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Rousseau is Wrong: the State of Nature

March 23, 2011

When I read part one of Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” I couldn’t help but get frustrated with how wrong he is. In this portion Rousseau makes conjecture about the origin of man, our development, and how society as it is came about. I do not disagree with his statements on a scientific level, as we had yet to uncover any facts about our origin during his time. I most disagree with his portrayals of the state of nature and modern society. He made wild claims that we live longer in the state of nature, we were stronger in the state of nature, and so on.  At the very same time he despised the staples of modern society (medicine, property…), though eventually conceding that we must embrace them in part two.


I mean, really?

Pictured: Rousseau's entirely reasonable idea of nature

The fact of the matter is that Rousseau made a fundamental error in saying that the state of nature was superior. He idealizes a world of solitary individuals, living out their lives without defined property, having nothing to their name but themselves. Property and society has done nothing but improve our lives as human beings. He claimed that we were healthier and stronger in the state of nature because there was no medicine at the time. As shaky as that is in it of itself, simply ask: how would medicine have developed if it was never necessary to begin with? Also, economics shows that as people specialize they produce more, and when they specialize and trade more people end up better off. How could this be true if the solitary state of nature were better or more efficient in some way? Property is a manifestation of achievement. An artisan may take up a skill that was coveted and subsequently his products are more expensive to others with common skills. This is not a cunning scheme or scam; property rewards genuine hard work or specializing where it is needed. Most importantly, it happens in both the state of nature and our world today.


It's a fence...

Pictured: PURE EVIL!

Finally, Rousseau claimed there was no inequality other than physical prowess in the state of nature. But if this was true, how could this lack of inequality be found? It stands to reason that if there was inequality in strength and cunning in the state of nature, then there would be inequality in other forms, too. The stronger people would collect more food, raise bigger families, and need more land… The fact of the matter is that there was never equality, not in nature, not now.

Imagine the state of nature: no property, no beer boots for sale online…

(the video may not embed, but I highly recommend you still watch it)

The fact of the matter is that life in the state of nature was something to be escaped. Rousseau had simply romanticized it. It was primitive, brutal, short, un-fulfilling, and lacked vessels from which to drink beer that were not glasses. Rousseau even points out that people developed primitive self-love and appreciation for their exploits, but then go on to criticize pride and desire to achieve even more. This is the most flawed of his opinions. If no one were not to seek new and better ways of doing things, how would life improve? Escaping the state of nature was simply a natural progression, and we are all better off for it having happened.

One Comment
  1. noahgordon10 permalink
    March 24, 2011 12:50 PM

    This post was well-written and brings up an interesting topic. There certainly was inequality in Rousseau’s “state of nature” and it continues today. But the thing that jumped out at me was the fact that all technological advancement is good (Chris J used medicine as an example, saying it wouldn’t have developed otherwise). I agree with the general idea. But for me, the atomic bomb immediately came to mind. If mankind could hold a vote and eliminate the A-bomb from existence, what would the result be? And if we voted to “un-invent it”, would anything else suffer the same fate? It’s hard to explain something so hypothetical, but perhaps there are a few things that we shouldn’t have invented.

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