This “idyllic imagination” influenced much of the Age of Enlightenment in which Rousseau wrote and thought. The central goal of this period was to renovate our political, social, religious and moral convictions by upholding reason as the only legitimate source of authority (though this too was eventually debated). These European thinkers (many from either Scotland or France) hoped to provide more satisfying answers to the questions that had beset man from his earliest days (Rousseau 71; see our first post for Works Cited): What is it that makes us human? What is the purpose of our existence? What rights and responsibilities should we expect from others and ourselves? What is the relationship between freedom and equality? Does each have a right to what is his? How is human society best organized?
To answer these questions, many Enlightenment thinkers sought a better understanding of man in his prehistoric and (allegedly) pre-political society, which they commonly referred to as “the state of nature.” In other words, the Enlightenment sought to discover the true foundations of human society by going back to the beginning of human history in order to distinguish between (1) what is truly natural to us as humans, and (2) what we have acquired through the millennia of human experience.
It is when we combine these two elements of Enlightenment thought – (1) the desire to understand humanity based on the “state of nature” and (2) the reliance on pure reason – that we begin to see the inherent weakness of the Enlightenment mind. How can we, centuries removed from such pristine conditions rationally reconstruct such a state, even if only hypothetically? Though modern developments in science and archaeology have certainly aided our efforts, they have not yet answered our deepest questions. So to what can we appeal for objective verification? True consensus becomes practically impossible.
Rousseau recognizes this symptom but misdiagnoses the disease: “The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt it necessary to go back to the state of nature, but none of them has succeeded in getting there” (Rousseau 78). By stating such, Rousseau clearly intends to prepare the reader to accept his own view of the matter, but he provides an equally compelling case to abandon the cause completely, at least as understood by his generation. As he points out, agreeing what needs to be done and being able to accomplish it together are quite different things and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers illustrate this well. While they agree that the “state of nature” is the starting point for properly understanding human nature, morality and society, it is difficult to find two such individuals who actually agree on what that state actually was like.
Rousseau himself considered the possible futility of his endeavor before he began, stating that man’s natural state “no longer exists, . . . perhaps never existed, and . . . will probably never exist” (Rousseau 68). Unfortunately, he consciously chose this very path:
Let us begin by setting aside all the facts, because they do not affect the question. One must not take the kind of research which we enter into as the pursuit of truths of history, but solely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings, better fitted to clarify the nature of things than to expose their actual origin. (Rousseau 78)
Rousseau therefore shuns a more historical approach to determining the state of nature, and instead relies on his own thoughts and experiences to build an image of man that is not only historically unverifiable, but also admittedly unreal. Yet while admitting that this is the case, he sets off to rationally peal back one layer at a time to arrive at the true man, unsullied by contact with an ever-decaying world. In his own words, “If I strip the being thus constituted of all the supernatural gifts that he may have received, and of all the artificial faculties that he can have acquired only through the long process of time” then at last, we might arrive at man as he was meant to be (Rousseau 81).
It’s not difficult to see, then, why some readers turn the other way when Rousseau and others begin speaking of the “state of nature.” Kirk identifies this as the greatest of Rousseau’s heresies, deriving his view on natural rights and civil society “from a mythical primeval condition of freedom” (Kirk, Conservative 49). Rousseau therefore becomes the quintessential idyllic thinker in Kirk’s works, as well as the perfect foil by which to compare more conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, John Adams and Walter Scott (comparisons made countless times throughout The Conservative Mind). Whereas these men had relied on the continuity and consensus of Western thought as the foundation for their own approaches to morality, society and politics, Rousseau trusts in mere “idyllic fantasies,” which exist only in his own mind (Kirk, Conservative 322).
Perhaps the most grievous aspect of Rousseau’s imagination, however, is that he so candidly admits its conjectural nature in the very pages of his essay. Though simply not knowing can be tolerated, willful ignorance cannot. Yet “Rousseau seems to call attention to his fiction,” thereby adding folly to his list of faults (Wiker 44). Rousseau is no simpleton; yet his intelligence only amplifies his defects.
Before we can begin fleshing out our role as the bearers of the imago Dei, one more detour seems merited. Not everyone, of course, agrees with what we have laid out so far. Many deny that Christianity addresses these subjects, and even fewer believe that the account of early man contained in Genesis is any more than a quaint story. It should not come as a surprise, then, when others use their God-given imagination for purposes that fail to acknowledge him, especially when it concerns their pocket book.
The human imagination represents both the very best and the very worst of our species. It enables us to think deeply, to create and enjoy the arts, to improve society, and to solve problems. But our imagination is also limited. Without a firm grounding in the way things are, we are bound to misunderstand the way things will or should be. Our imagination can limit our vision to our own two eyes, to rely only on our own opinions, and to believe and pass on only half-truths. And so we are warned by the mother of our Lord, who sang that the Father, “has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53 NKJV).
These positive and negative aspects of the human psyche are well represented by the second of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous essays, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (see our first post for Works Cited). In his work, Rousseau denies traditional interpretations of human origins and history, and presents an alternative view that is more in line with the rational, naturalistic approach typical of the Enlightenment. Yet while many find such a revision of our history refreshing, others are less persuaded.
Though several of Rousseau’s views are problematic on their own, my greatest concern is to be found in his general approach to his subject. In denying the value of historical fact and experience, Rousseau relies too heavily on his own thoughts and judgments. In other words, while we may agree with particular aspects of Rousseau’s thought, we come to distrust his “idyllic imagination.”
I borrow this term from the late Russell Kirk (which he, in turn, borrows from Irving Babbitt), who discusses the vital role of imagination in human society as well as its proper development through the normative function of great literature. Kirk laments recent trends in the writing and enjoyment of books, not only because they are often bad writing, but that they are also prone to encourage improper modes of thought. Like imagination, writing has the potential to be either good or bad, and the two factors go hand in hand: just as good writing has a supporting role in the development of good people; bad people are never challenged by bad books.
To clarify these trends and their effects, Kirk sets forth three types of imagination: the moral imagination (“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events”), the idyllic imagination (“which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention”) and the diabolic imagination (“which delights in the perverse and subhuman”; Kirk, “Moral”). The first of these types is clearly the goal of humane letters, and represents the peak of human thought and creativity.
When we deny the value of historical experience and go our own way, however, we are just as likely to be led astray by mere illusions, viewing reality through a darkly lit mirror, and eventually arriving at a point where we have forgotten what humanity looks like, satisfied with a mere shadow of the imago Dei, if even that. So while the role of culture in general (and literature specifically) is to cultivate the best in human nature while reforming our worst features, the idyllic imagination takes us one step further from a realistic view of character and community and moves us one step closer to pure ignorance.
But man is also unique, having been created in “the image of God,” and therefore possessing a spiritual nature that is not shared by other members of God’s creation (1:26). As Delitzsch notes, “Man, who is to ‘have dominion’ over the rest of these creatures, ‘does not come into being by a fiat addressed to the earth’” (in Collins 831; see our first post for Works Cited). Humans, then, exist “as a unique interface embracing those two creaturely worlds, ‘a sort of connecting link between the visible and invisible natures’” (Oden 1.1.6, quoting William Temple). As Lewis explains, we are Creatures with Chests:
As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alamus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. (Lewis 24-25)
Because of this spiritual identity, man is uniquely endowed with the ability to reason and act morally (2:16-17), to speak (2:19-20, 23), and to appreciate and cultivate beauty (2:5, 9, 15). As a result, humans reflect both the glory and the authority of God as his stewards over the natural world, that we might “order the world rightly under the permission and command of God . . . in a fitting response to God’s unpurchasable gift of life” (Oden 1.1.6; see Genesis 1:28-30; 2:19-20). Man is therefore more than flesh and blood; he is first and foremost a living soul stamped with God’s own image.
Even more, though, as God’s image-bearers we are called to participate in God’s own creativity. This is exactly what is meant by the Lord’s command to, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” over our fellow creatures (Gen 1:28). Just as creativity is inherent to God’s very being, creativity is part of what makes us human. As Tolkien once said, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in a derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker” (371). Humans therefore have the ability not only to perceive, grasp or control an image in art, but to create it. “Art,” then, is “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation” (Tolkien 362).
Reflecting this union of created flesh and creative spirit is the inherently social nature of the first humans and their search for companionship as a natural part of life. Adam is only alone for a brief period of time before God allows him to experience the longing a man has for human company, which God then remedies though his creation of Eve (1:27; 2:18-25). So while individuals are inherently valuable, they are also incomplete without the relationships that arise directly from a shared nature and complementary strengths. The family is therefore the essential building block of human society. From the moment of birth one is not merely a human being, but a child and perhaps a sibling, and when one leaves home, it is to attach himself to another, not to withdraw from society altogether (2:24).
Yet man is not without his faults. Though God was able to call his creation “very good” (1:31), Adam and Eve’s violation of God’s sole command introduced sin, thereby intertwining the fate of nature to the fate of fallen man (ch. 3; see too Rom 5:12; 6:23; 8:18-25). Sin leads to (1) oppression, as the strong exploit the weak (see ch. 4; 10:8) and (2) judgment, as God returns misfortune on those who deal it, either through nature (chs. 6-8) or other men (9:6). Thus, man remains accountable to both the unchanging character of the One who created us and to our common identity as fellow creatures in his image (Heb 13:8; Jam 3:9).
As Ericson states, “Because human beings are at one and the same time both grand (via creation) and miserable (via the fall), our lives are open to high drama, even to heroism.” So while God’s image remains essential to human nature, it has been distorted by the power of sin, only to be restored through one’s reception of Christ as Savior, and consummated on the last day (Rom 8:29; 2Co 3:18; 5:17; Eph 4:20-24; Col 3:9-10; 1Co 15:49). The inherent dignity of human life, however, remains the foundation of Christian ethics, because “No gift we are given is more remarkable than the extraordinary gift of simply being given anything at all, the unpurchasable gift of living as free human beings” (Oden 1.1.6).
Man is not merely a “political animal” or “economic man,” but is primarily a created, spiritual, moral, creative and social being, called to reflect God, to represent God, and to relate to God and others. Economics is therefore made for man, and not man for economics.
At this point in our series, an apologia of sorts seems to be merited. After all, since we have already stated the biblical principles on civics and economics, what more could we have to say? Well, much. If God merely told us to memorize his word and apply each precept directly to our lives, then perhaps our study would now be at its conclusion. But principles (such as the ones we’ve stated before) cry out for application, and the more timeless the principle, the more contextual our application of it.
In a way, this question deals directly with our very focus at In His Image. Stated succinctly: human nature, created in God’s likeness calls us to engage with and enjoy fellowship with God, employing our created potentialities of character, being, mind and strength for his glory and the joy of our existence. So even in a seemingly unrelated subject like economics, submission to our Creator King and his divine wisdom remains the center of our views, even when he has not commanded specific applications. But what does this nature look like, and what does it have to do with economics?
In approaching the opening chapters of Genesis we begin to understand that our discussion of human nature takes place on a much grander scale than merely human discourse. God is the first actor and the first speaker in the book that bears his name, creating everything that exists out of nothing (Latin ex nihilo), and therefore declaring his power and authority as Lord of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1-2; see Heb 11:3). He begins his work by forming the physical environment for his creation (light and dark; sea and sky; the land) and then filling these environments with their respective inhabitants (heavenly bodies; fish and birds; and land animals) before resting from his work. Time too is therefore subject to God’s design for humanity, both for labor and worship, in that his actions provide an example and a parallel to our own efforts each week (Gen 2:9, 15; see Exo 20:11, the ESVSB, and our first post for Works Cited).
Yet God’s purpose is not merely to create his own mortal minions (a common belief in the ancient Near East). Instead, “God made the material world as a place for mankind to live: to love, to work, to enjoy and to worship God” (Collins 908). But they are not worshipping him from a distance: he dwells with, walks and talks among them in the garden of his temple complex (2:1-3; 3:8ff). To emphasize this view, Moses is led to describe man’s work in the garden using the same terms he later uses to discuss the work of priests in the temple (compare the phrases “work” and “keep” in Gen 2:15 and “keep/guard” and “minister/serve” in Num 3:7-8 and 18:7 ESV; see ESVSB). Recognizing the presence and power of the divine is therefore essential to understanding the original state of human nature.
Man’s (adam) constitution therefore reflects man’s close connection to the ground (adamah). He therefore shares many biological features with other animals: both man and beasts are (1) “formed from the ground” as (2) living souls (3) who possess the “breath of life” (2:7, 19; 1:20, 24, 28-30). As Oden points out, “Humanity is not made ‘out of nothing’ (as is God) but out of ‘the dust of the ground’, just as wild animals and birds were ‘formed out of the ground’ by God” (1.1.6, internal citations omitted).