Chapter 3: Rousseau (1712-1778)
Rousseau is best known for his conception of the “state of nature” and for his social contract.
For Rousseau, man’s freedom remained a fundamental ideal but one that was not to be attained by
shaking off all society and civilization or by reverting to a so-called natural state. The
perfectibility of man, his freedom and his happiness, and the increasing mastery of his own fate
all depended on a clear understanding of the laws of nature.
Men act themselves; it is they who must interpret those laws. Because of limited perspectives and
insufficient knowledge, they err, that is, they act contrary to their nature by establishing a social
order that violates their basic nature. Rousseau’s chief objective therefore was to find a social
order whose law were in greatest harmony with the fundamental laws of nature.
There were two conditions, the natural and the social, though the chasm between them was
already very great, they could in large measure be reconciled. To accomplish that, one must
always keep in mind dual aspects of man.
Rousseau postulated man in a “state of nature” a hypothetical construct by which man is
theoretically divested of his social and cultural aspects. If one could determine how men departed
from their natural condition and how they imposed upon themselves a social order at variance
with that condition, then perhaps, one could know better how to change that order and replace it
with a better one.
The State of Nature
• He knew that there is no such state in which man lived before and outside society; in their
“presocial” state men were not men
• “Natural man” is simply man divested of what he has acquired in society, think away his
social qualities or what man reduced to what he might have been if he had actually lived
• Rousseau insists that his description of natural man should not be taken as historical truth
but as a hypothetical condition
• Rousseau argues those who have imputed to natural man cruel and warlike tendencies are
wrong; they have attributed to natural man characteristics acquired in society
• How does one then acquire an adequate conception of the hypothetical state? Rousseau
suggests some alternative techniques; one can observe animals in their natural habitat to
gain insight into natural behavior influenced by society. Second, one can study primitive
peoples-savages, keep in mind that they have acquired definite sociocultural attributes.
Lastly, one could deduce all the factors implied by man’s subsequent social development,
such as language and think them away.
• If we know something about man’s real nature, he reasoned, we can ask whether or not
certain historical societies have been suited to that nature.
• We must arrive at “natural man” by putting aside all those elements that have implanted
in man as a result of his social existence.
• Rousseau’s method therefore required that one subtract all the qualities of sociocultural
origin until only the “natural foundation” remained
• Rousseau was proposing a methodological device by which one might lay bare the
components of man’s basic psychological makeup. • Marx, as we shall see also based his theory on a conception of natural man
• Rousseau’s notion that there is a natural man and that the best social system is, that which
enables him to realize his potentialities to the fullest. Man is perfectible and social
systems should be judges by the degree to which they facilitate his perfection.
How does Rousseau conceive of the ideal state?
• It is a perfect balance between man’s needs and the resources at his disposal. He desires
and needs only what is to be found in the immediate physical environment. Like other
animals he has only sensations, but no knowledge and no language.
• Rousseau postulates that since language is the product of society, one can safely conclude
that man in nature has neither language nor knowledge.
• His needs are extremely simple and purely physical- food, a mate, and rest; he cannot
conceive of the future and is oriented exclusively to the present. Harmony is achieved
between internal nature and external nature through satisfaction of all needs; conditions
for discord are wholly lacking.
• Rousseau rejects the Hobbesian notion of the natural state as a “war of each against all”
• To understand Rousseau’s state of nature we must see how sharply it contrasts with that
of Thomas Hobbes: For Hobbes, there exists in all men a natural and restless desire for
power, the desire ceases only in death, indeed men pursue more and more power. Rather,
the reason is that he cannot secure the present power he has to live well without acquiring
• Hobbes makes another assumption about man’s nature: the natural condition of humanity
is one of equality. In the presocial state of nature that he postulates, men are equal in the
faculties of both body and mind.
• The result is that men quarrel and fight for gain, for safety and reputation. Hence, the
natural state is one in which men are engaged in war, a war of every man against every
man. War, for Hobbes, refers not only to the act of fighting itself, but also to the will to
contend. The consequences of such war are that men live without culture and without
society. Worst of all, they live in continual fear and danger of violent death; the life of
man is “Solitary, nasty, brutish, and short”
• In Hobbes view, there is no right or wrong, no just or unjust, for those are social, not
natural qualities that men acquire only in Society. The single, most important condition
that makes society possible is a common power to feare. Wherever and Whenever no
such common power exists, men revert to a state of nature and war. The fear of falling
back into that state, and their will to survive, evoke in men a modicum of reason, which
leads them to the formation of a social contract. Under its terms, men agree to give up
their natural liberty and to subordinate themselves to a sovereign authority who, in turn,
guarantees them security and protection from force and fraud.
• Thus, Hobbes sees men as warlike in nature, it is only in society in their fighting and
disposition to fight are restrained. War is natural and peace is social.
• In part One of his Discourse on the origin of inequality, Rousseau present his own view
in opposition to Hobbes. In the primitive, natural state, men are isolated from, and
indifferent to one another. The incentive to war arising from unmet needs is lacking.
• Men have no moral or sentimental bonds, no sense of duty or feeling of sympathy each
man lives for himself and strives for self-preservation.
• Rousseau agrees with Hobbes that natural man is egotistic, solitary, but he disagrees that
this results in war • War is a social institution and men learn to make war, Rousseau argued only in society.
• Man is withdrawn and tends to live separately. He is however capable of sympathy,
which is not rooted in his instincts but is rather a product of his imagination. Even
without knowledge and without language, man has the ability to place himself in the
position of another and to