In the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets out to turn Thomas Hobbes’s famously pessimistic account of “natural man” on its head. Where for Hobbes life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” as everyone struggles against each other in a “war of all against all,” for Rousseau it is a form of existence characterized by self-sufficiency and relative harmony: “these men’s disputes would seldom have had bloody consequences” (102). We can prove this empirically, indeed, by looking to the New World: “the Caribs, who of all peoples existing today have least departed from the state of nature, are precisely the most peaceful in their loves, and the least subject to jealousy” (103).
This relative tranquility in the state of nature stems less, Rousseau argues, from any innate human goodness (indeed, the opposition between “good” and “evil” scarcely makes sense in such a situation) as from a number of more pragmatic considerations. First, as each of them is effectively self-sufficient, primitive humans have no need (and no desire) to maintain extended contact with each other. Beyond answering the call of sexual desire to mate (a singularly unromantic process, in Rousseau’s account) and reproduce, they keep themselves to themselves. Second, when they do meet, natural inequalities–of size or strength or speed, for example–are relatively minor; there would seldom be any obvious advantage in starting a fight, especially given that one could satisfy one’s needs for food and shelter etc. on one’s own. And third, any aggressive impulses are kept in check by a more fundamental sense of compassion: “It is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (101).
It is then (and this is Rousseau’s main argument) society that will create divisions, by accentuating natural inequality and adding to it the burdens that are artificial inequalities of wealth, rank, honour, and so on. So whereas for Hobbes, we are all equal before the law, because we are all equally lowly in the face of the Leviathan’s supreme power (for this reason, if no other, he is a classical liberal), for Rousseau civilization introduces difference–and, what is more, an awareness of difference (pride)–and therefore discord as we compete for status and to satisfy artificial needs. If there is a “war of all against all,” it is propelled by the fact that “inequality of influence and authority soon becomes inevitable among individuals as soon as, being united in the same society, they are forced to compare themselves with one another and to take into account the differences they discover in the continual dealings they have with one another” (132). This is the hectic social whirl, the “petulant activity of our own pride” (115) that makes social life uncertain and unstable.
By contrast, the life of a savage is also, then, one of singularly low intensity. Indeed, it is a life of “indolence” (115) that is scarcely ruffled by the slightest affect. Where Hobbes sees primitive man in terms of panic and fear, for Rousseau the passions are overwhelmingly artificial. Affect is the product of society and habit: there is nothing particularly natural about either love or hate, happiness or sadness, fear or joy. And even Rousseau (Romantic that he was) had to thank socialization for finally teaching us to feel.