Rousseau’s Ignoble Savage
As I have stated previously, the general fault of Rousseau’s thinking (in my view) is that his understanding of anthropology, human nature and culture is entirely too abstract. This is not to say that he does not occasionally shine through his psychobabble with an intelligent view on a particular point, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule. Aside from being contrary to his allegedly scientific approach to philosophy (can his conclusions really be measured empirically?), such abstraction also stretches itself to the point of self-contradiction. Note two passages, in which our author discusses the impact of death in the state of nature. “[And] since the life of the savage spares him from gout and rheumatism, and since old age is of all ills the one that human aid is least able to relieve, savages die in the end without others noticing that they have ceased to exist and almost without noticing it themselves” (Rousseau 84; see our first post for Works Cited).
Here Rousseau builds on his previous point that in the state of nature, each person is a law unto himself; he neither belongs, nor is responsible to or for any other. So much is this true that the concept of the ‘individual’ does not even enter into his mind. If there is nothing outside of ‘me’, how can there be a ‘me’? The natural man is therefore not an individualist, but merely IS. Death, then, has no emotional effect on either the individual or the species.
These thoughts, however, seem to be forgotten when Rousseau sets forth what he views as the only certain natural virtue we possess: compassion. Compassion is,
a disposition well suited to creatures as weak and subject to as many ills as we are, a virtue all the more universal, and all the more useful to man in that it comes before any kind of reflection, and is so natural a virtue that even beasts sometimes show perceptible signs of it. (Rousseau 99)
Such sympathy manifests itself in many ways in the state of nature. The way a mother nurtures her child; the way creatures mourn the loss of one of their own; or the way a man stands aghast at the torment of a child. Yet how could such compassion exist without some conception of pain, some sense of personal and social loss? How could one mourn the suffering or death of another, and not realize a sense of his own mortality? Rousseau even points to the behavior of some of our fellow creatures, “which give their dead a sort of burial” (99). Yet how could such be the case if one dies “without others noticing that they have ceased to exist and almost without noticing it themselves”?
So when Rousseau denies that the common view of “natural law” superimposes morality on the state of nature (70), when he denies that such a state is presented in the Scriptures (78), when he tries to separate “supernatural gifts” and man as he was meant to be (81), when he states that natural man has no conception of death or reason (84, 85), when he discusses “the origin of language” (92, 96-97), when he discusses sin as a mere social construction (99), when he presents self-preservation as man’s all (101, 109), when he connects property with injustice (109, 117, 125), and when he exalts the lone savage (136), we find that he has not defined the state of nature at all, but denied it.
Rousseau therefore rejects the concrete, biblical view of Eden for an abstract state of nature and denies the biblical doctrine of man in order to create “a new Adam, a carefree, make-love-not-war ancestral archetype” (Wiker 45). Unfortunately, later thinkers as diverse as Freud and Marx appear to have read him all too well, applying his thought with a consistency as rigorous as it is lamentable. As Wiker writes, “Modern man has discarded the idea that he is fashioned in the image of God, that he is to love his wife as himself, and that he should regard his children as precious miracles bearing his and his wife’s image” (Wiker 52). In other words, “In imagining Rousseau to be right, we have become what Rousseau imagined” (Wiker 53), and economics is only one of the many ways (and that, not the most important!) in which we suffer the consequences of Rousseau’s idyllic fantasies.