The State of Nature - Jean Jacques Rousseau's "Discourse on Inequality"

Discourse on Inequality Second Part

In this particular passage from the second part of Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality he gives a supposed historical origin story from the original state of nature of man to the formation of communities which provide the basis for a later social contract. While slightly more optimistic than Thomas Hobbes, as I discussed here, the fundamental premises are still the same ... the state of nature for man is one of isolation and a battle for power and dominance. 

The State of Nature and the Amore De Soi
"Let us go farther back, and endeavor to unify under a single point of view that slow succession of events and discoveries in the most natural order." Rousseau begins the history with a view of man as akin to how some animals live today, as solitary, only coming together to mate and then returning on their own. Yet, Rousseau claims that this was a state in which nature provided man's needs, and the instincts to guide their usage, seemingly an innocent and happy state in which the individual only thought and was content in himself. Here I believe we can see Rousseau's concept of the "noble savage" in that the most basic state of nature is an idyllic state, to a degree, as man has not yet been corrupted by jealousy. 

Over time as the human population increases competition between humans for resources emerges, and each individual has to adapt to become more fit in order to obtain what he needs for himself so that he wasn't fully taken advantage of by stronger humans. Likewise, the increase in population also brought about innovations, Rousseau claims, such as fishing, hunting, fire, clothing, and other manner of improved survival. 

These improvements pushed the individual's self-awareness of his own qualities and identity in relation to those environments, animals, and people that he had conquered. "This repeated relevance of various beings to himself, and one to another, would naturally give rise in the human mind to perceptions of certain relations between them. Thus the relations which we denote by the terms, great, small, strong, weak, swift, slow, fearful, bold, and the like, almost insensibly compared at need, must have at length produced in him a kind of reflection ..." Most important of all, though, this awakening of self-awareness produced man's corrupting force, pride. "Thus, the first time he looked into himself, he felt the first emotion of pride; and, at a time when he scare know how to distinguish the different orders of being, by looking upon his species as of the highest order, he prepared the way for assuming pre-eminence as an individual." 

At this stage man begins, though at a distance, to see that other men follow the same patterns or needs and survival as himself, and thus for the sake of his own good might join in with others to receive their help. This was not for some altruistic notion, but for what Rousseau calls "the sole motive of human actions ... the love of well-being." And so there was cooperation for the days needs, not in some long term agreement or manner, but for right now. 

If one was more powerful or cunning, he took advantage of the others. "... he found himself in a position to distinguish the few cases, in which mutual interest might justify him in relying upon the assistance of his fellows; and also the still fewer cases in which a conflict of interests might give cause to suspect them. In the former case, he joined in the same herd with them, or at most in some kind of lose association, that laid no restraint on its members, and lasted no longer than the transitory occasion that formed it. In the latter case, every one sought his own private advantage, either by open force, if he thought himself strong enough, or by address and cunning, if he felt himself the weaker. ..." Rousseau then says that these beginnings of cooperation, though selfish, required the development of communication and language between people. 

The Beginnings of "Amore Propre" or "Self Love" 
The increased interaction of people led to a greater number of humans being born, which in turn led to more innovation, and in turn to more things like tools and developing survival advantages. For example, Rousseau says that people started to create homes in which to shelter themselves with, both the strong and the weak to protect themselves. Property was then born. "This was the epoch of a first revolution, which established and distinguished families, and introduced a kind of property, in itself the source of a thousand quarrels and conflicts." 

Many changes came from this, such as the development of the nuclear family as now people were living together in these homes, the formation of roles of men and women with women tending the homes and men seeking resources, and the need to work together with others to fight wild animals as "man's ferocity" began to wane due to his domestication. Finally, a state in which leisure and luxury items which man could enjoy emerged from all of this. "The simplicity and solitude of man's life in this new condition, the paucity of his wants, and the implements he had invented to satisfy them, left him a great deal of leisure, which he employed to furnish himself with many conveniences unknown to his fathers: and this was the first yoke he inadvertently imposed on himself, and the first source of the evils he prepared for his descendants." 

Here we are introduced to Rousseau's notion of "amor propre," a negative form of self love which is akin to something like jealousy or envy due to the comparison of oneself with others in these budding societies. Why are luxury items bad? Well, Rousseau claims that they end up becoming so much a part of life that they become needs, something like an addiction. They make man unhappier by not having them than they do happy by having them, a description we usually use for drugs. "...these conveniences lost with use almost all their power to please, and even degenerated into real needs, till the want of them became far more disagreeable than the possession of them had been pleasant." 

At the end of this particular excerpt Rousseau then mentions how people, having become used to living together as families, would rather not give that up. "In consequence of seeing each other often, they could not do without seeing each other constantly. A tender and pleasant feeling insinuated itself into their souls, and the least opposition turned it into impetuous fury: with love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions." 1
1 - Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Discourse on Inequality.