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Rousseau’s Miscalculation

December 1, 2010

J.J. Rousseau

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.

  1. Molly Niedbala permalink
    December 1, 2010 11:32 AM

    I agree with you. There is much to be said for the benefits of reason and Rousseau ignores that. I find it ironic that this man we study so seriously seems to have valued raw instinct over rationale and analysis. One could very well say that love makes life worth living, but Rousseau says that love does not exist in the purest state of nature. Yes, emotion and reason bring problems as well as benefits. But don’t the benefits outweigh the pitfalls? If not, human existence is incredibly sad. Personally, I’d rather be able to feel and think about reason and emotion than not, even if that entails also feeling emotional pain.

  2. jaclburr permalink
    December 1, 2010 12:43 PM

    I definitely see what you are saying, and agree that some of the most wonderful things in our lives are the result of enlightenment and learning. However, I think if you take Rousseau’s views in moderation, you will find them quite similar to early American romanticism, in seeing the glory of a simple life and the truths of nature. In this I find connection, and see the corruptions that can come from focusing too much on money and material possessions. Perhaps we should stick in the middle, finding the glories of nature, but keeping our minds sharp!

  3. cgould4 permalink
    December 1, 2010 6:33 PM

    I agree that civil society, in comparison to Rousseau’s state of nature, is much more appealing, but Rousseau did say that once you exit the state of nature, you cannot return. He may argue that the state of nature is better to exist in than civil society, but he acknowledges that once one enters civil society they would not want to leave. This is because of all the universities, knowledge and modern conveniences that humans are accustomed to. Humans may only think they would choose modern life instead of the state of nature because it is impossible for them to leave. The state of nature could in fact be better, but humans in the modern world will never know.

  4. yequan permalink
    December 1, 2010 10:57 PM

    Rousseau did say that once human enter civil society, we cannot go back to the state of nature. Rousseau is right and rational about this because history can never go back! Even 2000 years ago, in China, Laoz tried to persuade people return the state of nature, but he failed. Rousseau knows that, and he also believes the origin of inequality is from civil society. However, Rousseau does not favor the state of nature either. Human being get out of the state of nature must have a reason, and this change is so significant that people can never go back. So Rousseau suggests a solution which he believes will lead to a better civil society in “On Social Contract”.

  5. jonbon113 permalink
    December 2, 2010 7:58 PM

    The state of nature could be called glorious, free and compassionate exactly because in the state of nature we did not have higher cognitive processes, the products of which you mention as “new ideas”, going to college, and space exploration etc, which make reason seem great, but at the same time also led to some very horrendous things like political systems of suppression, systematic warfare, the nuclear bomb, child labor, racism, etc. etc. All of these are products of man misusing his higher cognitive faculty for his own gains. In Rousseau’s state of nature, man did not have this burden of highly developed consciousness, and so was innocent of all this. Even if the good outweighs the bad in this case, Rousseau also claims that all of these progresses (the good) are just reactionary to the problems created as man develops higher consciousness and everything with it i.e. property/inequality, society/sedentary living, health problems, and disease, etc. Which is to say, we only needed the good in order to stabilize the bad which came first, and therefore the good i.e. ideas of progress like medicine would not be needed because there would be no bad to stave off. Thus, Rousseau’s “Proverbial Muck” as you call it, seems a lot nicer and therefore tragic we can’t return. As a savage, all of what we call morally wrong would not exist because we wouldn’t understand morality. It would all be innocent savagery, and even then, less savage as Rousseau claims because there would not be an economic imperative from scarcity of resources, which might be one of the few reasons a savage man would outright kill another like the murder we see today. This is why we might yearn for it because the world could use more innocence. When looking at it this way, it seems that products of reason like genocide and housing market exploitation are a lot more savage than Rousseau’s conception of the actions of our earliest ancesters. All of this leads to the idea that reason isn’t progress, and it is a prevalent idea in postmodern theory that the Enlightenment has failed, which Rousseau predicted quite presciently in his small essay on the origin of inequality.

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