According to a widely shared view among Rousseau’s interpreters, Rousseau thinks human beings are naturally asocial, apolitical beings. Oftentimes this view is taken for granted rather than argued for. Its power is evident in Rousseau’s image as the proponent of a natural human being so completely devoid of social features as to surpass even the abstract Hobbes-an individual, as well as in Rousseau’s picture as the defender of an ideal of solitude as a recuperation of the blessings of the original state.
There are good reasons for attributing to Rousseau this view of human beings. To begin with, the idea that humans are naturally asocial seems bound up with Rousseau’s idea of the natural goodness of man. If all evil is social and man is naturally good, then man’s nature cannot be social.1
Moreover, there is strong textual evidence for this view in Rousseau’s texts. First, the picture of the natural man he paints in Part I of The Second Discourse is that of a being completely lacking any social relations. Relatedly, Rousseau criticizes Hobbes’ argument that war is a consequence of man’s nature by arguing that Hobbes has endowed natural man with features that only a social being can have. Only by endowing natural man with features of the social man was Hobbes able to show that the state of nature is one of war. Properly stripped of features that he owes to society, natural man lives in a state of peace.
Secondly, Rousseau repeatedly insists that society and its ills are artificial. They do not exist in the original man, and they are direct consequences of developments that take man out of his original condition and make him dependent on other human beings.
In this paper I want to raise doubts about this picture of Rousseau. To begin with, that all evil is social does not mean that all society is evil. It is possible for Rousseau to think that evil is widespread in all societies he witnesses, without believing this to be a necessary truth about all societies. He can even think that the corruption of these societies is due to something about their social organization without thinking that social organization itself is corrupt.2Some societies could be good, even if no good societies are yet in existence, and even if there are many and serious obstacles in creating such societies. Indeed, arguably Rousseau’s project in The Social Contract is to be understood along these lines.
Moreover, a society may be good not because it recreates or reflects in a social form something about man’s asocial nature, but because it allows for the proper development of man’s social nature. That man’s nature is social does not mean that good social relations display a high level of solidarity, which is incompatible with individual particular interests and other sorts of difference. Man’s social nature is individual and is compatible with a wide range of differences. It only means that some features essential to individual humans – such as language, reason, or virtue – cannot exist in the absence of social relations.
While each of these arguments deserves a more sustained discussion,3 in this paper I focus on Rousseau’s picture of natural man in Part I of The Second Discourse to argue that it should not be read as evidence that Rousseau adopts the view of human beings as naturally asocial.
On the contrary, I argue that Rousseau’s “natural man” is part of a polemic with Hobbes’s view of humans as asocial, isolated individuals. Through his natural man, Rousseau takes Hobbes and his empiricist premises to task in a reductio argument. The natural man is what Hobbes’ individuals would have to be like if they were endowed only with the faculties Hobbes endows them with.