Rousseau: The Consistent Collectivist

Numerous philosophers employ the state of nature as a metaphysical thought experiment to support their political prescriptions. Based on his assumptions that man is predisposed to be avaricious and that the state of nature is a state of extreme scarcity, Hobbes believed in the necessity of an absolute sovereign; Locke contributed to his argument for limited government by asserting that the state of nature is a state of relative abundance, governed by preexisting laws of nature; Rousseau’s state of nature, one of absolute abundance in which man’s fundamental ethic is natural pity, is so desirable that he considered all civil societies to be inferior. Simply put, a philosopher’s metaphysics lay the groundwork for his political conclusions. In the continuing study of Rousseau as a Counter-Enlightenment philosopher, it is important to chart the philosophic progression of his ideas from the most fundamental premises to the most abstract conclusions.

The State of Nature

Whereas Locke and Hobbes used their depictions of the state of nature as both philosophic thought experiments and quasi-historical hypotheses, Rousseau began the development of his state of nature by preemptively responding to any potential objections that his state of nature did not exist. Rather, he treated such objections as philosophically irrelevant, stating plainly that conjectures about the state of nature are best suited to “shedding light on the nature of things than on pointing out their true origin.”[1] He went further still, arguing that his predecessors failed to capture the essence of this hypothetical state, ascribing to man qualities that Rousseau believed could have only developed in civil society. Rousseau thus stripped man of all these “accidental” qualities – language, reason, conceptions of ownership, justice, authority, etc. – to arrive at man’s true nature.[2]

Man in Rousseau’s state of nature is little more than an animal: “less strong than some, less agile than others, but all in all,” argued Rousseau, “the most advantageously organized of all.”[3] Rousseau’s savage man is “robust, agile, and courageous,” capable of defending himself and fulfilling all his needs.[4] Whereas civil man considers modern amenities like clothing, a dwelling, and medicine to be necessary to man’s survival, Rousseau stated that such things are “hardly necessary, since he [man] had done without them” sufficiently when they did not yet exist.[5] The whole of man’s actions in this state are “purely animal functions.”[6] The scope of man’s consciousness only extends only to “his own present existence, without any idea of the future, however near it may be…”[7] By Rousseau’s own conclusions, savage man is different from other animals only in that he is a free agent.[8]

When compared to his predecessors, Rousseau also greatly simplified man’s moral psychology in the state of nature: “His [savage man’s] physical desires do not go beyond his physical needs. The only goods he knows in the universe are nourishment, a woman and rest; the only evils he fears are pain and hunger.”[9] Such desires are determined by “the simple impulse of nature,” and savage man’s limited consciousness in the state of nature precludes him from developing other, longer-term, more abstract desires.[10]  Rousseau maintained that even the fear of death is not natural to man, and would instead be acquired as man is leaving his “animal condition” in the state of nature.[11]

Rousseau expands this moral psychology to include the emotion of “pity,” man’s guiding ethic in the state of nature. Without laws, mores, and conceptions of virtue to direct interactions between men in the state of nature, Rousseau believed that “pity” fulfills this role, and does so more perfectly than modern laws, mores, and virtues.[12] Even though the aforementioned appetites given to man by nature are best summarized by the single desire of “self-preservation” (a different passion from “egocentrism”), Rousseau argued that “pity” is the preeminent passion, moderating and even nullifying the others.[13] Quite apart from Locke and other Enlightenment theorists who argued that man is not free to rob another of his “Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” by the law of nature that is reason,[14] Rousseau contended that reason is the very faculty which leads man to ignore the edicts of his natural pity.[15] Guided by the ethic of pity, man tempers the natural love that Rousseau claimed man has for himself “to the mutual preservation of the entire species.”[16] Pity, not justice, is the guiding ethic in Rousseau’s philosophy – the good of all over the good of oneself, excepting the simplest, most basic needs required to subsist in the state of nature.

And in the state of nature, Rousseau argued that man subsists rather easily, with all of his basic, physical needs readily provided to him. “I see him [man] satisfying his hunger under an oak tree, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that supplied his meal; and thus all his needs are satisfied.”[17] Note, however, that “abundance” in Rousseau’s state of nature is not the same as “abundance” by the standards of civil man. He admits that such a life “was the life of an animal” in which man was “scarcely profiting from the gifts nature offered him.”[18] It is a life of subsistence, but also one of alleged satisfaction. As man’s moral psychology limits his desires to only the basest sensations, these desires were easily filled. Once man develops desires in civil society, going beyond that which he “needs,” this state of nature would no longer be satisfactory.

Man’s “actual” needs in the state of nature are so easily filled, however, that Rousseau found it unimaginable why one man would have need to associate with another, or why either would agree to that association.[19] Though nature could advantage some men and disadvantage others, such advantages and disadvantages have little meaning in Rousseau’s state of nature where they are not particularly useful to satiating man’s appetites.[20] Thus, dependence – the source of inequality and slavery among men – does not exist in Rousseau’s state of nature, as every man is equally capable of achieving his limited desires. Consequently, all men in the state nature are free, equal, and happy.[21]

Man’s Journey from the State of Nature

Rousseau is clear in comparing the state of nature to civil society in that he considers life in the former to be immensely preferable to life in the latter:

“Let human society be admired as much as one wants; it will be no less true for it that it necessarily brings men to hate one another to the extent that their interests are at cross-purposes with one another, to render mutually to one another apparent services and in fact do every evil imaginable to one another.”[22]

As men were free, equal, and happy in the state of nature, Rousseau’s undertaking to discover why anyone would leave that state led him to a single conclusion: man’s faculty of self-perfection. This faculty, derived from man’s ability as a free agent to follow or resist nature’s impulses, is that which “successively develops all the others.”[23] When this faculty was combined with the proper conditions, man developed early forms of industry and tools for his betterment: fishing, clothing, fire, weapons, etc.[24] From the enlightenment he gained from such skills, he then began to associate loosely with other men when it suited his interests, though these associations “obligated no one and… lasted only as long as the passing need that had formed it.”[25] As man’s enlightenment progressed, so too did his industry, and eventually this led to the establishment of families and primitive dwellings – some of the earliest forms of property, though man, as of then, still had no conception of it.[26]

At some point, man learned to cultivate the land and work iron, the two things that “have civilized men and ruined the human race.”[27] Rousseau’s reasoning for this claim is simple: the cultivation of the land leads to its division, and thus the true establishment of “property,”[28] the root of all civil society.[29]

The problems which arise from the institution of property are three-fold. First, Rousseau considered property itself to be an illegitimate act of force against others, taking from the “common subsistence” at the expense of others.[30] Rousseau argued that such an act would require the unanimous consent of all mankind, undoubtedly a prelude to his political philosophy.[31] Moreover, such an act represents the beginning of “egocentrism” – not the “love of oneself,” which Rousseau believed is natural, but the sentiment “which moves each individual to value himself more than anyone else.”[32] Secondly, by taking more than he needs to subsist, man engenders a number of vices – in particular, in his idleness (a sin in itself according to Rousseau), man develops even more ways (in the form of arts and sciences) to prolong his idleness.[33] Third, the existence of property leads to a distinction in talents in which the strongest, the most adroit, and the most ingenious are able to produce more than other men.[34] This unequal distinction in talents is itself the cause of inequality among men.[35] This inequality, in turn, produces dependence between men – the least talented needing the charity of the most talented to merely live, and the most talented needing to exploit the poor so that they may expand their wealth.[36] “Finally, consuming ambition, the zeal for raising the relative level of his fortune… inspires in all men a wicked tendency to harm one another… All these ills are the first effect of property and the inseparable offshoot of incipient inequality.”[37]

Rousseau’s Political Solution: The Social Contract

Rousseau blamed enlightenment in general for all the ills faced by mankind, imploring God to return mankind to its original state of “ignorance, innocence, and poverty.”[38] Even so, Rousseau himself appears to have recognized the impossibility of returning to the state of nature. In anticipating objections that the only apparent solution to the problems of civil society is to destroy it, Rousseau admitted that his passions have permanently destroyed his (and most of mankind’s) original simplicity and ability to live in the state of nature.[39]

His solution was to recreate man’s original moral psychology in effect as best he could through the political entity known as the “sovereign.” Much like man’s original ethic of pity, the sovereign is concerned only with mankind’s “common preservation and the general welfare.”[40] This entity, comprised of every member of a civil society and endowed with the sole authority to make the laws, is guided by the “general will” of a society – meaning, that which is best for the society or “the State” as a whole. The superficial purpose of the sovereign is to pass legislation for the “common good” with near unanimous consent – which, according to Rousseau, would always happen if each man had the good of the state in his heart.[41] As the sovereign is made of nothing but private individuals, Rousseau asserted that it is impossible for the sovereign to have  any interest contrary to theirs; its interests are theirs, and theirs are its.[42]

The more fundamental purpose, however, is the elimination of the egocentric man – the individual. The collective sovereign supersedes the private interests of all individuals, having a “universal and compulsory force to move and arrange each part in the manner best suited to the whole.”[43] Even on matters of life and death, the wills of individual citizens are inconsequential, for if the prince (i.e. any legitimate government acting pursuant to the laws created by the sovereign) tells a citizen, “‘It is expedient for the State that you should die,’ he ought to die.”[44] Under Rousseau’s social contract, the life of the citizen “is no longer only a favor of nature, but a conditional gift of the State.”[45] But by Rousseau’s reasoning, even such edicts as “it is expedient for the State that you should die” are not an infringement on man’s natural freedom. If a man disagrees with the majority of the members of the sovereign, he merely erred in his understanding of the common interest, and is thus bound to the majority’s decision.[46] So long as the decision itself is truly in the common interest (of which “the sovereign alone is the judge”) and all members of the sovereign are bound by the same law (as “everyone necessarily subjects himself to the conditions he imposes on others”), then Rousseau considered the law valid.[47]

When Rousseau stated that the sovereign should act in the “common interest,” he meant that the sovereign has the goal:

 “…of transforming each individual, who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and his being; of altering man’s constitution in order to strengthen it; of substituting a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence we have received from nature. He must, in short, take away man’s own forces in order to give him forces that are foreign to him and that he cannot make use of without the help of others. The more these natural forces are dead and destroyed, and the acquired ones great and lasting, the more the institution as well is solid and perfect. So that if each citizen is nothing, and can do nothing, except with all the others, and if the force acquired by the whole is equal or superior to the sum of the natural forces of all the individuals, it may be said that legislation has reached its highest possible point of perfection.”[48] [emphasis added]

Such an organization of society is not purposeless, but in fact adheres strictly to Rousseau’s previously outlined premises. As Rousseau believed that the existence of private property caused innumerable ills in civil society, the individual – when absorbing himself into the community – “gives himself to it… both himself and all his force, which includes the goods he possesses.”[49] Thus, the sovereign can organize those goods beneficially to the “common interest.” Rousseau declared egocentrism to be harmful to mankind as a whole – thus, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free.”[50] Personal dependence causes inequality and strife – thus, “by giving each citizen to the homeland,” man is guaranteed “against all personal dependence.”[51] It is not that man is relieved of dependence, but that his dependence is no longer individual – it is civil. For if all men are wholly and completely dependent on one another (i.e. on the well-being of the whole), then none would seek to injure another, as it would injure himself. This collective sense of self, as argued for by Rousseau, supplants man’s natural pity with civil duty.

Far from abandoning his Counter-Enlightenment premises as outlined in his First and Second Discourses, it is clear that his later political writings are but an extension of those same original arguments. If his evaluations of reason, scientific development, individualism, and civil society are as Counter-Enlightenment as the previous essay found, then one can only assume that so too are these political conclusions built upon those premises.


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. Edwin Curley (Idianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. Trans. Judith R. Masters and Roger D. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. On the Social Contract with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy. Trans. Judith R. Masters. Ed. Roger D. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978).

[1].  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992), 17.
[2]. Ibid., 17.
[3]. Ibid., 19.
[4]. Ibid., 20.
[5]. Ibid., 24.
[6]. Ibid., 26.
[7]. Ibid., 27.
[8]. Ibid., 25.
[9]. Ibid., 26.
[10].Ibid., 26.
[11]. Ibid., 26.
[12]. Ibid., 38.
[13]. Ibid., 36-38.
[14]. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 271.
[15]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 37-38.
[16]. Ibid., 38.
[17]. Ibid., 19.
[18]. Ibid., 45.
[19]. Ibid., 34.
[20]. Ibid., 42.
[21]. Ibid., 43.
[22]. Ibid., 76-77.
[23]. Ibid., 25.
[24]. Ibid., 45.
[25]. Ibid., 47.
[26]. Ibid., 47.
[27]. Ibid., 51.
[28]. Ibid., 52.
[29]. Ibid., 44.
[30]. Ibid., 55-56.
[31]. Ibid., 55-56.
[32]. Ibid., 90.
[33]. Jean -Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, trans. Judith R. Masters and Roger D. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), 49.
[34]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 53.
[35]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 58.
[36]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 54.
[37]. Ibid., 54.
[38]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 62.
[39]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 80.
[40]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract with Geneva Manuscript and Political Economy, trans. Judith R. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 108.
[41]. Ibid., 108-109.
[42]. Ibid., 55.
[43]. Ibid., 62.
[44]. Ibid., 64.
[45]. Ibid., 64.
[46]. Ibid., 111.
[47]. Ibid., 62-63.
[48]. Ibid., 68.
[49]. Ibid., 56.
[50]. Ibid., 55.
[51]. Ibid., 55.


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