I really enjoy reading Rousseau’s works—he is such a gifted writer with beautiful images in his words and cutting digs that are barely below the surface. Here are some I just happened to open up to recently, among many passages I think are great.
From towards the end of Part One of A Discourse on Inequality:
There was neither education nor progress; the generations multiplied uselessly,” and as each began afresh from the same starting-point, centuries rolled on as underdeveloped as the first ages; the species was already old, and man remained eternally a child (105).
From Part Two:
Such was, or must have been, the origin of society and of laws, which put new fetters on the weak and gave new powers to the rich …, which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established for all time the law of property and inequality, transformed adroit usurpation into irrevocable right, and for the benefit of a few ambitious men subjected the human race thenceforth to labour, servitude and misery (122).
With that last quote I can definitely see people during the French revolution shouting passages from Rousseau, though they probably weren’t shouting passages from this text because in it he condemns pretty much everyone in “civilized” society. But his words and sentences are so eloquent, even in translation. I do read French sort of okay, but I don’t have a copy of the French text handy to compare (and my French reading isn’t so good as to help me really appreciate the language in the original).
At any rate, while I really like reading his words, the philosopher in me keeps asking questions of this text, such as whether or not he has provided much in the way of clear and valid arguments for his story of the state of natural humans and nascent society, and how we moved from those to civil society. It’s an interesting story told beautifully, but what have we got in the way of evidence?
In this post I’m going to give a few of my own reflections and then also ask some questions for discussion, such as the one I just asked. Please choose at least one question to respond to in comments below. If someone else has already written a comment, you can reply to what they said, or reply to the original question they wrote about, or talk about a different question—your choice.
Let’s see if we can get a bit of discussion going even though I had to cancel a class this week because I’m out of town.
THE “NATURAL” STAGE OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT
To answer the question of the origin of inequality, Rousseau tells a story of what we might have been like in a “natural” state and whether there was any inequality there, in order to see how it developed over time. That seems a sound enough approach to answer this particular question, but the problem is that he goes very far back, beyond what we have adequate historical evidence for.
The “natural” state of humans he describes is before any society, before any family grouping, before any language; there is definitely no written record of what humans were like at the time, since there was no language. He may even be talking about a time before we drew pictures—humans had no abstract or general ideas without words (95), and we weren’t even in enough contact with each other to give us any reason to try to communicate.
But he does have a fair bit to say about what we were naturally like, including:
- Natural qualities of humans
- Self-love (amour de soi): “an ardent interest in our own wellbeing and our own preservation” (70); see also Rousseau’s note O, p. 167.
- Pity, compassion: see, e.g., 70-71 and elsewhere
- Two things that separate us from animals:
- Free will (87-88)
- Faculty of self-improvement (perfectabilité) (88)
- Then there are all those things he says about how we must have lived alone, been physically strong, etc.
The argument he is taking on is a difficult one to make: how do you show what human beings were naturally when who we are now is due at least in part to changes that have taken place over many, many centuries? How can he try to show that his story is one we should take seriously?
Discussion question 1: What sorts of arguments does he use to support these claims about humans in the natural state? Remember to consider also his own notes (the ones with capital letters). Are these arguments valid?
THE NASCENT STAGE
We could ask the same thing about his view of nascent society (the beginning of Part Two, up until around 116). There he describes people living in huts, in families, developing language, cooperating.
They also start to engage in comparisons with each other and starting to develop a sense of a new kind of self-love: pride (amour propre): see, e.g., 99, 114, 119 and Rousseau’s note (O) pp. 167-168.
Discussion question 2: This stage might be easier to justify with some kind of evidence; how does Rousseau try to do so, and are his arguments valid?
ROUSSEAU AND MENGZI
Dr. Crawford mentioned in lecture that we can some similarity between Rousseau and Mengzi—do you agree?
Discussion question 3: Do you see anything in Rousseau’s arguments about human nature (the “natural state”) that sounds like one or more of Mengzi’s arguments? If so, please explain.
Rousseau’s text diagnoses problems; it doesn’t give clear solutions (he talked more about how to have a better society in The Social Contract). He talks at great length about how we have declined from the high point of nascent society, about how we now have deep wealth and power inequalities, oppression, competition, greed and ambition (119), and more nasty things.
“What then?”, he asks on p. 153, “Must we destroy societies, annihilate meum and teum and return to live in the forests with the bears?” His response indicates that for the vast majority of us, this isn’t possible. We have changed too much from our natural state. Reason has taken over too much and quelled our natural pity/compassion so that we no longer respond ethically to those who suffer around us (101). So again, “What then?”
Discussion question 4: Can you see anything in the text that starts to hint at a possible solution to our woes, if returning to the natural or nascent state is not the answer?
SEEING AND KNOWING
How does Rousseau’s text fit into our theme? There are several ways it could, but here is one that I tend to focus on.
One of the things that separates us in civil society from people in the natural state, according to Rousseau, is our reliance on the opinions of others. We care what others think of us, which started in nascent society, when “public esteem came to be prized” (114). Now, Rousseau claims, people “attach importance to the gaze of the rest of the world, and … know how to be happy and satisfied with themselves on the testimony of others rather than on their own” (136).
Discussion question 5: How, according to Rousseau, did this start to happen? And do you still see this in the society in which you live today?
Discussion question 6: Want to ask/talk about anything else related to Rousseau’s text? Go right ahead, in the comments!