“How does Rousseau distinguish the natural and civilized world?”
By offering a conceptual history of mankind and its developments, Rousseau gives us a novel image of man in the past in his essay, A Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men. I enjoyed how he reasoned deductively throughout his entire discourse, readily calling upon examples to substantiate his claims. In doing so, Rousseau is able to distinguish the natural and civilized world with clarity. More specifically, he provides descriptions of the natural and civilized worlds by ascribing characteristics to man and defining the causes which led to the development of the natural world into the civil world.
At first, I struggled to understand the exact distinctions Rousseau was trying to make. For example, he indicates that man “as he must have emerged from the hands of nature” does not possess “supernatural gifts” or “artificial faculties” (81). I was slightly confused by these general terms, but nonetheless I understood Rousseau’s intent to distinguish characteristics of man in the natural world. The first specific characteristic Rousseau ascribes to the savage man is that his body is his only tool; civilized man uses tools such as axes and weapons (82). I found this comparison helpful in conceptualizing the natural and civilized world, because it directly distinguishes the two. The logic he uses is practical and effectively describes a difference between the savage man and the civil man. Another example Rousseau cites is how the savage man does not require medicine (85). His logic behind this claim, namely, that wounds naturally heal themselves, is successful in differentiating the rationale of a savage man from that of a civil man. Rousseau also discerns that “the savage man, consigned by nature to instinct alone […] begins with purely animal functions” (89). Not only does this passage distinguish the natural and civilized worlds, it also foreshadows his discourse in Part Two on the circumstances which cause savage man to no longer exist. In other words, the syntax of this sentence forced me to consider what the civil man is consigned by. Rousseau explicates his theory of evolutionary history in Part Two, painting images of the changes that caused the natural world to become the civilized world. I found that the evidence he put forth to substantiate his claims ultimately distinguished the natural and civilized world. For example, Rousseau claims at the beginning of Part Two that when man first made claims to private property, civil society was founded (109). By extension, private property did not exist in the natural world.
The natural and civilized world are products of Rousseau’s conceptual investigation. Likewise, Rousseau is tasked with substantiating his ideas with convincing evidence in order to effectively answer the essay question posed. I think Rousseau’s specific descriptions of the savage man and developments in evolutionary history ultimately allowed him to be successful in distinguishing the civilized and natural worlds. That is to say, his use of relatable evidence and logic produced robust characterizations of the natural and civilized worlds.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1754. A Discourse On Inequality. Translated by Maurice Cranston. Geneva: Penguin Classics.