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Pity Within Rousseau’s Natural State

November 1, 2010
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In reading Rousseau’s Discourse, I will admit that I was moderately apprehensive about his ideas concerning the natural state of man. It appeared to me that he was essentially attempting to reach a diagnosis concerning issues and ills within civil society today through first examining the natural state of man and then proceeding to determine everything that has corrupted man, casting him out of this state. All these ideas seem well thought out, but I was having difficulty agreeing with the notion that the natural state of man was more desirable than the state that exists within civil society:

I ask if anyone has ever heard tell of a savage who was living in liberty ever dreaming of complaining about his life and of killing himself. Let the judgment therefore be made with less pride on which side real misery lies (389).

Initially, my first reaction was to consider that a savage person being willing or unwilling to commit suicide could have nothing to do with it. Perhaps, savages do not kill themselves because they are unintelligent. Maybe they are unable even to grasp the concept of what it means to end one’s life. It is also possible (although Rousseau would disagree with me) that savage beings lacked a sense of self-awareness altogether, which would cancel out the possibility that they made a conscious choice not to end their own lives. I was beginning to seriously doubt that the natural state of man could be more pleasant than civil society’s. However, I was soon reevaluating my skepticisms concerning Rousseau’s views when he introduced the importance that pity plays.

He writes that pity, “having been given to man in order to mitigate, in certain circumstances, the ferocity of his egocentrism or the desire for self-preservation before this egocentrism of his came into being, tempers the ardor he has for his own well-being by an innate repugnance to seeing his fellow men suffer” (390). After reading this, I made an instant connection to a recent experience I had dealing with pity which resulted in my immediately considering that pity could be a legitimate virtue that lessens our fervency for our own self-preservation.

Last week, I was standing in the elevator of the hospital right after I had received some upsetting news concerning my health. I was thinking of me. The difficulties I was about to face while undergoing treatment, the negative effects an illness was about to cause in my life, and thinking about how I was going to preserve any semblance of normality within my life. In fact, I was so worried about myself that I didn’t even think to hold the door open for a father who was pushing his son’s wheelchair onto the elevator. There, on that elevator, all my concern for myself suddenly became irrelevant due to pity. This kid was six, maybe seven years old. I could tell he was born with auburn hair, although there wasn’t any on his head at that moment – only a Scandinavian style hat a relative had probably sewn for him. He was far younger than me, and far more ill than I will ever become. They caught mine early, and here was this boy with Velcro shoes in a wheelchair with a gas mask over his face because he can’t breath. All day I had been thinking about how my situation wasn’t fair, and now I was thinking ‘No, what this kid is going through – this is what’s not fair.’ Amidst all my concern for my self-preservation, I found myself pitying someone else. I genuinely thought ‘Please God let me trade places with him. Let me take on his illness on top of mine even, just so he can have a normal life.’ A minute before I had been worried about losing my hair and now I wanted to be twice as worse off just so this kid could sit at home and watch Nickelodeon.

Nobody was making me, no rule was enforcing it, but I wanted to do the right thing, purely out of pity. My enthusiasm for my self-interest was disappearing and I felt a need to abide by what was right, not because of a law or statute, but because of a hatred for seeing a child suffer.  My notion that pity was enabling me to disregard my own self-interest and beginning to have some form of governance over my actions was further confirmed by Rousseau:

Pity is what carries us without reflection to the aid of those we see suffering. Pity is what, in the state of nature, takes the place of laws, mores, and virtue, with the advantage that no one is tempted to disobey its sweet voice (392).

It’s absurd to think that wandering around the forest, clad only with liberty and a loincloth, ungoverned by any laws, man exists in a more ideal state than the one associated with civil society. However, my personal experiences concerning the extent to which pity can incline a person to feel obligated to act kindly and righteously have made me genuinely consider this idea.

I believe it is agreeable to say that most or all of us feel pity at some point or another. However, it is the argument of whether or not we always chose to act on this pity that could potentially determine whether or not the natural state really is more peaceful and pleasurable than civil society’s. My account is a subjective one, and it is quite possible that it pertains solely to me. Even beyond the fact that my situation is unique and probably not applicable to most everyone – it probably is not applicable to me circa three weeks ago. I was in a heightened emotional state, and before my bad news I rarely took time to donate change to homeless individuals even when I felt pity for them. We certainly all feel pity, but it is debatable whether or not we could act on it to the extent of replacing the very laws that govern us – allowing for a peaceful state of nature such as the one Rousseau envisions. I guess the only thing that can really be taken away is that pity has the potential to make a deep impact on the decisions and choices we make – and there is a possibility that it could serve as a replacement for laws within the natural state of man. If this were true, Rousseau’s views on the ideals found within the natural state of man would be somewhat legitimized along with what he writes about political and moral issues within civil society. We shouldn’t necessarily agree with Rousseau, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to consider that he might actually be right.


  1. jptrue permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:10 PM

    Your discussion of acting on our feelings of pity is an interesting topic. One thought I wanted to contribute to your post was the role of reason and egocentrism influencing our actions. For example,Locke would argue that its good that we decide to help someone because we pity them. Doing so helped keep us in a state of nature for so long. But what if the motivation behind this assistance was to make ourselves look good. Is boosting your self image by helping others really a bad thing? I think Locke would say yes because it lead to competition and reliance amongst humans. However, I’m not sure if I agree that its so bad. For example, is it really a bad thing that companies perform charity work in order to gain good PR? Its a interesting perspective that I think we need to consider when discussing inaction/action.

  2. hadohe permalink
    November 5, 2010 2:53 PM

    I really enjoyed this post because Rousseau’s state of nature is very different from Hobbes’, which I personally did not enjoy.The key word that think should be associated with pity is “equality”; without it, pity can arguably be impossible. Like in Rousseau’s state of nature, we are equal in that we are all self-interested, self-preserving individuals. The unfortunate news concerning your health may have aided in your realization of this “equality” with others who are ill. Your pity is not at all “self-interested,” but at a level in which you can “equally” sympathize with another individual who may be in a similar situation. Reason and pity conflict with each other in that the former is a “societal-based” quality and the other originates from “the state of nature”. Once your pity overcame your reason, and you were theoretically “equalized” with another patient’s sickness, you dipped back into Rousseau’s version of the state of nature.

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