Sunday, May 26, 2019

On Rousseau’s View of Man

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Leo Strauss notes that Jean-Jacques Rousseau has to be seen as a modern Epicurean or an atheistic and materialistic thinker. In his book Natural Right and History (Chapter 6: “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right”), Strauss offers the following perspective on Rousseau’s Second Discourse (The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality):
"The Second Discourse is meant to be a “history” of man. That history is modeled on the account of the fate of the human race which Lucretius gave in the fifth book of his poem. But Rousseau takes that account out of its Epicurean context and puts it into a context supplied by modem natural and social science. Lucretius had described the fate of the human race in order to show that that fate can be perfectly understood without recourse to divine activity. The remedies for the ills which he was forced to mention, he sought in philosophic withdrawal from political life. Rousseau, on the other hand, tells the story of man in order to discover that political order which is in accordance with natural right. Furthermore, at least at the outset, he follows Descartes rather than Epicurus: he assumes that animals are machines and that man transcends the general mechanism, or the dimension of (mechanical) necessity, only by virtue of the spirituality of his soul. Descartes had integrated the "Epicurean" cosmology into a theistic framework: God having created matter and established the laws of its motions, the universe with the exception of man's rational soul has come into being through purely mechanical processes; the rational soul requires special creation because thinking cannot be understood as a modification of moved matter; rationality is the specific difference of man among the animals. Rousseau questions not only the creation of matter but likewise the traditional definition of man. Accepting the view that brutes are machines, he suggests that there is only a difference of degree between men and the brutes in regard to understanding or that the laws of mechanics explain the formation of ideas. It is man's power to choose and his consciousness of his freedom which cannot be explained physically and which proves the spirituality of his soul." 
Like Lucretius, Rousseau regards man as naturally independent, self-sufficient, limited in his desires, and therefore as happy. He sees society as the creator of all the artificial desires and false opinions which give rise to conflict and misery. Both Lucretius and Rousseau have a non-teleological view of man’s passage from nature into history.

Strauss points out that on “reason” Rousseau draws his conclusion from Hobbes’s premises which Hobbes had not drawn. Strauss writes: “For the same reason for which natural man lacks pride, he also lacks understanding or reason and therewith freedom. Reason is coterminous with language, and language presupposes society: being presocial, natural man is prerational… To have reason means to have general ideas. But general ideas, as distinguished from the images of memory or imagination, are not the products of a natural or unconscious process; they presuppose definitions; they owe their being to definition. Hence they presuppose language. Since language is not natural, reason is not natural.”

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