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Rousseau’s State of Nature Impossible to Reoccur

March 22, 2011

Rousseau’s state of nature continues to confuse me. When I sat down to write this post, I began by thinking of examples of Hobbes’, Locke’s, and Rousseau’s state of nature in modern-day society. What I ended up with was numerous examples for Locke and Hobbes, and not one for Rousseau. While books such as Lord of the Flies emphasizes a brutish, Hobbesian state of nature that is possible to resort back to, numerous blog posts are dedicated to Locke’s state of nature and the ability for people to band together for a common good when a crisis occurs (for example, the recent devastation in Japan). After this I began to think—is it possible to resort back to Rousseau’s concept of the state of nature? In my opinion, the answer is no.

To begin, Rousseau’s state of nature revolves around the idea that there is no society—he wants to focus on people before society. Rousseau wants to look farther back in history to when modern-society wasn’t yet institutionalized and when people were actually free and equal. This is a place where reason is not necessary; a time when people don’t need communication because they are focused on their own personally and bodily needs (food, sleep, and sex). The need for no society and no reason is essential for Rousseau’s state of nature to occur—this is why it is impossible for us to resort back to it. People already exist in a state where society is in place, and even if a sovereign is taken out of power and mad chaos occurs, we still rely and communicate with others. We have language and we know the huge benefits of communication—whether it is to hurt and steal from a fellow person or to work together (the difference between Hobbes’ and Locke’s state of nature). Why would we ever resort back to a time without such beneficial communication skills? We have language and we understand reason can help us out in the toughest of situations, so why would we let all of this go even if, say, our sovereign were overthrown?

On the other hand, Locke and Hobbes’ state of nature are plausible to reoccur if something were to happen with the sovereign and a social contract is destroyed or disposed of. We still communicate with others and use reason in a beneficial manner; the only difference is our cognition and motivations in their state of nature. Motivations and cognitive beliefs are easily swayed by current events, yet actions that are proven beneficial (such as interpersonal communication and language) do not necessarily change with the times. Because of this, it is impossible to ever resort back to Rousseau’s state of nature.

  1. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    March 22, 2011 4:10 PM

    When Rousseau talks of his state of nature before society, even he says that he believes that society should never and will never be able to return to his described state of nature. Trying to track back that far is too near the impossible, which is true as you said, that we cannot come up with any examples of this state of nature because as of now, and for a long while, it has not existed. He doesn’t give any option of a state of nature that returns after a contract is broken, because that is not the true state of nature according to his definition, the only true state of nature is before and type of society had begun.

  2. Jeremy Kucera permalink
    March 22, 2011 4:24 PM

    I agree with your opinion that Rousseau’s idea of a state of nature is obsolete in today’s society. That is exaclty why I tend to agree with his ideas of human state of nature more than Hobbes or Locke’s. Rousseau does a good job of acknowledging that the state of nature will never again be resorted to by humans because the advances made in society over thousdands of years can never be erased. I cannot fully understand the relevance of Locke’s and Hobbe’s state of nature ideas because it is really hard to compare their ideas of the most simplistic view of humans to advanced societies around the world today. Although there might be examples like the one you mentioned in Japan, but the main ideas they outlined will never again be restored to. Basically, states of nature seem to be irrelevant today, and that is why I agree with Rousseau. He had the itelligence to foresee the fact that states of nature will never be resorted to again.

  3. Pierre Gerondeau permalink
    March 22, 2011 10:56 PM

    I agree with the post and comments above, that Rousseau’s state of nature is impossible to go back to, but he did not say that it was. He spoke of a more primitive time before language developed as the time when people were in a state of nature. With technological developments, etc, it is impossible to go back to that natural state. I agree with you Jeremy, that it is easier to understand Rousseau’s work, because he doesn’t have a true (attainable) state of nature. I thought it was interesting in one of the lectures when the Professor said that modern day political theorists don’t classify things in the state of nature anymore, which would seem to agree with Rousseau’s writings that an original state of nature is impossible to go back to, so we should study human developments as they happen in the present.

  4. Justin Kucera permalink
    March 22, 2011 11:59 PM

    Maybe it just isn’t his state of nature that couldn’t exist but any of these state of natures. The state of nature is a theoretical situation that is used to shape governments and social contracts. In todays world there is never a clear cut situation that is the state of nature, there may be instances without authority for a short period of time, but there never is a true state of nature like these three theorists talked about in today’s world.

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