Good vs. Evil According to Rousseau
*This essay was originally written for a Graduate course on Romanticism in Fall 2010.
Are humans naturally born good or evil? This question rests at the heart of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, in which he attempts to situate the earliest traces of human divisions that have perpetuated, as he suggests, the corruption of modern civil society. If we are to acknowledge Rousseau’s assessment of civility, we will find that civil society under his definition is not civil at all, but savagely more regressive than the ancient “noble savage” he reveres. According to Rousseau, “…nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when, placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man… he is retrained by natural pity from needlessly harming anyone himself, even if he has been harmed” (50). It is this natural pity for one another that makes humans good. Once this pity is removed and human vices, like greed, egocentrism and pride take over, man’s natural goodness deteriorates to an unnatural bad.
Rousseau’s hypothetical theory assumes that the early move toward the destruction of humanity’s natural goodness began when the first person “enclosed a plot of land,” subsequently establishing property acquisition and ownership, thus laying the foundation for civil society as we know it. He asserts, “What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: ‘Do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!’” (44). The establishment of property, therefore, was the first revolution of human nature to foster division and inequality.
One must consider the alternative. If humanity had not established land and property ownership, we would, to this day be wandering the earth, never cultivating agriculture, never settling down and always in perpetual movement. In essence, we would be like the orangutans, “…solitary, indolent, nomadic, casually promiscuous, they form no enduring family attachments, let alone broader group ties” (Rousseau x). But human evolution dictates humanity’s need of personal attachments, self-preservation and want of order. The establishment of property, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of evolution. If we are to accept his argument that property ownership created inequality and injustice, and in turn indulge my assertion that want of property was a natural result of human progress, then inequality and injustice must also be a natural process, and therefore cannot be an unnatural characteristic of humanity and civil society.
Humans, like most other animals, naturally evolve and adapt to their environment, mostly out of the need for self-preservation. If one agrees that evolution is a natural process of existence, then inequality, injustice and evil are as natural to humanity as is goodness. To think differently is to assume that the first person to establish property did not do so out of his natural inclination, but was motivated by some external force outside his nature. Rousseau’s argument, though noble and rational, oversimplifies humanity’s natural evolutionary principle and fails to account for human instinct and reason, favoring instead a romantic view of the “noble savage” as the righteous natural human.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Intro. James Miller. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. Print.