In many ways the late 18th Century is a time that reflects our own. In a period of supposed intellectual enlightenment, but also cultural excess and a widening societal rift, one thinker stands apart as a voice of reason and social justice. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a critic of the enlightenment from within, and in this role he brought the need for social change back to man's very nature, which has been betrayed and warped. Within a tightly structured and fickle intellectual environment, and with all the airs and graces necessary in order to avoid censorship, he conceived some of the most socially relevant philosophy of his age.
“What then is to be done? Must we destroy society, abolish mine and yours, and go back to living in the forests with the bears? This is the sort of conclusion my adversaries would come to.”
In ‘A discourse on the origin of inequality’ Rousseau is eager to dismiss the above conclusion as an ill-considered reaction to his work, and states that he would ‘sooner forestall it than leave to them (my adversaries) the shame of drawing it.’ It can be argued that this criticism is unjustified in the brief text that follows it. Rousseau confirms in this passage and consistently throughout his text that a return to the state of nature described in the first part of the discourse would be impossible, but leaves little room for an alternative course of action. Rousseau’s only suggestion in this part of the discourse is for men ‘whose passions have destroyed their original simplicity’ to continue to respect and serve their communities and in particular honour those who find ways of preventing or curing all the ‘evils and abuses’ that necessarily plague the current society. The discourse ends in a very negative manner by stating that these men will continue to live in ‘contempt for a constitution that cannot support itself...’ and the question still beckons “What then is to be done?”
Rousseau gives no explicit answer to this question in the second discourse, his hypothetical history of man seems to place the society in which he was writing and indeed, the one we live in today into an irredeemable situation. However, this impression that is imposed upon the reader can perhaps be seen as a result of the strength and plausibility of Rousseau’s thought experiments, rather than as a misgiving or failure to provide positive response. It is important to recognise that the question posed by the Academy of Dijon did not allude to a need for a solution to the problem, and that despite this there are suggestions for a remedy of sorts evident within the discourse.
At the very beginning of the discourse in ‘Dedication to the Republic of Geneva.’ Rousseau reflects extensively on what he would consider to be an admirable and just society in which to live. These thoughts are not placed in the context of the intricate thought experiment later in the piece, but still can be considered to be relevant to the problems posed by the specious social contract. In the dedication, Rousseau describes a society which has ‘an extent proportionate to the limits of the human faculties.’ Where each person’s occupation is equal to their capabilities, and no-one has need to make an infringement on another’s function. Within this structure, Rousseau argues that each person will bear his own burden or yoke ‘...with the greater docility, as they are made to bear no other.’ Another aspect of Rousseau’s ideal Republic is that all the individuals are ‘well known to one another’ and there is an emphasis on the ‘general happiness’ of the public, which is achieved by the solemn adherence to and reverence of a few antiquitous and sacred laws. It is possible that Rousseau placed this dedication to an ideal republic at the start of his discourse intentionally so that these ideas can be kept in mind when reading the fiercely detailed and derisory comment on the unjust civil society which is to follow.
It is arguable however, that Rousseau is providing a positive response in a much more subtle manner, that is, the conceptual history of the discourse is, in itself, a response to the problems of the current state of man. In the first part of the discourse, Rousseau constructs a detailed hypothetical image of ‘Nascent man’ in a ‘pure state of nature’ or what he calls the ‘forest’. In this world man is stripped down to its raw material, lives entirely within himself and inequalities are unimportant as liaisons with other beings do not occur. One might ask what the point is of constructing an entire argument on a world that may not have and may not ever actually exist. Rousseau’s response to this is that it is necessary to have ‘precise notions’ on this state of nature in order to ‘judge our present state correctly’ , and the only way to achieve this within society is to hypothesise. The incredibly extraneous but plausible world which Rousseau creates forces to reconsider our notions of what the basic natural characteristics of a human are. Rousseau does not allow for any Hobbesian ideas of natural violence or Aristotelian ideas of natural sociability and argues that man is naturally solitary and peaceful, and can be likened to an Orang-utan in this respect. This reassessment of the intrinsic nature of human beings can be considered to be a positive response in light of a society rife with injustice and violence.
As the discourse progresses and develops this sympathetic view of human nature is maintained in reference to our natural capacity for compassion. Although Rousseau recognises that this capacity is altered in the later stages by the awakening of imagination and amour-propre, the very idea that we are by nature compassionate beings offers some insight into how society could perhaps be altered fundamentally simply by placing more trust in ourselves as moral agents. This idea is reflected in ‘Dedication to the Republic of Geneva’ in the importance Rousseau places on ‘the right of legislation...’ to be ‘...vested in all citizens.’
In his book on Rousseau, Tim O’Hagan highlights his concern on the drastic difference between savage man and civilised man. Rousseau writes ‘Savage man and Civilised man differ so much in the bottom of their hearts and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair.’ The Savage man of Rousseau’s argument wants only to ‘live and remain idle’, while the civilised man ‘torments himself incessantly in order to seek still more laborious occupations.’ O’Hagan insists that Rousseau is not advocating a return to this idleness of the savage man, but is using it to ‘highlight the frustrating character of work in the contemporary world’ Perhaps then, as O’Hagan argues, Rousseau is suggesting that a positive solution to this ‘frustrating character’ would be to shift the emphasis away from the results and competition of industry which ‘fails to bring satisfaction’, and to have a system where the actual process of work can be appreciated and valued in itself. In this way, it is possible to discern some positive solutions to the problems posed in the second discourse by carefully considering the methods and practices Rousseau is critical of.
However, it is not until the end of the discourse that the full scale of the problems that Rousseau has identified is realised. He describes how original man has ‘vanished by degrees’ and ‘society offers to us only an assembly of artificial men and factitious passions... without any real foundation in nature.’ In the following passages, Rousseau continues to describe the extent of the evils that society has caused and the corruption to the human soul. As injustice is piled upon injustice and corruption upon corruption Rousseau builds up an overwhelming image of seemingly insurmountable despair. The reader is forced to come to terms with the fact, and Rousseau does indeed present it as a matter of fact, that human existence in civilisation has become wretched and miserable in comparison to the peaceful life of the savage man. The discourse ends in a defiant tone where the civilised man can only hope to soldier on, with respect for the many ingenious and splendid ways men have held off the evils caused by their society, but in contempt for a situation where this sort of practice is necessary. This seems to be a very unsatisfactory conclusion. Its possible when reading the final pages of the discourse to feel as though Rousseau has broken away the foundations upon which we live and left us nothing to clutch on to.
To rectify this, it must be considered that Rousseau makes allusions to how society could be restructured and improved without ever explicitly stating it. His tone earlier in the discourse is more forgiving. ‘...this is not the original state of man, but it is merely the spirit of society, and the inequality which society produces, that thus transform and all our natural inclinations.’ Although Rousseau maintains that a return to the original state of man is impossible, the above realisation certainly allows room for some sort of change. The intrinsic hardships of nature could perhaps be replaced by a more rigourous social structure where the general will prevails and inequality in society is proportionate with physical inequality, which Rousseau insists is minimal.
By stating so explicitly the injustice of the current situation where the ‘privileged few... gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.’ in context with the intricate and sophisticated thought experiment that precedes the claim, Rousseau places himself in the best possible position to make such claims, and they are given added weight by the plausibility of his argument. While no complete answers are given within this discourse, the essential groundwork has surely been done to allow these questions to feasibly by addressed in the future.
In conclusion, Rousseau’s positive response to the problems identified within the second discourse is not in the form of explicitly stated answers. Instead, I would like to consider the possibility that the discourse itself is the first step towards a conceivable solution. Another strong aspect of Rousseau’s positive response is social, allusions to which can be found throughout the text but most pertinently in the ‘Dedication to the Republic of Geneva’, he states ‘I should have wished to live and die free: that is, so far subject to the laws that neither I, nor anybody else, should be able to cast off their honourable yoke.’
1. O’Hagan, Timothy. ‘Rousseau’. London: Routledge, 1999.
2. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. ‘The Social Contract and The Discourses’. Everyman’s Library, 1993