Are we social or solitary by Rousseau's reckoning? How do his arguments stand in relation to Aristotle's idea of humans as essentially social or political?

  • The key to the question is "we". Who is "we"? Some people (perhaps the majority of the population) may be essentially social or political, while others (the minority, probably) are essentially solitary, freedom-seeking individualists. The problem is that the majority, being so politically powerful, typically pushes for consensus, disregarding the rights of the minority.
    – Bread
    Oct 20 '18 at 13:18
  • @Abhed Manocha. Answer offered.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 11 '18 at 15:02

Rousseau and the state of nature

The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1775) depicts the individual in the state of nature, which Rousseau believed once existed before systematic social organisation emerged and his account of which he regards as part-historical and part-conjectural (Franklin Philip: 53). The individual is presented as:

... wandering in the forests, without work, without speech, without a dwelling, without war, and without ties, with no need of his fellow men and no desire to harm them, perhaps not even recognizing any one of them individually, subject to few passions and sufficient to himself' (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, tr. Franklin Philip, Oxford : World's Classics, 1994: 51).

The individual is not strictly solitary since Rousseau refers to children and mothers (Philips: 51; cf. 49), which implies at least a minimum degree of social contact. As well, there is 'compassion' (la pitié) in the state of nature, which Rousseau accordingly terms a 'natural virtue' - la seule vertu Naturelle. While animals can be objects of compassion, the sense of Rousseau's text is to extend compassion primarily to human beings.

Two salient features of the state of nature are that human beings are capable of compassion and that they are independent; there are no natural bonds of authority and in the scattered social state there is hardly scope for systematic coercion. The state of nature is one of natural liberty.

The situation changes when private property is introduced and social organizations generate inequalities of property ownership, a system of arbitrary coercive control by the most advantaged or the most cunning, and new emotions. The new situation produces amour-propre - pride, vanity, envy, selfishness, a perversion of the mere prudence and reasonable self-concern which Rousseau calls 'self love' (amour de soi).

The principal aim of Rousseau's political philosophy, certainly in The Social Contract of 1762 ('SC'), is to outline a form of political and social organization in which the scope for amour-propre is drastically reduced if not eliminated and in which arbitrary coercive control by individuals or groups is impossible. Conditions of collective decision-making, created to determine the general will (la volonté générale), make each citizen a self-legislator.

Through such revised political conditions we are moralised in the sense that the perversions of amour-propre are minimised or disappear; and the natural liberty we had in the state of nature is reinstated, transformed into a system of political and civil rights which Rousseau calls 'moral freedom' (la liberté morale : SC I.8).

Aristotle and Rousseau

Aristotle view is that human beings are social and political beings in a teleological sense which is quite absent from Rousseau. The natural developmental pattern of human life is from small social groups to families to villages to the city or polis (Aristotle, Politics, I passim). We are led into social union through our inherent social instincts - which except for compassion play no part in Rousseau's account - and our capacity for rational speech (logos) : Politics, I.2. The polis emerges by a natural process and provides the conditions to enable human flourishing. The political and social organization which creates Rousseau's 'moral freedom' comes into being by no such natural process. It is hard to create and difficult to sustain.

Allied to this is another point. For Rousseau a particular political and social organization is necessary to purge the vices which human beings have acquired. Virtue comes when vice has been purged. Aristotle takes no such pessimistic view. The citizen does not have to be cured of a degraded state. Rather, through moral education and by participation in the collective decision-making of the polis, citizens will gradually acquire virtue without having to discard a previous degraded condition.

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