Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rousseau & Hobbes on Human Nature

"As for me, even if I am again to be regarded as wicked for daring to assert that man is born good, I think it and believe that I have proved it."
-Rousseau, p. 23, The Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre (Spectacle)

Do you think this puts Rousseau in a fundamentally different camp from Hobbes? They take some very similar lines in interpreting the bible - both with regards to the existence of eternal punishment, and in freedom of thought. Both seem to bear a similar respect for Geometry. In fact, it seems clear to me that Rousseau read, and respected Hobbes. And yet, it seems that Hobbes would say man is born bad, while Rousseau would says man is born good.

Why do you think they disagree on this? Do you really think Hobbes would say man is born bad? Or would he say that man is born good, but the necessity of securing power creates a "madnesse in the multitude."


  1. It is problematic for both Rousseau and Hobbes to discuss man in relation to these binaries good/bad. While it might be more clear for Rousseau as you pointed out by this citation, his argument is more nuanced and thus different in the Second Discourse. I'll share with you some of the ideas from my research paper. So, for example, Rousseau’s claim is that natural man (savage) possesses:
    "an innate repugnance seeing his fellow men suffer…I am referring to pity, a disposition that is fitting for beings that are as weak and as subjects to ills as we are; a virtue all the more universal and all the more useful to man in that it precedes in him any kind of reflection, and so natural that even animals sometimes show noticeable signs of it…Pity is what carries us without reflection to the aid of those we see suffering" (Rousseau, 1987: 53, 55).

    However, this does not necessarily mean that Rousseau here claims that man is naturally born good. Rather, he emphasizes that he is not born evil as Hobbes claims. For Rousseau, man in the natural state has no disposition for being either evil or good since he does not possess any reflection of these socially constructed concepts. This is why Rousseau says “that man in that state…could be neither good nor evil … the savages are not evil precisely because they do not know what is to be good” (Rousseau, 1987: 52, 53). Namely, Rousseau’s view of man is a view of a peaceful being in his subhuman and primordial natural state. Thus, Rousseau suggests, “let us not conclude with Hobbes that because man has no idea of goodness he is naturally evil; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue” (Rousseau, 1987: 53).

    As for Hobbes, you cannot claim that he sees man born good at any point, namely that he might be conditioned by the fact that he needs to secure his life. This would be flawed completely. Hobbes is clear that man are not born either good or bad (as people usually simplify) but rather violent. He is driven by instincts, his senses makes him act as a machine, and thus as a result he is pre-destined or born violent due to the capacity for violence that will necessarily manifest out of his actions. However, his theory is that reason can control passions to the level that he would reasonable construct the commonwealth to protect his life against other violent fellows.

  2. One would think that this difference of opinion would lead to radically different forms of governance - that Hobbes would advocate subduing the people, while Rousseau would advocate freeing them from harmful social constructions.

    Still, in the governance of a populous city, Hobbes and Rousseau seem to agree on how men should be governed - namely, that people should be rendered docile. Because the anonymity one gains in a city weakens the power of public opinion, or reputation, over people's behavior, Rousseau suggests that men must be kept subdued. One mechanism he suggests in the letter to d'Alembert is to allow them constant distraction in the theater, thus preventing them from using their time for mischief. This is a means for subduing the mind. In the social contract, he points to, and praises, various subtle ways for removing power from the hands of the people without their full knowledge in discussing Roman politics at the beginning of book 4.

    Hobbes seems to be much clearer about subduing people, with his repeated emphasis on restricting free speech (doctrine), and is overall point that any sovereign power, no matter how rapacious, is better than none.

    So for all their disagreement on human nature, their conclusions seem remarkably similar.