In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau seems to be arguing that which is a double-edged sword: humanity’s limitless capacity to understand and reason allows us to think all of these wonderful “thoughts”–but on the other hand, it allows us to manufacture desires that we are incapable of fully quenching, and which therefore is the cause of violence and strife between humans. I kept thinking to myself that I’ve heard of something similar elsewhere.
Thanks to Asian Studies 100, it was then that it occurred to me: Rousseau, although differing of course in many ways, seems to be arguing what Laozi, the so-called founder of Daoism, said many centuries ago. Daoism rejects the social constructs that humanity has made for itself and argues that we should abandon it because it is not natural, for nature does not rank beings in hierarchies as humans do. “Naturalness”, they claim, involves freeing oneself from selfishness, desire, and appreciating simplicity (characteristics which I can easily see Rousseau’s nascent man exemplifying). A metaphor for naturalness is pu–meaning an uncarved block of wood–which represent’s man’s original nature, before the imprint of culture.
However, I feel that although Rousseau explains in depth of what he believes, he does not offer much in terms of how one should return to this state. Chinese philosophy, and Daoism is no exception, is generally much more practical in this sense, providing guidelines on how to live a good life. Laozi says that one must live life in a way that almost mirrors living in a state of what Rousseau might have called “artificial” nature: one is to live away from the big cities, not venture far from his hometown, live a humble life (“he who knows he has enough is rich..” ch. 13 Daodejing), etc.. With his desires softened, he will live a happier life, says Rousseau. But, would he still be human? Rousseau says no; Laozi offers no comment, since he does not quite explain what it means to be human.
In other words, Rousseau could lay the basis of what a “happy” life could look life, while Laozi offers a way of how to actually live it.
Yeah, that title was pretty bad.