Monday, July 29, 2013

Before civilization

"The philosophy of M. Rousseau of Geneva is almost the reverse of Hobbes's," wrote the authors of the Encyclopédie (as quoted by Michael Doyle in Ways of War and Peace, p.137). 

Although Doyle says that the Encyclopédie exaggerated, judging from Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality, which I've been reading, the encyclopedists' view is unsurprising. Rousseau criticizes Hobbes by name in the Discourse, and in contrast to Hobbes's famous description of the state of nature as unremittingly violent, Rousseau supposes a state of nature in which humans are, by and large, peaceful: "...wandering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without shelter, without war, and without ties, with no need of his fellow men, nor any desire to harm them, perhaps without ever even recognizing anyone individually, savage man, self-sufficient and subject to few passions, had only the sentiments and knowledge appropriate to that state...."[1] 

The evidence that exists about 'primitive' humans suggests that the reality lay somewhere in between Hobbes's war-of-all-against-all and Rousseau's peaceful 'savage'. Referencing Lawrence Keeley's War before Civilization (1996), Joshua Goldstein writes in War and Gender (2001), p.26, that the evidence, while "very spotty," is "consistent with (but not proof of) the presence of warfare at least sporadically throughout all periods of prehistory.... A new and growing...body of tangible evidence -- ranging from discernible fortifications around settlements to remnants of weapons and the residue of injuries on bodies -- suggests the presence of war before agriculture."  
1. Rousseau's Political Writings, ed. A. Ritter and J.C. Bondanella, trans. Bondanella (Norton Critical Edition, 1988), pp.31-32.
Added later: "To a number of readers, it has seemed that Rousseau wrote the Second Discourse for no other purpose than to refute, point by point, the Leviathan's argument regarding the human condition in the state of nature (Melzer 1990; Plattner 1979)." -- D.N. Levine, Visions of the Sociological Tradition (1995), p.174.


Anonymous said...

And yet - admittedly, it's a long time since I looked at any of this - I think at least some folks have argued that Hobbesian sovereign and the "general will" have a lot in common.

LFC said...

No doubt some people have argued that. Though, based on my limited knowledge, I don't think I'd agree.

My plan to read Rousseau this summer has gotten off to a pathetically slow start. I'm slowly reading the Discourse on Inequality -- roughly halfway through -- I really shd just finish the blasted thing in one sitting, it's fairly short. There's a well-known line in the first part where he says that reflection is unnatural or unhealthy and meditation the sign of a depraved animal. But the editor of the Norton edition has a footnote explaining that R. was actually ambivalent or said different things about Reason, etc. I don't esp. like the small print in that edition -- the footnotes almost require a magnifying glass -- but I'm stuck w it. (For the Social Contract, tho, *if* I eventually get to it, I can switch to the newish Chris Bertram/ Penguin edition, which I bought.)

Anonymous said...

You will not need to be reminded of Voltaire's letter to Rousseau re: the 2d discourse, which begins:

"I have received, sir, your new book against the human race, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society--from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations--have never been painted in more striking colors: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go about all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I."

Re: the fine print, I am a lover of footnotes and of Norton Criticals, but as someone who just went to +1.5 cheaters from +1.25, I entirely sympathize.

LFC said...

The Voltaire letter is the first thing in the "contemporary reactions" section of the Norton.

LFC said...

Finished the Second Discourse in the Norton ed. about a wk ago (except for one *long* fn which, in compulsive fashion, I will prob read but haven't yet). I estimate average rate of progress to have been roughly 2 sentences per day.

Anonymous said...

Worth (re)reading?

I've just begun Damrosch's bio of Rousseau - will let you know how that is.

LFC said...

"Worth (re)reading?"

Well, there are some nice passages from the standpoint of rhetoric and style. The substantive argument, OTOH, cd prob be summarized in a page or so. My stab at it, w/o looking back at the text, wd be something like: 'savage' (or three-quarters 'savage') man, pressured by various external forces and circumstances, gradually relinquished his freedom for the miseries of civilization, thereby making a bad, albeit not conscious, bargain. (Something like that. There's more, but that's my compressed version.)

I think Damrosch writes v. well, based on a look at his bk on Tocqueville. Haven't read his Rousseau bk; will be interested to hear yr reaction.

LFC said...

p.s. There's also stuff on how natural and social inequality reinforce each other, the symbiotic (though he doesn't use that word, of course) relation of the passions and reason, etc.

Peter T said...

"wandering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without shelter, without war, and without ties, with no need of his fellow men, nor any desire to harm them, perhaps without ever even recognizing anyone individually, savage man...."

It's been a long time since I read Rousseau, but the naivety of this passage is striking. What he is describing is not "savage man", or even man at all, but something close to orang-utans. A lot follows from man being a eusocial ape, and any argument that starts on the presumption that humans are somehow not such is deeply unreal. But Rousseau was pre-Darwin.

LFC said...

Peter T,
Thanks for commenting.

It's a little unclear to me, not having read the voluminous secondary literature, whether R. intends his depiction of 'savage man' to be a 'useful' conjecture or whether he is insisting there was actually a state of nature in which people lived in this a-social condition. At the very beginning of the piece he says he wants to set facts aside (though it's not entirely clear which facts he means, as the editor of this edition observes; possibly given the context it's a ref to the Biblical depiction of early humanity) and then there is this sentence: "The research which can be conducted on this subject need not be taken as historical truth, but only as hypothetical and conditional arguments, better suited to explain the nature of things than to reveal their true origin, just like those our physicists set forth every day upon the formation of the world." (pp.9-10, Norton ed.)

In any event, whatever the exact status of his depiction, I suppose it is naive (btw I'm not familiar w the word "eusocial" I must confess).

In the long note which I still haven't read, he apparently mentions the orangutan (I see a ref in a commentary I am just glancing at). Anyway R. did not think it was possible to return to the (conjectural) primitive condition, as J. Starobinski notes in a piece excerpted in the commentary section of this edition.

LFC said...

Incidentally the phrase "better suited to explain the nature of things than to reveal their true origin" has, to my ears, a quite modern ring.

It's basically what Waltz says about theory in the opening of Theory of Int'l Politics: theories are useful or not-useful, rather than true or false. If they explain or help explain perceived regularities ("laws") then they are useful.

But there seems to be a circularity in R's argument: he sees a corrupt, unfree 'civilized man' and believes that 'civilization' is the cause of the problem, then proceeds to imagine a 'primitive' condition which supports a conclusion he has already reached.

LFC said...

This afternoon I was looking for a passage I thought I had remembered in Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution (1962), a book I read decades ago in college. I didn't find the passage but I did run across Hobsbawm's two-page discussion of Rousseau (pp.292-93), which of course I hadn't remembered. H. treats him as a representative of the views of "petty bourgeois radicals" whose outlook combined "liberal (and...implicitly socialist) components with anti-liberal, progressive with anti-progressive, ones." He suggests that this "essential complexity and contradictoriness" pushed the petty-bourgeois radicals (and R. himself) "into dialectics." (p.292) Also in a fn. on p.293 H. notes that Marx and Engels, while rarely mentioning Rousseau in their correspondence, "in passing...appreciated his dialectical approach, which anticipated Hegel's." I don't know what Rousseau scholarship of the last 40+ years has made of this view.
(pp. #s refer to the Mentor/New Am. Lib. paperback edition of 'The Age of Revolution')

p.s. I was also reminded (never mind how exactly) that Levi-Strauss discusses R. in Tristes Tropiques. But I won't go into that right now.