There is no denying that Genevan thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is one the most important names of philosophy who gave inspiration to many other important thinkers. Rousseau is often accepted as the leading thinker of the French Revolution and is known with his masterpieces “The Social Contract”, “Emile”, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences”, “Discourse on Inequality” and “Confessions”. Rousseau is unique in many terms and a lot of researches had been made to clarify his thoughts that seem sometimes conflicting with each other. In this assignment, I am going to analyze Rousseau’s thoughts on the nature of human beings, modern social individual and modern society and also question whether modern societal life makes human beings warlike.
In order to understand Rousseau’s views on modern society we should first focus on his ideas on the nature of human beings. Like many other philosophers -including Thomas Hobbes and John Locke- for analyzing the nature of human beings, Rousseau analyzed the state of nature, a hypothetical situation where there is no state or any other authority and human beings live freely and savagely. According to Rousseau a man in the state of nature is not a man but rather a natural being that lacks socialization. He does not know how to thing, how to act, how to create relationships with his own kind but only possess some basic instincts. In other words, natural man is only “potentially man”. Unlike social and civilized man, savage man is not sociable and thus slave (Rousseau, p. 14). He does not have things such as clothes or shoes that we thought to be absolutely necessary in modern life. What savage man cares is to satisfy his needs such as eating, sleeping etc. His faculties are developed in terms of self-defense and preservation (Rousseau, p. 15). His faculties of mind and speaking are not enough developed since he does not have a social life. These faculties are developed in social life but only for human beings since the faculty of “self-improvement” is a gift that is given only to men not to animals. In Rousseau’s view, a lonely man similar to a savage is prone to be imbecile.
Although Rousseau considers a man in the state of nature as being prone to be imbecile he thinks that this animalistic man is still better than the civilized man. Rousseau offers many arguments to prove this claim. According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, modern man turns to be a “tyrant over himself and nature” (Rousseau, p. 16). Modern man makes wars, commits crimes not only for his basic needs but also for luxury, pride etc. That is why, Rousseau thought that the arts and sciences are not beneficial human needs but rather some corrupt practices that modern social men deal with in order to satisfy their need for pride and vanity. “But for man in society, there are different concerns; there is, in the first place, the matter of providing for the necessities and then for the superfluities; next come the luxuries, then immense riches, and then subjects and slaves; he does not have a moment of respite” (Rousseau, p. 16). Thus, social man’s quarrel does not end with a few blow of the fist and the victory of one side, but rather with massacres, murders etc. From pride and luxury, there goes “the commerce”, “the letters” and “the liberal and mechanical arts” which create a huge inequality in society (Rousseau, p. 17). That is why in Rousseau’s idea social man is warlike and his transformation or rather his degeneration from the original man to modern man poses a very negative picture.
Having considered all these points, it may not be wrong to say that in Rousseau’s view, savage man is different and more peaceful (less warlike) than the modern man. Savage lonely man does not have self-interestedness or compassion in the sense that modern man has or has not. He lives for his basic needs and he lives according to the rules of nature. Savage men trust each other more than modern men but in a different and more savage way. They do not have a social life but may have a flock life. Savage man act therefore with “purely animal functions” (Rousseau, p. 19) thus, try to satisfy his basic needs and unsophisticated passions. However, modern men could not trust each other because of pride, jealousy, fear and suspicion.
Jean Jacques Rousseau seems extremely pessimistic about the transformation and the future of man and in a sense romanticizes and idealizes the savage man which is nearly an animal. Rousseau complains about the complexities of modern life and bad characteristics of modern man. Rousseau might be right in saying that modern man makes many cruelties (wars, tortures, imperialism, racism etc.) but he seems to be forgotten that modern man makes also technological machines that facilitates and improves the quality of human life, makes revolutions (French Revolution) in order to secure the rights of citizens that are not part of aristocracy etc. Modern men would later abolish slavery and give the right to vote to all citizens including women and poor people. Modern men would invent democracy and collect million dollars of money for some aid campaigns. Rousseau only looks from one angle and that is why he makes such a dark theory.
Finally, in my opinion Jean Jacques Rousseau might have some good points but his idea that modern man has been corrupted by the arts, science and commerce does not seem very plausible to me since modern social human beings make many good things as well bad things. Modern man’s technology might have created bombs, but it also created cures for many diseases. Rousseau at this point seems very pessimistic and one sided.
- Rousseau, Jean Jacques, “Rousseau’s Political Writings” (ed. by Alan Ritter), 1988, New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.