According to Rousseau, in the state of nature,
people tended to be isolated, war was absent, and their desires were
minimal and circumscribed (i.e., commensurate with their basic
survival needs). People did not have the drive to acquire more
possessions. There was plenty to go around, an absence of reliance on
others, and no real need for extensive social interaction. However,
there did exist an unreflective sympathy and general compassion toward
others that was indiscriminate and not based on merits.
In the state of nature egoism was absent and compassion was present.
Rousseau saw compassion for the undeserving in particular and for
mankind in general to be the greatest of the virtues. He regarded
contempt of another, which could lead to hurt feelings, as a vice and
as always bad. Rousseau wanted no one's feelings to be hurt. He felt
that a proper society had no place for blame, criticism, judgment,
comparison with others, and the distinction of worth among men. He
said it was wrong to recognize distinctions because this makes people
unequal. It was worse to be affronted than to be injured. What
mattered to Rousseau was a person's good intentions rather than his
achievements or outer appearances.
Rousseau proclaimed the natural goodness of man and believed that one
man by nature is just as good as any other. For Rousseau, a man could
be just without virtue and good without effort. According to Rousseau,
man in the state of nature was free, wise, and good and the laws of
nature were benevolent. It follows that it was civilization that
enslaved and corrupted man and made him unnatural. Because in the
order of nature all men were equal, it also follows that distinction
and differentiation among men are the products of culture and
civilization. Because man is by nature a saint, it must be the
corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct
of the individual.
Corruption by Civilization: The Origin of Inequality
The fundamental problem for Rousseau is not nature or man but instead
is social institutions. Rousseau's view is that society corrupts the
pure individual. Arguing that men are not inherently constrained by
human nature, Rousseau claims that men are limited and corrupted by
social arrangements. Conceiving of freedom as an absolute, independent
of any natural limitations, Rousseau disavows the world of nature and
its inherent laws, constraints, and regulations.
Rousseau held that reason had its opportunity but had failed, claiming
that the act of reflection is contrary to nature. Rousseau asserts
that man's natural goodness has been depraved by the progress he has
made and the knowledge he has acquired. He proceeded to attack the Age
of Reason by emphasizing feeling, the opposite of reason, as the key
to reality and the future. His thought thereby foreshadowed and gave
impetus to the Romantic Movement.
Rousseau assigned primacy to instinct, emotion, intuition, feelings,
and passion. He believed that these could provide better insights into
what is good and real than could reason. Rousseau thus minimized
reason and differences in the moral worth of individuals. He failed to
realize that freedom is meaningless in the absence of reason. He did
not grasp that reason connects the moral subject to the world of
Rousseau observed that although life was peaceful in the state of
nature, people were unfulfilled. They needed to interact in order to
find actualization. Evil, greed, and
selfishness emerged as human society began to develop. As people
formed social institutions, they developed vices. One such institution
was private property that encouraged avarice and self-interest.
Rousseau viewed private property as a destructive, impulsive, and
egotistical institution that rewarded greed and luck. Civil society
thus was born when people began fencing off their property, claiming
that it was theirs, and finding that other people agreed with them.
Depravity is due to the corruption of man's essence by civilization.
For Rousseau, civil society resulted from the degeneration of a
basically good state of nature. Man's problems arose because of civil
society. He believed that the state of nature changed because it was
internally unstable. For example, because talents were not distributed
equally among persons, the balance that existed in the state of nature
was disturbed and with inequality came conflicting interests. The more
talented, able, and intelligent people brought about advances in
science, technology, commerce, and so on. Because people simply are
born with certain natural endowments, a person cannot be praised for
having talent or blamed for not having it. Rousseau saw talent as
naturally leading to achievement. Inequality developed as some people
produced more and earned more. He failed to acknowledge the importance
of motivation, industry, and volitional use of one's reason and other
The perspective of many of today's environmentalists can be traced
back to Rousseau who believed that the more men deviated from the
state of nature, the worse off they would be. Espousing the belief
that all degenerates in men's hands, Rousseau taught that men would be
free, wise, and good in the state of nature and that instinct and
emotion, when not distorted by the unnatural limitations of
civilization, are nature's voices and instructions to the good life.
Rousseau's "noble savage" stands in direction opposition to the man of
People were no longer isolated and began to depend on each other.
Those who just happen to have talents create new products and the
desire for them. Buyers and sellers depend on each other but these
dependencies are unequal because of the existence of a pyramid of
ability. Rousseau contends that, as a result, the talented acquire
property and become ambitious. All, including those without talent,
become competitive, rivalrous, jealous, power-hungry, prestige
seeking, and desirous for superiority over others. Civil society
transforms men from isolated beings with limited wants into the
warlike creatures found in a Hobbesian state of nature. For Rousseau,
civil society is a state of war.
Rousseau maintains that people did not have the right to rise above
subsistence without everyone's consent. Everything changed as civil
society developed, but permission was not given for things to change.
He contends that it is wrong to change the condition of all without
asking. Rousseau is distressed that some people become relatively
poorer without having lost anything. Not only are their feelings hurt,
their right to stagnate has been violated. The poor, weak, and
indolent did not want to change, but things around them changed,
forcing them to steal or receive subsistence from the rich.
Rousseau thought private property to be the source of social ills. He
considered that private ownership of property tended to corrupt men
and destroy their character and regarded the man without property
(i.e., the noble savage) to be the freest. Although he did not
actually support the abolition of private property, he believed that
private property should be minimal and should be distributed equally
among the members of the society.
Rousseau anticipated the need for the state to minimize private
property. He wanted the property of the state to be as great and
powerful as possible, and that of the citizens to be as small and weak
as possible. With private property being so limited, the state would
need to apply very little force in order to lead the people.