Rousseau wanted to offer a logical explanation of the nature of civil society, though his logic is lost in the epigram and paradox in which he indulges too frequently.
This was natural, because Rousseau was a man with abnormally intense feelings and emotions, a vivid imagination, and warm sympathies. He stated many of his ideas abstractly. The State of Nature: The starting point in Rousseau’s theory was the traditional state of nature.
What the state of nature actually meant to him, Rousseau himself was neither clear nor consistent about it. He had thought and talked about it “because all world was thinking and talking about it,” and Rousseau used it practically in all the various senses that had been attached to it. But “throughout the fluctuations of his usage, one idea alone appeared unmistakable, namely, that the natural state of man was vastly preferable to the social or civil state, and must furnish the norm by which to test and correct it.” Back to nature was his call. He had a romantic belief in the excellence of primitive simplicity and denounced the artificiality of “so-called civilised existence.” He maintained that the progress of science and the arts had tended to degrade the morals of man. Return to natural simplicity, he held, was the only cure against all the corruption and degradation rampant in civil society.
But it did not mean that Rousseau wanted to destroy civil society. What he precisely meant by “return to nature” was that “nature must be the rule for men in society.” It would deliver mankind from the corrupt and artificial existence and that could be accomplished only by the creation of natural social conditions. Rousseau’s man in the state of nature was a “noble savage” who led a life of primitive simplicity and idyllic happiness.
He was independent, contented, self-sufficient, healthy, fearless and “without need of his fellows or desire to harm them.” It was only the primitive instinct and sympathy which united him with others. He knew neither right nor wrong and was away from all notions of virtue and voice. It was, thus, a pure, simple and innocent life of perfect freedom and equality which Rousseau’s men enjoyed in the state of nature. They were as yet free from the spiritless influence of civilisation and they sought their own happiness untrammelled by social laws and institutions. But these conditions could not last for long. Two things emerged to corrupt this perfect scene.
One was increase in population and the other was dawn of reason. With the increase in population, economic progress moved apace. The primitive life of simplicity and idyllic happiness disappeared. Fixed homes established the family, and the institution of property followed, sounding the knell of human equality. Man began to think in terms of mine and thine. “By nature man scarcely thinks,” held Rousseau, “and, the man who reflects is a corrupt creature.” When man began to think in terms of mine and thine, there emerged the institution of private property. “The first man who, after enclosing a piece of ground, bethought himself to say ‘this is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.
” The whole process of development may best be described in the words of Dunning: “The arts of agriculture and metallurgy were discovered; and in the application of them men had need of one another’s aid. Cooperation revealed and emphasized the diversity of men’s talents and prepared thus the inevitable result. The stronger man did the greater amount of work; the craftier got more of the product. Thus appeared the difference of rich and poor the prolific source of all other sources of inequality.”