What Does Rousseau Say is the Difference between Natural and Civilized Man?
Rousseau wrote his famous essay A Discourse on Inequality to answer the question “What is the origin of the inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” In his quest to find the point at which inequality arose, Rousseau first defines the natural man, or man before the influences of civilization change his character. He suggests that it is with the introduction of reason that inequality arises. Rousseau’s conclusion regarding the difference between man in the state of nature and the reasonable man is found in Book One of A Discourse on Inequality. He says that “In instinct alone, man had all he needed for living in a state of nature; in cultivated reason he has what is necessary only for living in society.” (Rousseau 97) The reader can more fully understand Rousseau’s philosophy by completely explicating this passage.
Before one reaches a more profound interpretation of Rousseau’s conclusion, one must define the terms Rousseau uses in his argument—mainly “state of nature”, “reason”, and “society.” Because the crux of the argument lies in the contrast between the civilized man and his “natural” counterpart, the logical first step is defining what constitutes the natural man. According to Rousseau, a natural man is one who thinks only of self-preservation and pity. He correlates self-preservation with the innate instincts of all animals and asserts that pity is a natural quality which arises when “the perceiving animal identifies itself more intimately with the suffering animal.” (Rousseau 101) These two qualities lead the natural man to a state of true freedom from conflict, ownership, and disruption.
In contrast to the “state of nature,” Rousseau defines for the reader the concept of “reason.” Although reason is normally considered to be inherently good, Rousseau inextricably links it to corruption. He classifies it as the quality that, once developed, leads to the inequality present in civilized society. In Rousseau’s own words, “It is reason which breeds pride…reason which turns man inward into himself…reason which separates him from everything which troubles or affects him.” (Rousseau 101) Therefore, Rousseau defines reason as the catalyst of the process which strips man of his natural state and his capacity for pity and common sense. This definition of reason leads the reader to Rousseau’s definition of society—the congregation of people who have gained reason and lost their natural virtues thus creating and perpetuating inequality.
Now that the aforementioned concepts have been defined in terms of Rousseau’s intentions, the quote in its entirety can be analyzed correctly and the question be answered fully. Taking into account the definition of “state of nature” as the state of true freedom, the reader can determine that Rousseau believes that the natural man is fully equipped for his lifestyle; he needs nothing more and wants nothing more. On the contrary, Rousseau states that conflict and consequent inequality will shortly follow the introduction of reason and society to humankind. Therefore, once reason has infected the state of nature, man loses his ability to be self-sufficient and must rely on others. Rousseau points to this system of reliance as the source of inequality in society. In laying out this blueprint of the state of nature, its corruption by reason, and the subsequent inequality, Rousseau both outlines the difference between the natural man and the civilized man and reveals the source of inequality in society.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Translated by Maurice Cranston. London:
Penguin Classics, 1984.