Every political theory has to begin with an account of what man is like. It is only once we have established what a thinker assumes about human nature that we can understand why they think certain political arrangements are inevitable. Are we naturally violent and uncooperative, or do we have a strong tendency to sympathise with one another and communicate? Do we assume everyone else is out to get us, or are we open to the possibility that others are kind?
Hobbes’ answer to this question was, notoriously, an emphatically pessimistic one. In nature, without government, he believes we would naturally pursue a sense of glory and destroy others in order to inflate our egos, and he believes conflicting desires for limited goods will always lead to duels.
In his own words:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
Pretty bleak stuff. And you can see why, with starting premises like those, the conclusion was somewhat inevitable that the only way to succeed in living with security was to surrender all power to one man to make decisions and implement them. Any division of power would be ripe for conflict and a return to anarchy. We respond only to carrots and sticks. Erect someone with the resources to provide them, and perhaps we’ll succeed in leaving one another in peace through a sheer fear of punishment.
Now on the surface, Rousseau seems to agree. Check it out:
[A]s every man punished the contempt shown him by others, in proportion to his opinion of himself, revenge became terrible, and men bloody and cruel. This is precisely the state reached by most of the savage nations known to us.
But let’s follow the quote through:
[I]t is for want of having made a proper distinction in our ideas, and see how very far they already are from the state of nature, that so many writers have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires civil institutions to make him more mild; whereas nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state, as he is placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the fatal ingenuity of civilised man. Equally confined by instinct and reason to the sole care of guarding himself against the mischiefs which threaten him, he is restrained by natural compassion from doing any injury to others, and is not led to do such a thing even in return for injuries received.
And Rousseau is adamant on this point. He makes it again elsewhere:
[C]onstantly dwelling on wants, avidity, oppression, desires and pride, [thinkers have] transferred to the state of nature ideas which were acquired in society; so that, in speaking of the savage, they described the social man.
So he seems to agree with Hobbes that man today is quite obnoxious. But unlike Hobbes, Rousseau denies that this is integral to human nature.
A little distinction and piece of philosophical terminology will help us here. We need to note the difference between necessary and contingent facts. A fact is necessary if it is always true, and it couldn’t be otherwise. So something like the fact that 1 + 1 = 2 and, classically, all bachelors are unmarried, seems to hold firm regardless of any situation we can imagine. But now contrast this with truths like ‘I am happy’. This doesn’t have to be the case. It may be true, but it could easily have been false. So the truth of the statement is unnecessary. It is contingent.
Similarly, then, the disagreement on the issue of human nature that we see between Hobbes and Rousseau seems to boil down to not whether man in his current state has a bad character, but whether he necessarily does. Hobbes talks as if it was ingrained into our hearts that we will want to fight and commit evil. Rousseau persistently dissents on that suggestion, and instead affirms a commitment to our natural goodness which is only later corrupted, and need not have been. Nothing about ‘human’ necessitates fighting.
Why, then, is this so important?
As Neuhouser puts it so well in his excellent book, which I can’t recommend highly enough, this thought serves two functions in Rousseau’s philosophy.
First, there’s a real sense in which it cures any existential despair we may have, any hatred we have of the universe, by telling us that in principle, we can live harmoniously. Misery need not dominate life. There is nothing inconsistent about a world in which we managed to live happily. It may be difficult, but that’s surely more attractive than the Hobbesian position that we are doomed to despair.
And secondly, it licences hope. Rousseau’s later works, especially The Social Contract, pre-empt socialist treatises insofar as they imagine political systems built not for men as they currently are, but as they might be: more virtuous, altruistic, capable of seeing one another as equals in a free community. If Rousseau had accepted Hobbes’ arguments about human nature being necessarily evil, could he possibly have envisioned progress like this?
And this in turn suggests one sense in which Rousseau is not a utopian: he may assume wildly different conditions from the present as necessary for his state to come about and stay stable. He may have no feasible plan through which that progress could be achieved. But he does not propose a society which contradicts what we are naturally capable of. Or at least, he doesn’t if he is right to think wecould overcome our egos and only contingently insatiable appetites.