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.


One Comment

  1. Interesting–I know next to nothing about Daoism, and I am intrigued by the similarities you point out. And I didn’t think the title was too bad, really–kinda catchy in a way. 🙂

    It’s true that Rousseau didn’t set out a path for going “back,” as it were, but that is because he thinks we can’t go back. I don’t have my book with me, but in one of his footnotes he makes this clear (I think it’s on p. 153 that he says that–looking back at notes from last year!).

    But also, Rousseau doesn’t, in this text, set out any path for a better life at all. This one is just all critique, and it’s hard to get a sense of what he thinks we ought to do next, how we should deal with the fact that we now live with a great deal of inequality and oppression. As noted in lecture, one has to read another of his books to get that (The Social Contract), and, perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t suggest trying to live a kind of simple life like Laozi does. The Social Contract is all about how to have the best kind of government, and it does address political inequality, but I don’t recall well if it says much about social inequality, desires for unnecesary goods, etc.

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