Sunday, May 26, 2019

Strauss On Rousseau’s View of Man

Leo Strauss sees Rousseau as a modern Epicurean, an atheistic and materialistic thinker. On Rousseau’s Second Discourse (The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), Strauss makes the following comment in his book Natural Right and History (Chapter 6: “The Crisis of Modern Natural Right”):

"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 viewed man as naturally independent, self-sufficient, limited in his desires and, therefore, happy. He saw society as the creator of all the artificial desires and false opinions which gave rise to conflict and misery. Both Lucretius and Rousseau had a non-teleological view of man’s passage from nature into history.

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