The Possibility of Perpetual Discontent: Rousseau’s “Inequality”
Can a man living in society be content? In the essay, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, author Jean-Jacques Rousseau addresses this very question. Man first originated in the state of nature, where he was alone and only dependent on himself. Over time, natural man started to deviate from the system and evolve into a social man where he lives in a community surrounded by other men. Through exposure to others, natural man grew envious of others mans abilities and possessions. These qualities which seemed better than their own sent man on the pursuit of them, ultimately creating the desire for perfection. Man is also taught what it means to be moral and is then in turn obligated to be virtuous. Reason is introduced to men in societies and they are then required to obtain as much of it as possible. Rousseau states that, “… nothing would have been so miserable as savage man, dazzled by enlightenment tormented by passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own.”(Rousseau 34). Although the transition of man from his natural state into society is savage man in a state much different from the state of nature. The disconnect between desire and ability prevents man from being content. The social man’s yearning for perfection, his inability to be completely virtuous, and his inability to be fully reasonable inhibits him from being content.
Social man’s endeavor for perfection prevents him from being content. In the state of nature, savage man lives alone and rarely ever comes into contact with another person. If natural man ever did meet another, they would either reproduce or pass one another. He is not exposed to the natural talents of others, therefore according to natural man, he is not inferior in any way because he cannot be of any public value. Natural man is content with himself because he does not have anyone to compare his skills to. Then “they eventually die without anyone being aware that they are ceasing to exist” and are from birth to death they are by themselves (22). However, social man is exposed to many other people and is able to observe different talents from a variety of peoples. Social man came to the conclusion that “the one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded”(49). Social man noticed the correlation between excelling in one aspect and underachieving in the same thing, he also observed how others responded to the man who excelled rather than the man that did not do as well. This created jealousy, a feeling never expressed in the state of nature. The want for oneself what another had. Social men are plagued “From these first preferences were born vanity and contempt on the one hand, and shame and envy on the other”(49).Vanity from being proud of what he is able to do well, but contempt for what others are proud they can do. Shameful for the talents he does not possess and envy of those that have the talents he desires. Social man is never able to achieve total perfection which renders him incapable of being content.
Social man also lacks reason which prevents him from being content. In order for a man to be part of society he must have reason, which is obtained through other people. Natural man does not have reason because he is alone for his entire life, where as social man is not. In the state of nature “Pity is what… takes place of laws, morals, and virtue, with the advantage that no one is tempted to disobey its sweet voice”(38). Natural man is guided to do the right thing by pity alone. In the state of nature “With passions so minimally active and such a salutary restraint, being more wild than evil, and more attentive to protecting themselves from the harm they could receive than tempted to do harm to others”(38). Natural man has no reason to harm another person because he is not tempted by his passions to do so. For social man, he is not ruled by pity alone, but rather by reason. Reason exists to satisfy the passions of man in society, such as “love itself, like all other passions had acquired only in society that impetuous ardor which so often makes it lethal to men”(40). For love is a passion that originated in society and only exists within it. It is considered a passion because it is not necessary in the state of nature and causes social man to be further away from that original state. Except for when man satisfy his passions using his reason, it diminishes his reason simultaneously. Therefore, the more reason he has, the more passions he has. This means more passions he has to satisfy leading to the loss of reason. It becomes a cycle that the social man has to go through. Social mans needs to obtain more reason, yet it is impossible for him to do so. Therefore social man is unable to become content because he is unable to be completely reasonable. Yet the natural man has no reason at all and is unaware that reason exists and he is content knowing nothing.
The inability of man in society to be virtuous prevents him from being content. A man in the state of nature knows nothing other than himself. He is not taught about morals nor right from wrong, “it would seem that man in the state [of nature], having among themselves no type of moral relations or acknowledged duties, could be neither good nor evil, and [have] neither vices nor virtues”(35). Natural man is unaware of what morals are and how to follow them. As a result of this, if natural man does something that social man would consider not to be virtuous, he could not be faulted for it because he does not know anything different. However, social man is taught by society, piers, and family right from wrong and is obligated to to follow the moral stature set forth. As a result of this for “every voluntary wrong became[s] an outrage”(49). Meaning that because a man who lives in a society and has been taught to act a certain way has to abide by it, or it is unacceptable. Although the problem is that man can never be perfected, which means that man can never be completely virtuous. This can be seen through how society works, “thus the usurpations of the rich, the acts of brigandage by the poor, the unbridled passions of all, stifling natural pity and the still weak voice of justice, made men greedy, ambitious and wicked”(55). The actions of being greedy, ambitious, and wicked are not moral and contradict what society asks of its citizens. If society sets standards for morality and virtue, but also created a circle of injustice, can men have the expected virtue? Men that are products of a society can never be fully virtuous and therefore cannot be content.
Overall, natural man will never be content if introduced to society. In the state of nature he is able to live on his own, where there is so competition. There is no obligation to achieve an ultimate state of perfection that is seemingly unattainable. Man is already the perfect version of himself as a result of not having any standards to live up to. Natural man is not taught virtues, therefore, in the state of nature, is not obligated to always do what is morally right. He will not know the difference between right and wrong and because of this will not be continuously striving for perfect morality that cannot be achieved. Lastly, if reason exists to satisfy passions, but natural man has no passions, he will therefore not need any reason and will be content living without it. Social man however has the pressure to be perfect, the obligation to be virtuous, and the continuing pursuit of obtaining the utmost reason. All of these factors prevent man living in society from being content and allow natural man to truly know the peace of contentment.
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