Man in the State of Nature
Man’s transition from the state of nature into society is a topic that has been discussed by many philosophers in the past centuries. What is the state of nature for Rousseau and how does man go from it into society? I will explain and occasionally criticize how this happens according to Rousseau.
Man was originally a sentient and feeling being. He instinctively and intrinsically knew compassion, mercy, and pity. He helped his fellow man and animals every chance he got whenever he saw them hurt, as long as he saw no threat to himself in helping them. “Nature, in giving men tears, bears witness that she gave the human race the softest hearts.”
Man was initially a happy hermit. He lived by himself. He was independent and lived off the fruits of the land. He ate when he wanted, he drank when he wanted, and he slept whenever and wherever. He didn’t have to worry about the food and water supplies because they were bountiful. Man basically had unlimited resources. When man encountered fierce creatures, he could choose whether to flee and escape the animal by climbing a tree or he could fight the animal with a stick or branch. Gradually, fierce creatures tended to stay away from man because they learned that he was not worth all the work and risk they took to get a meal. Hence, man had no natural predators and was essentially carefree. Once in a while, man had chance sexual encounters with woman. Once both their sexual needs were satisfied, they both parted. Man had no memory and never remembered which fruits he ate, which streams he drank from, and which women he had had sexual experiences with. Therefore, he was a man with no preference, no tastes, and all of his experiences were satisfying and made him contented. He never had any motive to commit suicide, unlike society today where suicides are common.
To make his life easier, savage man invented tools. He gathered strong sticks, branches, and stones to use as weapons against fierce creatures. One way or another, man discovered the many uses of fire and found ways to duplicate it. This same type of ingenuity led to man building crude huts to live in as opposed to sleeping under a tree or in a cave, exposed to the elements. According to Rousseau, this was the turning point in savage man’s history where the first sort of property was introduced. This would be the start of a perpetual conflict between man and other men.
But according to Rousseau, savage man did not have memory. He was not capable of remembering where he had built the hut, or how to produce fire. Also, why would he want to build a hut? Man is intrinsically tough. Small discomforts such as rain while he was sleeping was not such an obstacle as it is among today’s man. Man was fine eating his meat raw and uncooked. According to Rousseau, he did not have preference or tastes, so why would he want cooked food? These inconsistencies speak ill of Rousseau’s arguments.
“The first developments of the heart were the effect of a new situation that united the husbands and wives, fathers and children in one common habitation. The habit of living together gave rise to the sweetest sentiments known to man: conjugal love and paternal love.”
Why would there be “husbands and wives?” According to Rousseau, savage man did not have memory and didn’t even have the capacity to remember who he had had sexual intercourse with. The sexual bonds between savage man and woman were chance and brief, driven only by sexual lust and natural urges. Man did not have concern for his children. He never saw them. Woman took care of the children until they were old enough to fend for themselves, and then she abandoned them. Given these conditions, why would man, woman, and children live under one roof?
Children invented language. A child, helpless and completely dependent on his mother, invented language in order to express his needs and desires. When he wanted to urinate, drink milk, or when he was in pain, he would try to aurally communicate his feelings and sentiments to his mother. And gradually, his mother began to notice and learn his patterns and understand his wants. This development was the second component in Rousseau’s process of the degeneration of man.
The language between child and mother is solely between child and mother. How would this language develop and spread to other men like an infection? It does not necessarily follow that the language would be disseminated to other men. After the child has been deemed ready to survive on his own, the mother would leave him. What use would that temporary language be then? The capable child would be able to fend for himself and would not need to communicate with his mother. It would be useless.
Rousseau has an interesting theory on the state of nature and man’s place in it, but he has many inconsistencies in his arguments concerning especially the transition between man in the state of nature and man in society. His premises that were presented in the beginning of his “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” were his argument’s downfalls.