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.