On Rousseauís Discourse On Inequality
[The following text is a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) in August 2000, for students in Liberal Studies. All references to Rousseauís text are to the translation by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters, The First and Second Discourses (NY: St. Martinís, 1964). The text of this lecture is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone without cost and without permission]
For an e-text copy of Rousseauís Discourse on Inequality, please follow this link: Origin of Inequality
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
Before turning our attention directly onto Rousseauís famous work, Iíd like to make a few general observations. Some of these will be things you have, no doubt, heard already. But this is the start of a new semester, and it probably wouldnít hurt to remind us all of some important points to bear in mind when weíre reading a classic work like this one.
The first general observation I wish to stress is that the important point about Rousseauís text, as with the work of all great thinkers, is not necessarily the conclusions he reaches but the argument he puts in place. While itís easy to understand how readers, especially students, generally want to focus their attention squarely on the specific conclusions and recommendations to an argument, that is often a great mistake, since the impact of a great thinker almost invariably emerges, not from his ability to persuade people to agree with his conclusions, but from the way his argument redefines our approach to the issues.
In Liberal Studies we should be quite familiar with this by now, even though in our discussions of great books we still tend to pay far too much attention to the conclusions and far too little to the method. We like to do that because specific conclusions often make lively topics for discussion, and we can easily give ourselves the impression that we have dealt with, say, Platoís Republic simply by discussing our response to, say, his recommendations about women or art or the education of the ruler. These are all interesting and important matters, but if we donít penetrate beyond them into the structure of the argument which enables Plato to derive these conclusions, then we have missed the central reason why Plato is such a revolutionary thinker.
Only by paying close attention to the way in which a particular book sets up its initial assumptions, establishes an argumentative method and the metaphors central to that argument, and evaluates evidence can we properly appreciate its importance, a significance which extends well beyond any list of particular conclusions or recommendations. That is the reason why we may find ourselves in strong disagreement with the conclusions to an argument and yet be profoundly influenced by the book, which makes a case, establishes a vocabulary, and sets up a method for approaching an issue which we can no longer ignore. This last point is particularly relevant to Rousseau, with whom it is often difficult to agree but whom it is impossible to ignore.
In fact, that is one way one might come to understand what the phrase ďGreat ThinkerĒ or ďGreat BookĒ means--a work that fundamentally changes the nature of our conversations about our common problems. Great Works do not provide us universally acceptable answers, but they change the vocabulary and the basic metaphors we use in our continuing enquiry into certain questions. Just as after Plato and Aristotle, one cannot discuss social justice without raising the central issue of virtue or after Hobbes without raising the central issue of obedience to the laws of the sovereign, so after Rousseau we have new and important issues to take into account. The same holds true, of course, when we come to Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche.
In this lecture I hope to show that a close attention to the way Rousseau sets up his argument in the opening pages of the Second Discourse (On Inequality), for all its frequently erratic logic and questionable assumptions, is the key element in defining this bookís importance. Simply put, Rousseauís text helps to redefine the way we come to understand some important issues in our lives and, whether we agree with his case or not, we cannot ignore what he says (more about this later).
All this amounts to a general plea that we should focus particular attention (more than we usually do) on the way in which arguments are set up, rather than confining the majority of our discussions to whether we agree or not with particular details which emerge from the central logic of the established argument.
Rousseauís Historical Metaphor
The most important feature of the structure of Rousseauís argument in the Second Discourse (On Inequality) is the most obvious, something so common to us that we might easily overlook its importance, but in his day an argumentative tool with a keen revolutionary edge. I refer to the fact that he presents his analysis of society and the origins of inequality as a historical narrative, a once-upon-a-time story, in which he offers an account of the temporal process by which our modern troubles have come about. The story itself is relatively simple: Once upon a time human beings were independent, content, self-sufficient, equal, and free. Then over time certain things happened which encouraged or forced them to associate with each other, to develop technology, to institute families and small societies, with laws, competition, and property. And then human beings became envious, oppressed, unequal, and unhappy. With the passage of time, things got progressively worse. Obviously, then, the source of our unhappiness and injustice is to be found in the historical process which changed our material conditions and our feelings about our lives.
Itís a simple story and one which (as I shall argue later) has very little persuasive evidence to support it. It seems to be simply one more version of the ancient myths about the golden age. Why then can we claim this is such a revolutionary social document? What, in short, is all the fuss about? Well, Rousseauís account is, of course, derived from that long tradition, but with a critical edge which makes all the difference. To appreciate that, we have to consider for a moment the nature of historical accounts, narrative explanations for current events.
We have already encountered in our reading a number of narrative historical accounts which form the basis for the way people understand themselves and the world around them. The Homeric myths or the stories in Genesis and Exodus, for example, are accounts of past events. But these serve (and were interpreted to serve) to underscore a permanent vision of experience. Yes, the Exodus from Egypt and the Trojan War were discrete historical events from long ago, but what they reveal about life then are the most important features of present life now. In that sense, these historical accounts help to reinforce a sense of a permanent present reality, unchanging in the face of time. God gave Moses the tablets many centuries ago, but that act, like the Passover, confirms the truth of how we ought to live today. History here links the past and present indissolubly and invites us to understand human experience in the light of the permanent divine realities endorsed by that ancient event. For Christians the stories of the fall and the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ serve the same purpose. The central thrust of such a vision of history is the continuity of the past and the present.
The most obvious example of this view of history (from the texts we have read) comes in Danteís Inferno. That text includes historical characters from many centuries, from the Greek mythological past right up to the present day. And clearly some of them lived long before some others. But they all live in an eternal present. Their lives acquire significance with reference to the permanent truths of Christianity, particularly the justice of Godís punishment. And, as I mentioned in the lecture on Dante (which I am sure you have all committed to memory), the ancient pagans in Danteís poem endorse that justice. They do not use history critically (as we might be tempted to do) to raise awkward questions about how someone like, say, Socrates, could possibly have been a Christian in the years before Christís birth and thus how his punishment could be justified.
In such a use of historical narrative, the effect is plainly very conservative, in the root meaning of that word: to conserve the truths about life in the stories from the past. Such stories provide a lasting authority for an unchanging interpretation of experience and, most importantly, a religious endorsement for the existing state of things, whether in science or in politics. Present structures of thinking or ruling are part of the eternal nature of things, and always have been. They are, to use eighteenth-century terminology, laws of nature or naturally legitimate, part of the human condition. Thatís what history tells us.
Rousseauís story has quite a different purpose and impact. He wants us to use history critically, that is, to expose the historical origins of particular human institutions, ways of thinking, structures of authority. Rather than emphasizing the continuity between past and present, he wishes to emphasize the differences. Thatís why the Second Discourse (On Inequality), for all the shoddy attention to historical facts and the very dubious use of evidence, is so important. If we think historically about society, Rousseau argues, we can see that certain things around us, which we may take for granted as part of the permanent order of experience (and which the traditional views of history encourage us to see in that light), are the results of obscure, accidental historical events, particular decisions made by particular people, significant changes from the way things used to be. Hence, and this is the all-important corollary, they donít have a claim to permanent laws of nature--they are human constructions. They are artificial rather than natural.
Once we start thinking this way about our society, then we begin to acquire a powerful revolutionary consciousness. For if we begin to see that popes, bishops, dukes, kings, judges, landowners, and so forth derive their authority, not from divine fiat or from natural law, but from the accidents of history, then we begin to see their authority in a very different way. And we begin to ask some embarrassing questions about how we might, through our own historical decision making, alter the present arrangements.
If, for example, the institution of private property (to which Rousseau traces the origin of all our social evils) was a human decision made a particular moment, rather than something ordained by God himself, then we are clearly invited to think about how we might deal now with rules of property in order to correct any social ills we see arising from it. The road from the Second Discourse to Karl Marx is, in this respect, obvious enough.
That this critical awareness of modern social issues is an important central theme of this work is clear from the second half of the title: What is the origin of inequality among men; and is it authorized by natural law? Rousseauís historical narrative is designed to answer that question for us in a resounding negative. Whatever we might like to say about social authority around us, it is not justified by the nature of things.
Some Comments on Critical History
Now, Rousseau is hardly the first thinker to set up a historical narrative for this purpose. In fact, in the Second Discourse he is drawing upon a strong trend in eighteenth-century thinking which saw in historical narratives a key way of advocating revolutionary adjustments in how we think about the natural world, human society, and social justice. One of the major resources available to people who wanted to pursue this line of enquiry was the growing availability of classical works, because here people could point to a civilization whose achievements in many respects far outweighed those of modern Europe (especially in literature and philosophy). An appeal to the classics was thus an immediate way of challenging the permanent authority of many present institutions. If Socrates was a model of rational morality, while at the same time a pagan, how can we possibly claim that only Christians have discovered the highest moral truths?
We can see the growing importance of historical narratives very clearly in the development of science. In the early modern phase, culminating in the work of Isaac Newton, there was little attention to a historical understanding of things. What mattered was the eternal structure by which they worked. Newton himself was stoutly insistent that there could be no historical understanding of the heavens. God had set them up to work in the way his equations indicated, and the only changes possible in those arrangements had to come from the direct intervention of God himself.
Nevertheless, the work of the geologists (the continuing importance of fossils, the growing evidence that the earth had a history) inexorably drove those seeking a historical understanding of the natural world to construct narrative explanations over the objections of those who opposed such a view (some of whom, no doubt, recognized that a historical understanding of nature would lead soon enough to the much more dangerous historical understanding of human society). And by the end of the eighteenth-century, Newtonís cosmos had been reinterpreted historically (initiating a tradition which has recently brought us the Big Bang Theory).
One standard way of dealing with the opposition to historical explanations was to set up an argument as a thought experiment, to say, in effect, of course God created the world all at once just as we see it today, as the scriptures tell us, but, for the purposes of a thought experiment, letís see if we can construct a narrative (even though we know that narrative is not what really happened). This form of argument first surfaces (in our reading) in Descartesí Discourse on Method, and the very tentative tone Descartes uses in introducing such a process indicates either his own reservations about breaking with tradition or his nervousness about what the scholarly authorities will say about such a dangerous precedent or both.
Rousseau begins his Second Discourse following Descartesí lead. Religion, he says, informs us that God took man out of the state of nature immediately after the creation and set him in civil society. However, we should, for the sake of ďconjecturesĒ set aside those ďfactsĒ for the sake of ďhypothetical and conditional reasonings better suited to clarify the nature of things than to show their true originĒ (103). But it quickly becomes apparent that this genuflection before the altar of traditional religion is a cursory ploy, because soon enough Rousseau is talking about how all the ďfactsĒ he is presenting ďproveĒ or demonstrate or establish beyond doubt what ďmustĒ have really happened. The Second Discourse, in other words, sets up that original tribute to religion in order to demolish it. Indeed, much of the force of Rousseauís argument depends upon that assumption that Primitive Man was a historical reality.
That indicates an important difference between Rousseauís use of the concept of a state of nature and Hobbesí use of the same phrase. Hobbes, too, is engaging in a thought experiment, but his argument does not depend on the historical reality of such a state. He is saying, in effect, given what we know about human psychology now, this is how we can imagine a man behaving in a state of nature and how his self-interest will drive him to a social contract. The issue here is the reasonableness of thinking of the modern state as established for the self-interest of the citizens (rather than the historical reality of the social contract). He can thus appeal to a state of nature without insisting on the historical reality of that condition, because Hobbes sees no great difference in the psychology of human beings in a state of nature and humans in modern society: they are both creatures dominated by greed and fear and self-interest.
Rousseau, however, is insisting on a series of significant changes since the state of nature, changes which include the make-up of the human personality. We are not now what we were then. Certain historical events over a long period have changed us irrevocably for the worse. Hence, whatever his disclaimer at the start of the narrative, the historical reality of man in a state of nature is an important part of Rousseauís case (which may be why he refers to natives of the new world so much more frequently than does Hobbes). Indeed, if we totally discard the historical reality of Rousseauís state of nature, then most of his argument collapses.
At the same time, however, Rousseau wants to make sure that we understand that man in a state of nature was essentially the same biological creature as he is today. That why, very early in the argument, he sets aside (too casually, perhaps) any evolutionary possibility from savage man to today. Itís essential to his case that the changes which have occurred are caused by society, not by biology. Much of the case he is making is drastically weakened if we claim that primitive man was significantly different biologically from man today, because if thatís the case, then we cannot usefully compare their conditions and ascribe the difference to social inequality. Of course, we cannot go back to savage man, but thatís because of the psychological dependency we now have on society and on the ways in which social living has brought about a physical degeneration in human health and strength, not because we are a different creature than we were then.
[This is not to say, of course, that Rousseau dismisses the concept of evolution. On the contrary, he is emphatic on linking the development of the human species from animals. However, he denies that the changes which have taken place since primitive man can be ascribed to biological evolution, a point essential to his argument that society is responsible for all the changes]
The importance of this step (using history critically to de-legitimize modern claims to authority) cannot be overestimated. Rousseau, as I say, did not invent critical history, but he is one of its most eloquent, energetic, and popular apologists for it, seeking to hone its revolutionary edge in order to undercut any claims by existing authority to some form of justification by appeals to a law of nature or Godís established order. That critical purpose is seeking to establish a new use for historical thinking as a tool of social criticism and political reform. The enthusiasm with which Rousseau undertakes the task and gets us thinking along such lines is far more important and influential than any particular details he advances in support of his argument, most of which are entirely unpersuasive, since they amount to a lot of unfounded speculations and an eclectic plundering of examples from history and anthropology.
[Parenthetically, it might be worth observing here that one of the greatest products of this new historical tradition appeared about twenty years after the Second Discourse, the devastating historical indictment of Christianity in Gibbonís Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon, of course, unlike Rousseau, bases his case on a scrupulous and painstaking attention to scholarly sources. It was a matter of no small embarrassment to many church officials that this book, written by someone particularly hostile to Christianity, remained for a long time the most authoritative scholarly work on the early church]
A Short Digression: Progressive History
While on this subject of history as a critical method, I should offer a few remarks on a third view of history, the notion that it indeed records a series of significant changes in the human condition, but that these changes indicate a progression, an improvement, a gradual manifestation of some higher plan.
Such a view of history, also increasingly popular in the eighteenth century, is a means of reconciling the first form of history I mentioned (history as a record of an eternally present truth) and Rousseauís vision of history (history as a series of accidents or arbitrary human decisions). A progressive view of history can accept the concept of fundamental changes from one age to the next but resist seeing in such changes a series of mere accidents, for there is some higher order guiding history (God or some ruling Idea), and thus each stage (including the present) marks where human beings stand in the unrolling of the historical process.
This vision of history (a form of which which we are going to meet in the essays by Immanuel Kant) was brought to its culmination by the German philosopher Hegel in the early nineteenth century. It can be used (and was used) to underwrite conservative or radical political philosophies. For conservatives, progressive history indicates that the present state of things is where we ought to be in accordance with the controlling divine presence or idea guiding the historical process, and therefore existing conditions are the best possible (even if they are not ideal). Radical thinkers can use progressive history to indicate that we need actively to work to move onto the next stage, rather than passively accepting what we now have. We need, as it were, to throw our human energies into accelerating the process of change.
It should be abundantly clear from the Second Discourse that Rousseau does not belong to this tradition. He offers us little insight into what guides the historical process, but he does suggest again and again that accidents and human decisions and human technological developments (like farming and metallurgy) drive the transitions from one stage to the next. And, of course, there is nothing progressive in Rousseauís vision. For him, the history of civilization has been a history of the degradation of the human species and the loss of those qualities which make individual human beings most fully human.
Some Reflections on Rousseauís Vision of History
Of course, thereís a lot more to the Second Discourse than simply an invitation to a critical historical method. For Rousseau has a particular narrative to lay on the table. Itís a simple and very seductive story: once man lived in a state of nature and, in this primitive condition, was independent, peaceful, happy, and equal. His desires did not exceed his capacity to fulfill them, for the earth was bountiful, and he lacked imaginative desires to dangle in front of him anything not immediately attainable. Since his existence was largely independent of anyone else, he suffered from none of the problems which arise from continuing complex human interactions. He had an innate sense of pride in himself, with no desire to demonstrate that by dominating others, to whom he felt a natural sympathy. His mind was very limited (without the ability to reason, without language, and so on), but he was independent, free, happy, and equal
But then, through a series of unknown circumstances, primitive man changed this state of nature and, over time, developed social groups. This transition was the source of all later troubles, both physical oppression of rich over poor, strong over the weak, and the aristocratic over the humble and the psychological oppression arising from unfulfilled desires, envy of others, feelings of low self-esteem, and so on. Every increase in human achievement, whether in technology, language, philosophy or whatever, simply made matters worse, so that if we look around us today we see how far civilization has led to a debasement of that earlier state.
What this adds up to is an astonishingly new claim--once again, not original with Rousseau, but here given its most famous and eloquent expression: human beings are by nature good. The reason they suffer in their lives is civilized society. Civilization, as we see it, corrupts all that is best in human nature. All that we are most proud of, from our scientific theories to our most famous artistic achievements and physical luxuries, reduce our original qualities still further and promote the inequality we see all around us.
In support of this narrative Rousseau draws on a wide range of eclectic ďfactsĒ from the literature of ancient times to contemporary accounts of various natives in the New World. As I have mentioned before, there is nothing compelling about Rousseauís evidence. He clearly ignores a great deal, using what best suits his purpose, and alters his perception of something to make a point (hence, the Caribís good qualities can serve as a positive example of all the best qualities of primitive man, uncorrupted by society, while the Caribís bad qualities can serve as an example of the corrupting effects of society--and all this can be offered without any detailed understanding of Carib culture). There is nothing very compellingly persuasive about his presentation of what he calls his ďfactsĒ and his account of what ďmustĒ have taken place. No one would ever include Rousseau on a list of books providing important information about the development of society historically.
Rousseau has not bothered to read very widely in the literature of the new world, which by that time was beginning to have some sense that these so-called ďprimitiveĒ people had, in fact, complex social structures. He draws rather crudely and repetitively (but often very eloquently) on a tradition already well established by his time of the ďnoble savage,Ē a tradition that tended to be a good deal less interested in the nobility of the so-called savages or the reality of their situation than in using a stereotypical image of the primitive native as a means of holding up European men and institutions to criticism.
So why then do we attend to his account? Why do we pay so much attention to a historical account, one which insists upon its veracity, when the factual basis for it is so tenuous? The answer, I think, (leaving out of account Rousseauís eloquent style and his enormous popularity) lies in the implications of what Rousseau is saying. For his narrative is promoting an extraordinarily optimistic view of human nature and setting the groundwork for the most seductive of human dreams, the idea that human beings can improve themselves dramatically by attending to reforms in their social environment.
After all, if all the major troubles of our lives stem from the organization in the social structures around us, then it follows that there is something we can do about improving, even perfecting, our condition. True, Rousseau does not go into the details here--those come later in his next major work of political thought, the Social Contract (and that text is extremely pessimistic about just how much human beings can improve their lot). Still, if human decisions are the source of our problems, then they can be reversed. We are not fated to be unhappy, alienated creatures, and those who tell us we are are simply invoking natural law or God to shore up an unjust social structure.
Rousseauís Noble Savage
In delineating his vision of primitive man, Rousseau is also, in effect, holding out something of an ideal. And in order to understand his indictment of society, we need to consider that ideal in somewhat more detail. What is it that Primitive Man possessed of value that civilization destroyed? Why should we look upon developments from our primitive state as a loss?
Primitive man, living according to nature, was entirely independent and self-sufficient. He obtained what he needed for his life from his immediate vicinity and, thanks to a convenient sentiment of pity, was not inclined to aggression towards others. Most important (and original) in Rousseauís picture is the notion of his psychological freedom. He did not suffer from any tendency to meditate about or imagine things which were unanswerable or unattainable. Hence he had no physical or emotional desires that were not immediately satisfied. He had no desire to be social and was thus spared all the various troubles that stem from human interaction. Sex was available on demand, without the inconvenience of parenting or love. His personality, in other words, was entirely integrated and in harmony. He was not divided against himself or conscious of any lack.
As an ideal, this picture seems seriously wanting. The happiness of primitive man comes at the expense of anything we might most value, like intellectual accomplishments, competitive striving, social recognition, or even the most fundamental interpersonal requirements like language and literature. And Rousseau acknowledges that lack, but he want to call attention to the cost of all those things we most prize and pride ourselves on.
For example, to cite one of Rousseauís most interesting insights: what emerges as one of the most destructive elements of living amongst other human beings is the development of what we now would call (after Marx) a false consciousness. Once human beings start living together in groups, they start competing for attention and admiration, things they do not really need in nature, but which society forces upon them. Out of this competition, false values develop--fame, status, beauty, intellectual quality, luxury, and so forth--all of which pander to what Rousseau calls amour propre, vanity, a false sense of oneís own importance. This process leads us to oppress others and ourselves in the service of false needs and at the same times leaves us with a perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction about ourselves. This really troubles Rousseau because for him a human being who suffers from such inner oppression is not free and independent, let alone equal (nowadays, when we invoke the injustice of things like the Beauty Myth or deplore the consumerism of advertising, we are following Rousseauís lead).
Here a comparison with Hobbes can be instructive. Hobbesí view of the Leviathan commonwealth encourages the development and consumption of luxuries, because these activities (according to Hobbes) will keep people obedient and occupied and make them rich. He is not concerned about their happiness or their independence, and he has a much lower estimate of their natural qualities than does Rousseau. For Hobbes, the key requirement in a state is not individual happiness but civil obedience. Hence, Hobbes is indifferent to the question of how the pursuit of commodious living will affect individuals psychologically, just as he is indifferent to any forced hypocrisy required of individuals by following the Sovereignís wishes in the public space and their own beliefs in their private homes. Since Hobbes does not believe that human beings can be sufficiently virtuous (or, rather, that a sufficient number of them can be virtuous), he is not concerned to make virtue a requirement for the citizen in the commonwealth, any more than he is worried about their amour propre. Vanity, according to Hobbes, is part of the nature of human beings, and the task of the political state is to exploit that characteristic for the sake of civil order.
Rousseau cannot accept Hobbesí low estimate of human nature. For him, the independence, happiness, and equality of individuals are more important than physical security or commodious living purchased at the price of the integrity of the human personality. His vision of primitive man is thus offered to us as a standard of what we have lost. There may be little historical accuracy in the description, but the figure of the Noble Savage serves Rousseau as a critical tool to highlight the extent to which civilized society has made people less than he thinks they ought to be (and once were). Of course, there is no question of virtue with the Noble Savage, because he has nothing to be virtuous about (since he operates largely by unthinking instinct), but he is, in comparison with Hobbesí vision of human beings in a state of nature, good and complete and happy.
Now, on the basis of Rousseauís argument in the Second Discourse, civilization comes after this state of nature, interrupts and transforms it by creating something artificial. Hence, his account throws into question any claim that society or particular institutions in society can be naturally justified, that is, defended by an appeal to the natural state of man or some divine creative power who made Natural Man in the first place. Rousseauís narrative, by contrast, disestablishes such claims. Society is, in some sense, always illegitimate, because it inevitably destroys and corrupts the natural rights, freedoms, and equality of savage man.
Hence, political authority which rested on claims about the inherently social nature of man (as in, say, Aristotle) or on claims about the innate rationality of human beings, about the origin of human beings within the context of the primitive family, about the divinely ordained structures of rule and so on are all illegitimate. In that sense the Second Discourse stands as a powerful revolutionary document calling all present forms of government into question, legitimizing opposition to the structures which support them.
The Disappearance of Original Sin
Thereís also a more subtle and profound sense that in this document Rousseau has, at least implicitly, endorsed the view the human beings were by natural right entitled to the qualities of life of primitive man: freedom, equality, happiness, independence. Once human beings had these in abundance; but society has taken them away. And that appropriation leads to injustice.
Now, this point has potentially enormous significance, for it suggests clearly that primitive man was not, in any traditional sense, inadequate. He was not a creature blasted by original sin, condemned to inevitable suffering as a condition of life. Nor was he a mere plaything of the gods. In neither case did he need what so many traditional political thinkers had told him he needed in order to cope: a social environment, rulers, religious traditions, interdependency.
Whereas in both the Greek and Christian tradition, happiness was something extremely difficult to attain, possible only among exceptional people and as a by-product to long and challenging activities, Rousseau is implying that originally happiness was part of every manís natural right. The loss of that has nothing to do with anything divine or fated but with the human decision making, chance, accidents, and so on which have determined the structure of society.
This is clear enough if we consider for a moment that Rousseauís narrative has more than a passing resemblance to the story of Adam and Eve, except, of course, the story has been totally secularized. The fall from Eden was a historical event, initiated by human beings. It was a human mistake. Human punishment was self-inflicted. Hence, if we are not happy (materially and psychologically) then we donít have to see that as an inevitable condition of human life. Itís something for which our society is to blame. All at once, Rousseauís story gives a powerful incentive to revolutionary reform thinking, since it encourages personal discontent (of which there is surely never any shortage) to focus on social injustice as its cause (rather than on sin or an inferior character). The origins of modern sociological thinking owe a great deal to this argument of Rousseauís.
Let me pursue this a little further. While Rousseau does not discuss happiness specifically (he is mainly concerned about unhappiness), implicit in his argument is, as I say, the idea that human beings have a natural right to happiness. This point, it strikes me, marks a really significant shift in how we think about our lives, because it sets up happiness as something to which we are entitled, some condition or state which has been taken from us unjustly.
Such a view is, as I have mentioned, in marked contrast to traditional views of happiness as something largely unattainable in life, except by the very few. And even then, happiness was not something one could achieve by setting oneís sights on it. It emerged, if at all, from the struggles we undertook to be virtuous, a by-product, as it were, of seeking the higher goal of goodness. The only secure happiness to be found was in the after life. Hence, happiness could not be, and was not, a specific goal to be sought for on its own, independent of other striving. The notion that human beings had a right to be happy would, in such thinking, be absurd.
Rousseauís argument about Primitive Man strongly implies something different: a happiness which emerges from the absence of striving or thinking, a natural gift equally available to all as part of their humanity, conferred as a right on human beings in a state of nature. The fact that we donít have that gift nowadays is the fault of society.
Itís possible to see here that seductive modern idea that happiness is a democratic entitlement and that, if Iím not happy, then I must actively seek it out or demand that someone provide it, forgetting the ancient idea that happiness, if it comes at all, is a by-product of the struggle for virtue. The tension between these two vision of happiness--happiness as objectively available and happiness as a by-product of lifeís struggle--is wonderfully caught by that magnificently ambiguous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, ďthe pursuit of happiness,Ē which can mean either ďthe pursuit of something called happinessĒ or ďthe pursuit which makes one happy, the happy pursuit.Ē
[Lest I be misunderstood, Iím not claiming that Rousseau is deliberately advocating that in the modern state everyone has a right to be happy. He recognizes that that is impossible under existing circumstances. But his later political thought in The Social Contract and Emile offers the hope (albeit a very slim one) that with the right education and social arrangements the average human being can overcome the major sources of his present distress, material and psychological. In that sense, there is no original sin any more]
Parenthetically, we can see in Rousseauís vision here what we have come to call a ďvictim narrative,Ē that is, a historical explanation for our present distress (material or psychological), a story which locates the sources of our troubles in particular people or material conditions (often in our parents or upbringing). Victim narratives, like so many forms of explanation, are ambiguously useful. On the one hand, a victim narrative may prompt us to do something to address the problem, resolve material, social, political, or psychological difficulties so as to deal with the issues. Alternatively, a victim narrative can serve to resolve us of any personal responsibility (my troubles are all the fault of others in my story, so Iím an undeserving victim and my inabilities, limitations, bad behaviour, and so on are the result of other peopleís treatment of me) or (perhaps worst of all) leave us permanently dissatisfied over things which an earlier condition insisted were part of the inherent human lot and which had to be accepted (often as part of a religious belief).
Where Do We Go From Here?
If we concede, as I think we must, that Rousseauís Second Discourse is a wonderfully eloquent and challenging †indictment of modern society, then we might usefully ask ourselves if we can derive from this book any sense of what we ought to do about the ills he points out. Does Rousseau establish any clear guidelines here? Is this a manifesto for political action? If so, what are its recommendations?
Prima facie, Rousseau leaves us with no clear options, no systematic program of reform which might address these issues. Thatís not part of his intention, of course, and thereís no reason why he has to do that. But the lack also helps to remind us that Rousseau, like so many of his colleagues in the eighteenth-century, were social thinkers rather than social activists. They were often astute and eloquent critics of existing institutions (especially in France), but they took no systematic political action and had little to recommend in that respect (putting a detailed program for practical political action in the service of these social critiques was left to the next century, above all in the work of Karl Marx).
There is certainly no sense in Rousseauís text that we should go back to living like Primitive Man (although in his own time his book was widely ridiculed for advocating that). Rousseau knows that is impossible--for we have changed fundamentally since then and simply could not survive, even if there were space enough. For better or worse we live in large groups now and have to deal with each other in a social context.
Itís clear from Rousseauís narrative that he sees the logic of inequality increasing the divisions between people and multiplying injustices to the breaking point. Although he doesnít stress the issue, there are moments when he explicitly underwrites some form of revolutionary protest against this trend:
So that the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of the powerful and weak by the second, and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the limit to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether or bring it closer to its legitimate institution. (172)
That final phrase (closer to its legitimate institution) is, in the context of this work, teasingly ambiguous. We get few details about what precisely we could do in order to make government more legitimate. That, of course, is the major topic of The Social Contract. But there are some pregnant suggestions here that the only legitimate form of government must go back to the principles of the original social contract which took men out of the state of nature:
. . . a contract by which the two parties obligate themselves to observe laws that are stipulated in it and that form the bonds of their union. These people having, on the subject of social relations, united all their wills into a single one, all the articles on which this will is explicit become so many fundamental laws obligating all members of the State without exception, and one of these laws regulates the choice and power of magistrates charged with watching over the execution of the others. This power extends to everything that can maintain the constitution, without going so far as to change it. (169)
On the basis of this suggestion, Rousseau later works out (in The Social Contract) a vision of the modern legitimate state as a majoritarian democracy in which the citizen is educated to recognize that the General Will obliges him to obey the will of all (in which he is an equal participant). This is not a restriction on his freedom because such obedience is freely given. Hence, in such a state the citizen can acquire independence and civil freedom, which will restore his dignity, not as a primitive man (a state impossible to attain again), but as a fully moral human agent, with an integrated personality which is not divided against itself.
[I realize here that I have skated quickly past a major concern of Rousseau scholars: the relationship between the Second Discourse and the Social Contract. Since we are not dealing with the later text, it is not appropriate to go into that question here, other than to remark that there is wide disagreement about it. The marked contrast between the emphasis on natural solitary man in the Second Discourse, anti-social and anarchic, and the communitarian citizen in the Social Contract, forced to be free in a social context, has led to at least three explanations: that these views are logically consistent (on the basis of the quotation I have included above), that Rousseau evolved from a radical individualist into a democratic collectivist, and that Rousseau is here (as elsewhere) seriously confused about his political priorities.]
Those who attack Rousseau often claim that such a vision (the majoritarian collective) has led directly to many extremely oppressive regimes which offer to remake ordinary, competitive, unhappy people into happy, cooperative comrades (Camille Paglia, in one of her shoot-from-the-lip comments, tells us that every road from Rousseau leads to modern totalitarianism). Such criticism overlooks Rousseauís generally very pessimistic view about the attainment of such a modern state except (perhaps) under very stringent economic and geographical conditions (and even then with little chance of lasting for very long).
In any case, that prescription is not found in the Second Discourse in any detail. This text, as it were, lays the groundwork for the constructive suggestions in The Social Contract. But what we have here, as I have tried to argue, is a powerful preliminary rationale for revolutionary thinking (if not action): an indictment of modern European civilization which disestablishes its claims to legal authority, the inevitability of and justification for disobedience and rebellion, and an eloquent pleading that human unhappiness and oppression are located, first and foremost, in historically derived social conditions rather than in any natural law or divine schemes. Given all this, itís not surprising that many people saw (and still see) Rousseau as the fountainhead from which so many later thinkers and radical political activists drew their inspiration.