Political Philosophy: Unit 2 The state of nature

2.6 Rousseau

This section of your reading has two parts.

  1. A short extract from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.
  2. A description and analysis of Rousseau’s argument from the Wolff textbook.

Rousseau wrote A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality for an Essay Prize announced by the Dijon Academy. It was published in 1755. Rousseau did not win the prize – in fact it was not awarded – which was a disappointment to him, as he had earlier won a Dijon Academy prize for his ‘first discourse’, A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he argued, controversially, that the development of the arts and sciences had done more to corrupt human morals than to improve them.

A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality pursues some of these themes, painting a far more optimistic picture of life in the state of nature than Hobbes, and one that does not presuppose such a well-developed sense of morality as that proposed by Locke. It is in this text that Rousseau introduces the idea of the ‘noble savage’.

Please read the Rousseau selection (Selection 5 in Rosen and Wolff), followed by pp. 24–33 of Wolff.

Individual activity: Rousseau quiz

Now answer the Rousseau quiz questions – writing you thoughts down before you reveal the answer if you find this helpful.

  1. What is the chief mistake made by previous theorists of the state of nature, according to Rousseau? Reveal

    They have taken the traits of people in contemporary society as if they were the natural traits of individuals without government.

  2. What does Rousseau believe to be the ‘goods’ desired and ‘evils’ feared by the savage man? Reveal

    Food, female and sleep; pain and hunger.

  3. Does Rousseau think that the state of nature would be a state of war or peace? Reveal


  4. Which natural emotion does Rousseau think Hobbes has ignored which Rousseau believes is common to human beings and animals, such as horses? Reveal


  5. Does Rousseau think that the savage is dependent on others, or self-sufficient? Reveal


Individual activity: Rousseau and the state of nature

Does Rousseau provide a plausible account of the state of nature? Write down some thoughts about this now in your blog or elsewhere.