If the savage man only understands his instincts and has no concept of abstract thought, can it be said that he is truly happy if he doesn’t understand happiness?
Throughout A Discourse on Inequality the author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, details the progress of man on the journey from natural savage to civilized member of society. One of the main reasons he does so is to find the moment man became unhappy. While early on in the book it may seem that Rousseau is leaning toward man being the happiest in a natural state, this is not that case because one cannot be happy without understanding what happiness is.
Incapable of abstract thought, man in the early stages of existence was limited to the tangible world and could only be occupied either with what was in front of him, or what his instincts commanded him to do. Happiness isn’t tangible, nor is achieving it an instinct, so the savage man was not burdened with wether he was happy or unhappy, he just simply existed in the moment. Rousseau speaks almost directly to this concept when he says, “one can desire or fear a thing only when one has an idea of it in the mind” (Rousseau 89). While certainly everyone today and in societies past desires happiness, because savage man was unaware of the condition, he was unable to desire or achieve it. When Rousseau says, “man’s first feeling was that of his existence, his first concern was that of his preservation” (Rousseau 109) he asserts that even when man is self aware, he is still only occupied with instinctual pursuits. So long as the savage man remains savage by definition he will never be happy or be able to be happy because he cannot recognize a feeling he hasn’t been made aware of.
Even once man is nearing the end of his savage state, the concept of happiness is still out of reach. Until the invention of language, he will not be able to understand abstract concepts because he cannot specifically define them. Rousseau supports this by saying, “general ideas can only be introduced into the mind with the assistance of words; and the understanding can grasp them only by means of propositions” (Rousseau 95). It takes a civilized man to interpret notions such as happiness.
Savage man, while possibly more content and at peace than a civilized man, cannot be said to be happy if he cannot asses himself as being so. He can look at a gash on his arm and realize he is hurt, he can feel pangs from his stomach and realize he is hungry but until he is made aware of the concept of happiness, he will have no way of knowing wether he is or is not happy.
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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984.