Rousseau on Solitary Human Nature

In the realm of social theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is primarily identified with his The Social Contract (1762). But that work proposes his solution to more fundamental questions addressed in his two earlier key writings, the discourses. Despite Rousseau's chronological status as an Enlightenment era thinker, he proposed a social and philosophical system opposed to the momentum of the age, one built on the notion that human nature is essentially solitary.

First Discourse

Where Enlightenment philosophers optimistically argued for reason, science, and progress, Rousseau's first discourse, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), announced the radical notion that Western civilization was now experiencing social and ethical regression.

While government and law provide for the security and well-being of people in their collective life, the sciences, letters, and arts -- less despotic though perhaps more powerful -- wrap garlands of flowers around the chains that weigh people down. ... Need erected thrones, and the sciences and arts consolidated them.

To Rousseau, the age represented a "loathsome and deceptive conformity." Contrary to a notion of progress, "all minds seem to have been cast in the same mold. We no longer dare to appear as we really are" but constitute "the herd known as society."

Whence this view? Rousseau was no reactionary supporting institutions and practices of a previous era. His wa an articulate and well-crafted argument. He had been rebuffed in personal projects throughout his life, and critics have tried to psychoanalyze Rousseau's life in order to undermine his points of view. However, while Rousseau's experience of personal hardship and solitude may have confirmed several basic ideas, these ideas stand on their own merit.

In the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, composed for a contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon, Rousseau refuted the premise of progress and foresaw the ramifications of ensuing political restlessness in Europe. Science and the arts were facades to mask a core decadence, as in Athens and Rome, he argued. His own times revealed "luxury, licentiousness, and slavery," all characteristics of a great disparity between society's values and Rousseau's own notion of "eternal wisdom." This disparity was especially reflective of a growing gulf between the refined wealthy classes (with their arts and sciences) and the common people.

A series of Rousseau aphorisms describe the tenor of the times:

A man is worth no more to the State than the value of his consumption.

The dissolution of morality, the necessary consequence of luxury, results in turn in the corruption of taste.

What good is it to seek our happiness in the opinions of others if we can find it within ourselves?

O virtue, sublime science of simple souls! Are so much effort and so much preparation really necessary to know you? Are your principles not engraved in all our hearts? Does it not suffice to learn your laws, meditate and listen to the voice of our conscience in the silence of our passions?

Second Discourse

Succeeding this general social critique, Rousseau's second discourse, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind (1754), sets out the philosopher's understanding of human nature. In the preface to the discourse, Rousseau presents two species of inequality: 1) "natural or physical inequality established by nature," based on differences of age, health, bodily constitution, qualities of mind, and 2) moral or political inequality "established or at least authorized by the common consent of mankind ... different privileges which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others, such as that of being richer, more honored, more powerful, and even that of exacting obedience from them."

Rousseau avidly pursues the latter set of inequalities. He sees contrived social inequalities as inimical, promoted by culture, convention, power, law, and subjugation, paradoxical accompaniments to the advantages gained by the development of society and transformation from an animal-like existence.

Describing this transition from a primitive to civilized state, Rousseau anticipates modern findings of anthropology and paleontology. He is not far off in his description, while acknowledging that his sketch is conjectural and hypothetical.

According to Rousseau, the human pursuit of survival irrevocably transformed into association with other humans, the foundation of social groups, initially for effective hunting and gathering but leading to the viability of larger populations, then to territoriality, competition, and the gradual development of hierarchy and power.

In the more primitive state of nature -- which scientists would now called the Neolithic -- Rousseau described the human as

satisfying his hunger under an oak, and his thirst at the first brook. I see him laying himself down to sleep at the foot of the same tree that afforded him his meal, and there are all his wants completely satisfied.

Rousseau sees earliest humans as retiring and solitary, characteristically tolerant of weather conditions, having keen eyesight and smell, and governed by instinct. More formidable enemies like infancy and old age, characteristics common to all animals, were the chief concerns.

But above all things let us beware of concluding with Hobbes that man had no idea of goodness, must be naturally bad, and that he is vicious because he does not know what virtue is, that he always refuses to do any service to those of his own species because he believes that none is due to them. ... We should say that the state of nature, being that in which to care for his own preservation, interferes least with the preservation of others, and was consequently the most favorable to peace, and the most suitable to mankind.

What maintained this state of nature was what Rousseau calls self-love on the one hand and pity on the other, pity best translated today as empathy. This empathy satisfies the need for laws, manners, and articulated virtues. Empathy provides a contrast to civilized rational justice, a contrast Rousseau epitomizes as the modern "Do to others as you would have others do to you," versus the state of nature's "Do good to yourself and with as little prejudice as you can to others."

In the state of nature, "every man [is] his own master, and render[s] the law of the strongest altogether vain and useless." For the "bonds of servitudes are formed merely by the mutual dependence of men one upon another."

What transformed the state of nature towards the path of civilization? Rousseau concludes that there were two essential factors: will and consciousness.

While animals choose, humans will. Consciousness is a capacity to select and pursue will, which constitutes freedom. Furthermore, human will promotes a sense of potential or perfectibility that can successively reveal and develop other faculties and potentialities. But, argues Rousseau, the internal factors would still govern human nature as solitary were not external accidents to radically shift primitive human behavior, which "made man wicked by making him sociable, and from so remote a time bring man at last and the world to the point at which we now see them."

Rousseau announces:

The first man who after enclosing a piece of ground took it into his head to say "This is mine" and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who, pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches, should have cried to his fellows: "Beware of listening to this imposer! You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!"

Here is the original sin, so to speak, pitting the ego against others, depending on violence of thought, expression, and, presumably, of physical capabilities. Such an act violated the dictum and ethos of the undisturbed and solitary state of nature, "the simplicity and solitariness of man's life, the scarcity of his wants ..." Thus, Rousseau sees property as the source of societal problems, and in ethical terms the source of greed, pride, covetousness, and egoism. The result was the mentality of civilization.

[It is] for want of sufficiently distinguishing ideas and observing at how great a distance these [civilized] people were from the first state of nature that so many authors have happily concluded that man is naturally cruel and requires a civil government to make him more gentle; whereas nothing is more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious enlightenment of civilized man; confined equally by instinct and reason to provide against the harm which threatens him he is withheld by natural compassion from doing any injury to others, so far from being led even to return that which he has received.

Rousseau focuses on the role of labor and technical projects:

As long as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck to such arts as did not require joint endeavors of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy. ... But from the moment one man began to stand in need of another's assistance ... equality vanished, property was introduced; labor became necessary and boundless forests became smiling fields, which had to be watered with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the harvests.

Society represented the end of equality:

Man heretofore free and independent, was now ... brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and especially to his fellows, whose slave in some sense he became, even by becoming their master: if rich, he stood in need of their services, if poor, of their assistance.

Riches heretofore in land or animals turns into riches consisting of slaves and labor. Inequality represented society's "most terrible disorders," for oppression destroys pity or empathy in the oppressor, and provokes the backlash of anger, resentment, and hatred in the oppressed. Inequality became the sole law of the strongest and the new state of nature.

The end of the original state of nature was the end of solitude. Rousseau cites two  ancient philosophical exemplars of solitude: Diogenes and Stoicism.

[Primitive man] sighs for nothing but repose and liberty, desiring only to live, and to be exempt from labor. The ataraxy of the most confirmed Stoic falls short of his profound indifference to every other object.


The reason Diogenes could not find a [wise] man was that he sought among his contemporaries the man of a bygone  era.

The Social Contract

Rousseau's essential anthropology of solitude and human nature was expressed in the two discourses. Yet the Social Contract receives the most critical interest, primarily because it intended to resolve a necessary or inevitably corrupted human condition given the premises of the discourses. In the Social Contract, Rousseau attempts to address the issue of society as a given; there can longer be a system that recovers original human nature. Hence the opening declaration that "Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains" refers to social man, to man as conceived by Aristotle and Grotius, let alone Hobbes.

Rousseau insists on identifying out of the whirl of social actions the core individual who acts, who is "never anything but an individual whose interest, separated from that of the rest of society, is never anything but a private interest." But how to work with such individuals now that they are transformed into profoundly social beings?

In chapter 1, Rousseau identifies the nature of the social pact and places sovereignty in the people -- a view that infuriated the authorities of state and church, as much as the wealthy and powerful. Rousseau is at pains to retain in the individual the modicum of personal autonomy that is a vestige of original human nature. Critics have dissected every line of the Social Contract to refute premises that Rousseau no longer maintained in his discussion of social man. His frank outline of what society consists has become the foundation of all modern political theory, from authoritarian to democratic, insofar as Rousseau addresses the reality of what to do now that society exists and a mass psychology has suspended, if not suppressed, original human nature.

Rousseau's identification of a general will expressing unconscious human preferences is based on the idea of original human nature being extrapolated, sublimated, indirectly projected, but ultimately lost in the crowd. The Social Contract is both prophetic of future historical forms of government but also Utopian in hoping that the most benign expressions of human nature will find public manifestation through the general will, which is a remnant of a primitive state. The  general will has been co-opted by modern governments as representing their electoral system as much as it has been co-opted by authoritarian governments as representing their plebescites. Ultimately, Rousseau's Social Contract is judged by Rousseau's critics to be inimical to modern political thought, simply because modern thought will not countenance the individual as anything but an appendage of society.


The standard critique of Rousseau's ideas on solitary human nature and the inimical character of society ascribes his ideas to an unhappy life. Yet Western scriptural tradition had always distinguished a primitive and innocent human nature corrupted by social relations (in this case, social relations with the "serpent" who would curse humanity with aspiration to divine powers), bringing about fallen nature and its consequence of flawed social relations. No adequate Western philosophy of solitude had been expressed before Rousseau, who crystallized these ideas for reflection by subsequent generations.