Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality: Is Progress Worth It?

In his Discourse in Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes the stage in society known as nascent man to be the “golden mean” (115) between primitive and civilized humans, portraying it as the “happiest epoch” of human history. But what about nascent man makes him happier than all others, if we look at the seemingly endless luxuries that our 21st century Western society now enjoys, be it electricity, computers, cars, jewelry etc? I would say that Rousseau’s argument isn’t based around the idea that nascent man is always happier, but that nascent man can easily obtain happiness in ways that civilized humans can only dream of.

One of the major differences between nascent man and civilized man, in my opinion, has to be the concepts of needs. Nascent man possesses a few simple needs whereas civilized man possesses many complex needs. What do I mean by that? I will start by explaining the difference in needs between nascent and civilized man. First, Rousseau claims that commodities acquired over time by a gradually civilizing society “[degenerate] into actual needs” (113), and make people “unhappy in losing them” (113) without making them happy when they possess them. Civilized man, as he acquires commodities, gradually integrates them into his life as necessities, and once they have become necessities, he searches for more. He “is always active” (136) so that inevitably, one way or another, one or more of these needs will not be met, and will cause him grief that an “indolent savage” (136) will not be able to comprehend. Modern computers fit this description surprisingly accurately, as they are seen as necessary instead of beneficial by many of us here in North America today. Our ability to access the Internet using these devices is taken for granted now, so much that we won’t be very pleased at all if we lose it. And simply owning one device isn’t enough, we have to own a cell phone, a tablet, a smart-watch, and who knows what in the future.  Nascent man is “limited in [his] needs” (113), Rousseau states that they need only basic requirements for life and a mere consideration for others (169) instead of dependence, and that they acquire pleasure from “blowing into a bad flute” (169), whereas we would only experience irritation. They need very little in their lives, and thus they need very little to be happy. There is something to be said for this lifestyle, where happiness comes from sources that we have long since eclipsed.

As civilized humans acquire more and more needs, these needs grow more and more complex. Rousseau introduces metallurgy as more complex than hunting and gathering, as it requires others to supply its practitioners with food (117). Even for such a basic craft, we see interdependence beginning to blossom. Without work that requires  “the collaboration of several hands” (116), people are free and happy. They can both profit and acquire happiness from their work. However, we have greatly surpassed this stage, as now commodities are the byproduct of innumerable steps. Returning to the idea of computers; one needs to manufacture the individual components, assemble them, sell them, ship them, supply customer support, and even hire people to oversee the transitions between these steps. Each step features thousands upon thousands of people that go about their jobs with little knowledge of the end product. They can no longer directly profit from their labor, nor can they take happiness from it; this is only remedied through salary.  We no longer fulfill most of our needs ourselves, but rely on others through the use of currency. This has the ramification of placing our well-being and the fulfillment of our needs into based on the hands of others. We need to have faith that our food isn’t poisoned, our medicine actually works and our bank account isn’t sabotaged, and even then, there is still a case for worrying.

If we can pursue a way of life that allows us to obtain happiness from simpler commodities, as seen from Rousseau’s account of a Native American chief selecting a wool blanket from the various other “civilized” gifts that he was presented, why do we choose to live with an increasing “multitude of new wants” (119)? Why do we relentlessly pursue progress if it simply demands more progress and requires more and more complex systems of interaction in order to achieve the same goals that a so-called “savage” wandering around the forest can so easily fulfill. This is something that truly makes me question what purpose this excessive desire for “self-improvement” (88) has for humanity as a whole.

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