursuit of material comfort as the end of human aspiration,” (p 137).
Meanwhile, Bronner (1999) argued that Rousseau provided a necessary understanding of the status of nature in modern political philosophy by reversing the trend, which, according to Lane and Clark (2006) influenced the works of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke. All considered nature as “atomic, inert, and reducible to its constituent parts,” physically possible for manipulation for the human benefit (qt., Lane and Clark, p 63). It is further argued that Rousseau provided a comprehensive reconsideration on the fundamental characteristics of men, on the causes of historical changes in men’s behavior, and believable “account of the processes by which changes altered human relationship to the natural world,” (Lane and Clark, p 63).
Rousseau showed that human estrangement from nature was harmful to his own natural or physical self and with his fellow human beings providing an important view on “radical environmentalist thought,” (Lane and Clark, p 63) and ecologists which provides understanding on contemporary radical environmentalism. Environmentalists, however, are seen not to subscribe openly to Rousseau’s thoughts.
Smith on the other hand, clearly identified Rousseau’s belief that commercial society is basically influenced by a vanity that corrupts its participants. Smith shared with Rousseau, however, the understanding of a distinguished desire for praise and the desire for praiseworthiness, the love of glory and the love of virtue with the aim of “an elevation of self-love capable of liberating individuals from dependence on the opinions of others for consciousness of their self-worth,” (Hanley, 2008, p 138).
Within the democratic society, such as liberal democracy as beyond a set of political institutions circumscribed on the limitations of human society, there was a vague presentation by Boyd (2004) of what Rousseau stands when it comes to democracy.
Rousseau’s politics, however, does not end with what has been presented above. At some points, it goes beyond already existing set of political theories, of which he extols virtue requiring a need to recover a natural disposition already corrupted by modern society. In fact, it has been proposed that Rousseau is the father of the critique of commercial society using the bourgeois as its starting point. As such, commercial society influences in men the desire for esteem and consideration and become dependent on the perception and opinion of others. Already, they become subject to the need to be recognized by others and no longer understand the goodness of what is natural and simple, uncorrupted and self-sufficient (Hanley, 2008, p 143).
In Hanley’s (2008, p 144) note, that man in “coming to love the easy and moderate pleasures of commercial society, he is rendered incapable of achieving or conceiving genuine excellence,” a slight derailment to Rousseau’s proposition ensues. In Rousseau’s theory, man will proceed and go on seeking, and will not stop until he has found within himself a perfection to view himself as always have been and will be in level with his fellow, no matter how this fellow may be seen by others.
Lane and Clark (2006) also noted the ambiguity and confusion of Rousseau’s philosophy as well as his own life. Already, they proposed that “Rousseau’s philosophy of nature in the Second Discourse and the apparent contradictions between it and his political recommendations in other works do not translate easily into practical politics,” (p 64).
Boyd (2004) finally observed that Rousseau’s democratic citizenship does not depend on compassion for others. Rousseau’s political thought is after the restoration of the natural wholeness of the state of nature proposing instead to aim for individual independence. Boyd (2004) however, noted that there should be an excessive dependence on the political community. It had been earlier proposed that human equality is a convenient fiction-making man blind to the understanding that dependency and inequality exist.
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On Hanley (2008), he has concluded that Adam Smith followed a moderate course to distance himself from proponents of commercial liberalism as well as critics of it such as Rousseau. Smith is viewed to have a dedication to recover virtue within liberalism as a greater good is served.
When it comes to the environment, however, which is a much contention in the international political and economic arena today, Rousseau is found to have suggested that “humanity’s transformation from a “good”, “happy” and integrated participant in the natural whole to “the tyrant of himself and nature” leads to the paradoxical conclusion that human beings can only recover their prelapsarian unity by constructing a solution that concedes a certain intractable separation from nature,” (Lane and Clark, 2006, p 84).
As may already be established long ago to those who have subscribed to or opposed Rousseau, there is general ambivalence as to what he could have exactly proposed, political or otherwise. Rousseau points out innocence, to the state of nature, where there is the absence of greed but humanity existing on continuity with his natural environment. He also pointed out the exigency to socialize starting from birth, of a beast and human’s child with a beast and human’s mother. He had deleted “social” in his treatise as another of man’s nature. He has focused on what he fancied quite convincingly so that until today, scholars are still amazed while others remain baffled on what he could have exactly meant.
Already, Rousseau noted the influence of “others”, of man as capable to socialize, but is it is nature? To compare and evaluate himself against another, thus, the eminence of leveling, power, strength, wealth, and everything else that comes with a civil society. Man has gone through a very long process, indeed. What happened with Rousseau is a presentation of his understanding of human history summarised to fit stronger points against other strong points.
At this point, I cannot establish what Rousseau’s political thoughts really did want to achieve or point out. His assailing of inequality at most points is compelling to have come this far: greed is the father of civilization. He failed, however, to note whether man in his state of nature was capable of greed, but then, he has only pointed out that man departs from his state of nature upon the understanding of his fear of death. But then, he has also posed the challenges that man have perceived in his natural state: how to reach for the food on a high tree, then address the cold weather while insisting that man was able to stand and it was not clear if man overcame cold weather in his natural birth garb.
In need, it was also questionable whether man had the natural instinct to know which enough is and which is glut. Through eating food, a fruit perhaps, how was a man in his state of nature point out if one apple or four apples a day is enough? And in gathering apples, is a form of political or economic concepts arises?
Rousseau’s definitive answer is not very clear. He would insist that man wants, but would not distinguish a wanting man in his state of nature and a wanting man in separation with his nature. In fact, there is a contradiction between his understandings of civil and savage as he has pictured “established greed” as the start of a civil man. But only a civil man could start evaluating himself, his stance in society, as well as establishing a perfected thought and understanding of his being a part of nature, who would need to be the better man than nature, in order to human. This, then, departs from political debate but becomes a matter of linguistics or probably of understanding on the proper presentation of debates.
In summation, it is difficult to establish what Rousseau may actually promote or intend on his nature of man when it comes to his political thoughts. There is an immediate significance for promoting freedom and equality in his premises as well as strong opinions and significant observations. This may as well be easily linked to democracy. What kind of democracy is another question. As for his notion of equality of men and his lack of regard for status, wealth, power and how “others” may perceive one person, Rousseau indicates preference for socialism. In the end, Rousseau promotes individual freedom and respect for nature and his natural person and surrounding. These are universal ideals that until today stirs debate, but do not exactly point out Rousseau’s political leaning or practice and preference.
Boyd, Richard, 2004. “Pity’s Pathologies Portrayed: Rousseau and the Limits of Democratic Compassion.” Political Theory, 32 (4) pp 519-546.
Constitution Society, 2009. “What is the origin f inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” A Discourse by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Web.
Hanley, Ryan Patrick, 2008. “Commerce and Corruption: Rousseau’s Diagnosis and Adam Smith’s Cure.” European Journal of Political Theory, 7 (2), pp 137-158.
Hirschmann, Nancy, 1996. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom,” Political Theory, vol 24, no 1 44-69
Lane, Joseph and Rebecca Clark, 2006. “The Solitary Walker in the Political World: the paradoxes of Rousseau and Deep Ecology.” Political Theory 34 (1), pp 62-94.
Bronner, Stephen, 1999. Ideas in Action” Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.) p 266.
Bailey, et al, 2008. The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Vol. 1, from Plato to Nietzsche. Ontario, Broadview Press.