Jean Jacques Rousseau alone among the social contractors declared the state of nature to be good. Unlike Hobbes, unlike Locke, Rousseau thought that the state of nature was the way things ought to be. “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in irons.” The state of nature was to Rousseau, a veritable Garden of Eden, in which pre-societal man was physiologically more fit, compassionate towards other beings and free to do whatever he wanted otherwise.
Rousseau then painted a picture of history in which from and because of the most basic thought patterns and intuitions of primitive man, the vestiges and trappings of civil society began to emerge and to almost enslave humanity in the burden of a civil society, which he saw as bad. Naturally, if one believes in the gospel according to Rousseau, one would wish to revert back to the free state of nature. However, Rousseau states that once the path has been blazed out of the state of nature it is as impossible to return to it – how convenient.
Let us examine why it is impossible to return to a Rousseauean state of nature. The state of nature as defined by Rousseau is extremely primitive, even more so than Hobbes’s war-torn state of chaos, and much more dismal than Locke’s tumultuous but relatively sane state of nature. To return to Rousseau’s state of nature the entire world would have to unlearn eons of communal knowledge, no technology, no medicine, no law or government – why, even language and reason, the basic tenants of modern society, would have to be utterly removed from existence. The reason it is impossible to revert to this level of ignorance is obvious, who would abandon the very traits that make us human and raise us above the other animals of this earth? Furthermore, who could ever call this state of nature – this state of savagery – glorious, free and compassionate? Who could ever yearn to return to it?
Nearly everything I live for is a product of the enlightened modern age, and of the progress made from the rise of mankind from the proverbial muck of Rousseau’s state of nature. In my book the animal pleasures of Rousseau’s state of nature take an extreme back seat to the thrill of deep space exploration, the fulfillment of attending a University, the joy of learning new and captivating ideas. The story Rousseau told of humanity’s rise through the matrix of institutions and ideas into the realm of civil society to me is not the tale of gradual enslavement and subordination, but the legacy of the exalted progress of all of humanity, and of the rise from animal to something much, much more.