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Parallel To Rousseau?

March 13, 2011

As I was reading through the second part of Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” I found there are many similarities between Rousseau’s conception of his state of nature and material that I have learned in anthropology.  For the record, I am not saying that I agree or support Rousseau’s conception of this state of nature. Rather, I am stating that there is evidence supporting this foraging state of lifestyle as shown through anthological observations and research.

While formulating the foundations of inequality, Rousseau follows the path of men from their natural state. As he describes how society progressed from a state before society and the development of reason, Rousseau mentions an evolution into a foraging type of lifestyle.  As the human race progressed faster and faster, men found tools and built huts (397).  He characterizes this state as, “the period of a first revolution which formed the establishment of the distinction among families and which introduced a kind of property…” (397).  These people lived together and enjoyed conjugal love/paternal love.  He claims, “Each family became a little society all the better united because mutual attachment and liberty were its only bonds”(597).  Women watched over the household while the men acquired their common subsistence.  Men and women enjoyed a great amount of leisure time and life was simple.  Due to evolution, this state of nature changed.  However, through my studies in anthropology, I think I have found a modern comparison of this lifestyle: the !Kung San.

The !Kung San are nomadic hunter-gatherers the live in the Kalahari Desert in Northeastern Namibia, Africa. The semi-arid region in which they live features some trees but is mostly brush and grass-covered low hills and flat spaces. Rainfall during the wet season varies from only five to forty inches. Temperatures during the winter are frequently below freezing, but during the summer are well above 100F.  The !Kung San adapt to their unfavorable environment.

They are characterized by a foraging lifestyle and have little contact with the outside world.  In my anthropology class, our professor claims that this group only does 15 hours a week of work for subsistence (equating to 2 hours and 9 minutes a day).  The rest of the time members of group either socialize or take up other hobbies.  Everyone is treated as equals, and try to avoid disputes at all times.

In Part 2 of his “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” Rousseau summarizes similar characteristics.  The parallels between these two groups are limitless.  Of course there are discrepancies, but overall I think that there are a lot of parallels between this nomadic group and one of the phases of Rousseau’s discourse. I’m not sure exactly what the implications that this suggests are, but at least there is some validity/examples of Rousseau’s conception.  The !Kung San are a secluded society, and live a natural lifestyle.  Maybe Rousseau’s conception is more valid than we all thought.



  1. AlexKasnetz... permalink
    March 13, 2011 11:22 PM

    I also took anthropology and was certainly interested in questioning whether the development of modern civilization was indeed a good thing. Civilization certainly brings its own problems and changes our very nature, as Rousseau observes. I agree that modern society has caused an increased stratification from societies in “natural” states such as this. A major question I would pose to Rousseau is even though the discrepancy between classes has increased, hasn’t the condition of the lower classes in general surpassed the condition of equals in the natural state of man. If we do accept this claim, then another question poses itself: is relative or absolute socioeconomic circumstances more important? In other words, would you rather live in a more primitive condition but one that is equal to your peers, or a stratified world where your condition is better, but worse relative to the upper classes?

  2. jonalevy permalink
    March 13, 2011 11:40 PM

    Eleanor Roosevelt noted, “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Her worldview seems completely foreign to the members of the !Kung San tribe who seem content to replicate the lives of their parents and ancestors without any change and without expressing any curiosity about life and the world around them. Instead of viewing the !Kung San as examples of Rousseau’s men in a romantic bucolic state of nature, perhaps it is more accurate to see them as presenting a cautionary tale about stunted growth and wasted opportunities.

  3. Zack Orsini permalink
    March 14, 2011 1:33 AM

    James Barbour,

    Hmmmmm… You make some interesting points in this post. The story of the !Kung San really forces us to re-examine our lives in modern civilization. Are we happier people living in a world where there is property and government and technology and….political theory? If we are not better off, what motivated us to remove ourselves from the state of nature?

    Rousseau, as we know from the readings, would argue that people were D-U-M-B to try and remove the state of nature in the first place. According to Rousseau, inequality would have never reared its ugly head on the world if property had never been invented (Wootton 410). This case study of the !Kung San people seems to support this point of view. The !Kung San just a case study, however, and, for that reason, cannot be used to describe what all human beings would have been like in their “natural state.”

    I do not know the details about the !Kung San people, but I would speculate that their life expectancy is a bit (or maybe more than a bit) lower than the life expectancy of people in modern countries. Certain illnesses which could be easily cured with modern medicine would, in many cases, result in death among this group of people (I can imagine). Maybe I am wrong about my whole life expectancy speculation. Does anyone know what the numbers are (if there are any)? Also, say a neighboring group of people that had advanced in technology came along and decided to conquer the peaceful !Kung San. They may be peaceful amongst themselves, but what if someone not so nice came along and beat them up? The Europeans did it to the Native Americans!

    Works Cited:

    Wootton, David, ed. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.

  4. jdeclaire permalink
    March 14, 2011 3:50 PM

    First of all, I really enjoyed this post and the points you included in it. Even though I do not completely agree with Rousseau’s state of nature, reading his work raised a few questions in my mind about our society. It is interesting to think what life would be like without a governing power, or “classes.” Would there be wars? Would we have a currency? Would we be as advanced technologically as we are now? Are we better off with our modern civilization? There are just a few of many questions that come up with this idea of essentially “living on our own.” In our world, it seems that the separation between classes and different types of people continues to grow regularly. The rich converse and work with the rich, the poor with the poor, the famous with the famous, and so on. If we had never developed our current form government, civilization, political theory, and all of our modern ideas, people would have all been on a completely level playing field, just like the !Kung San.
    It is hard to say which lifestyle is better, because we will never know how things would have developed if everything was similar to the !Kung San. We have problems with our lifestyles, such as war, discrimination, and longer work days, but we have a tremendous amount of benefits, as well. The !Kung San have many benefits, including more leisure time, but as Zack alluded to, they probably do not have the same health and technological benefits that we are accustomed to. Ultimately, I think there are pros and cons to both ways of life, and it is up to us as an individual to decide what is right and wrong.

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