If You've Never Read Rousseau...

you probably think he created the concept of the "Noble Savage," right? Well, you'd be wrong! OK, but at least he was behind the idea, right? Anti-civilization, wasn't he? Sorry: "Rousseau argued that in a State of Nature men are essentially animals and only by acting together in civil society and binding themselves to its laws, do they become men. For Rousseau only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make men good."

The whole association of Rousseau with the "Noble Savage" and the claim that he was "anti-civilization" were smears against Rousseau by a 19th-century racist. Now, this is known well enough that it makes it into a Wikipedia page; yet, even in recent times, some people who pretend to be writing on the history of thought have continued to perpetuate this smear.


  1. There's certainly nothing wrong with setting the record straight, but is there a reason you highlight Rothbard's piece? It's apparently a private memo from half a century ago, and its Mises.org publication data is 9/17/2004.

  2. Yes, there is a reason: although there are numerous "intellectuals" who may have adopted this shallow understanding of Rousseau, it is my special obligation to correct this misunderstanding when it was fostered by someone whom my readers may be especially inclined to believe.

  3. Gene,

    Can you provide us a quotation from Rousseau to clear up the misunderstanding? As it is, I'm balancing what I have always heard about Rousseau against an anonymous quotation I read on Crash Landing. It's not that I doubt the (unknown) person you're quoting, but I'm really at a loss to evaluate the two sides of the dispute.

    But I appreciate you mentioning that the one guy smearing Rousseau was a racist. Otherwise his interpretation of Rousseau could be correct.

  4. Gene,

    Here's another guy "pretending to to be writing on the history of thought." Not that he's doing it poorly, mind you; he's pretending to do it, just like you say of Rothbard. This clown Richard Hooker writes:

    Rousseau first argued that civilization had corrupted human beings in his essay, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in 1750. This corruption was largely a moral corruption; everything that civilized people have regarded as progress--urbanization, technology, science, and so on--has resulted in the moral degradation of humanity.

    Note that Gene has read much more on this topic than I have. I am quite sure that Rousseau's views are much more nuanced than the 2-second soundbite I have heard, namely, "Rousseau thought the noble savage was corrupted by education and civilization."

    My point here is to show that there is some basis for this opinion. So if Rothbard repeated a caricature, it's not nearly as bad as, say, someone who claims that Hoover was a liquidationist.

  5. "I SUPPOSE men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence."

    E.g, civilization is *necessary*, and the human race would *perish* without it.

    "The peculiar fact about this alienation is that, in taking over the goods of individuals, the community, so far from despoiling them, only assures them legitimate possession, and changes usurpation into a true right and enjoyment into proprietorship. Thus the possessors, being regarded as depositaries of the public good, and having their rights respected by all the members of the State and maintained against foreign aggression by all its forces, have, by a cession which benefits both the public and still more themselves, acquired, so to speak, all that they gave up."

    Entering the social compact gives you back all that you gave up and more.

    "I shall end this chapter and this book by remarking on a fact on which the whole social system should rest: i.e., that, instead of destroying natural inequality, the fundamental compact substitutes, for such physical inequality as nature may have set up between men, an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right."

    The social compact substitutes, for *natural* inequality, *moral and legitiate* equality.


  6. "What then is government? An intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of liberty, both civil and political."

    "It is plain too that the contracting parties in relation to each other would be under the law of nature alone and wholly without guarantees of their mutual undertakings, a position wholly at variance with the civil state. He who has force at his command being always in a position to control execution, it would come to the same thing if the name "contract" were given to the act of one man who said to another: "I give you all my goods, on condition that you give me back as much of them as you please."

    The "law of nature" is at variance with the "civil state" in that it relies on force.


  7. [Jacques] Barzun states that, contrary to myth, Rousseau was no primitivist, for him:

    "The model man is the independent farmer, free of superiors and self-governing. This was cause enough for the philosophes hatred of their former friend. Rousseau’s unforgivable crime was his rejection of the graces and luxuries of civilized existence."

    Now, what is meant here by "civilized existence" is ballroom dancing, champagne, grand opera, etc., and not organized society, trade, clothing, agriculture, writing, and so on. You need quite a lot of civilization to get your sturdy yeoman farmers.

  8. The Rousseau quotes, by the way, are from The Social Contract, Rousseau best-known political tract. You only have to get through about the first ten pages before you realize that Rousseau was not a primitivist, did not praise "Noble Savages," and was not "an enemy of civilization."

  9. "Contrary to what his many detractors have claimed, Rousseau never suggests that humans in the state of nature act morally; in fact, terms such as 'justice' or 'wickedness' are inapplicable to pre-political society as Rousseau understands it. Morality proper, i.e., self restraint, can only develop through careful education in a civil state." -- Wikipedia


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