Philosopher Fridays are back! This is a weekly series where I take a brief look at philosophers who inspire me. These posts are not meant to be comprehensive in any fashion, but are instead meant to focus on what I find to be thought-provoking, compelling, and occasionally even haunting. This edition will be done in two parts, because Rousseau’s work is laden with intriguing paradoxes and erudite observations.
ROUSSEAU: Genevan writer and composer Jean Jaques Rousseau (1712-1178) is probably best known for the influence of his political theory. He first became famous for winning an essay context in 1750 with his Discourse on the Science and the Arts, which argued that we ought not have such faith that “progress” is really taking us somewhere ideal, and that luxury does not, as we assume, make our lives better; instead, he says, it breeds vice and leads to our downfall. He takes these ideas a few steps further in 1753 for another contest. His entry, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, didn’t win, but he published it independently the following year. There are a lot of wonderful things in this text (and others by Rousseau), including paradoxes of freedom, a biting wit, not to mention the seeds of the French Revolution. For a thorough look at Rousseau, and at this text in particular, I recommend the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry.
While it’s easy to take Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality as his treatise on the state of nature, what he actually delivers in the text is a scathing critique of metaphysical philosophy. The first thing he says about it is that it never existed. Anyone who thinks they understand human nature is, he argues, just making something up. Most other philosophers of his imagined natural man as a savage in the wilderness, but none of his contemporaries (Hobbes and Locke, for instance) have any scientific justifications for their ideas, nor historical, or even biblical ones at that. He decides then that in the absence of true knowledge, he too can craft a fiction that would serve his intellectual explorations. He says:
Let us therefore begin by putting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on the question.
But he doesn’t guess wildly; instead, he looks to the difficulties facing the question for his inspiration. The main challenge is that we have no clear point of origin, and we don’t change in clearly defined stages. Rather, we are constantly in flux, which makes knowing ourselves, either as individuals or as human beings in general, a nearly impossible task. We can never then concretize our nature and look at it as though it were an object, for the act of looking at it involves some kind of intellectual motion.
To rephrase: every time we reflect, we are changing as we add new knowledge or reconsider previous knowledge, and to so when we reflect upon ourselves and our nature, even in its most immediate state, we are in a process of changing the thing we’re trying to understand:
Thus, in a sense, it is by dint of studying man that we rendered ourselves incapable of knowing him.
Since we cannot divine the true core of original man, what we have to do instead is look at the changes that have occurred in our move away from the most natural state, assuming it ever existed. To this end, he attempts to identify what traits we see change over time, but which don’t ever appear to be invented, even if they change and wither and grow as humanity progresses. In addition to our changeableness, we are marked by the intensity of our “well being and self preservation” and “a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer.” He rejects the popular notion that reason is at all important to the identity of a human being. Says he, in one of my favorite quotes:
It is not necessary to make a man a philosopher before making him a man.
From there, he starts to build an image of natural man that is our opposite, and stresses that we have not merely built upon that starting point, but have taken things away. Our development is like that of a statue dropped to the bottom of the ocean for many years, he says, in that we have not simply covered ourselves with barnacles and growth, but have also suffered erosion, destruction, and decay.
And so he posits a natural man that is strong where we are now weak, and weak where we are now strong. What it comes to, for Rousseau, is a tradeoff between the body and the mind; as we rely ever more heavily on our mind, our bodies grow weak from lack of use, and so the natural man must be one who is strong in body, yet weak in mind. He would be non-verbal, nomadic, operating according to instinct, and unfettered by social attachments. Rousseau romanticizes his fictional savage, an animal immune to diseases, hardy against environmental forces, and strong enough to break tree branches with his bare hands. He compares this ideal with his contemporaries who eat and drink themselves into diseases and use tools to avoid developing skills and muscles for survival.
The rationality of the civilized man, Rousseau argues, leads him to fight natural evolution, find ways around true growth and strength, and essentially devolve into a weak shadow of his former self. What we’ve done, and continue to do, he claims, is supplant our natural instincts with an artificial order – one that will inevitably lead to our downfall.
Here’s how it works on a macro-level:
In the state of nature, we have those two main instinctive impulses: self-preservation and pity. Occasionally, these impulses will be at odds with each other; to work for your own survival, you may have to harm another, at the very least by neglect, and to work for the survival of another might require some self-sacrifice. Most animals would merely listen to whichever impulse was strongest in the moment, but humans, in their reflexive changeableness, have the capacity for self-perfection, and for finding alternative solutions.
In this example, we’d have the unique ability to break out of the conflicting pull of our main instincts, respond to that initial cry, and find a way around the conflict, and this, for Rousseau, is the moment we enter into community and create language. Instead of the stronger person letter the weaker person die, or else sacrificing himself for the other person, the two come together and share in order to ensure the survival of both.
It its thus we begin to deprecate our bodies in two ways. Firstly, we ignore our natural instincts in favor of an artificial (meaning made by humans) process of decision making. Second, instead of the strongest surviving, a stronger person will share with a weaker one, both ensuring the survival of the weaker, and the weakening of the stronger. In supposing ourselves to be free agents, we effectively water down both our physical prowess and our connection to the natural impulses which made us strong in the first place.
From this moment we are able to grow and change in ways that simultaneously move us forward and coddle every manner of weakness, protecting our inadequacies even as we try to overcome them. Every new solution we come up with to fix our problems actually creates new problems. When we form a community to cover our individual weaknesses, we create social problems. As we solve social problems, we create economic ones. As we solve economic problems, we create health problems. And each grows in degree and scope, with every new advance unwittingly creating a host of new needs and vulnerabilities.
Simultaneously, we leave behind our isolationism and enter into society, we begin to exercise our free agency and give birth to human reason, and possibly more damning of all for Rousseau, this is also the moment we start to create language.
Once we start to think in words, we also begin to replace our physical strength with tools, our resistance to illness with medicine, and our natural physical brilliance with idiocy and reflective despair. The development of our minds through language, for Rousseau, means the active suppression of the body and its instincts – including those of self-preservation and empathy. The more we attempt to rise above our limitations through, the more willing we become to make bad decisions under the guise of prioritizing “mind over matter”. And in the end, all we have left is weakness. The ties holding us together will break, and we will be returned to the isolation of nature – but without the strength we need to survive in it.
I think that’s a good place to pause, for now. Check back in next Friday to find out more about how this happens, why Rousseau thinks its inevitable, the role of language, and a look at why this is such a scathing critique of metaphysical philosophy.