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Human Nature between Hobbes and Rousseau
Hobbes and Rousseau both make arguments about human nature. Although their arguments are based on the same fundamental premises, they arrive at two opposite conclusions. In this paper, I identify the shared premises and contrasting arguments and conclusions about human nature and comment on the validity of the arguments.
The first and most critical premise is that there is an existence of the State of Nature: a state in which there is no society. The second premise, which goes hand-in-hand with the first, is that there is such a thing as human nature: natural tendencies that humans have in the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Human nature can be described as well. The third premise, which relates the first two, is that human nature, however it may be, will be acted out in the State of Nature because that is where it will be free of the influences of society. The final fourth premise is that all men are created equal. I agree with these shared premises.
Now that the premises of both philosophers have been identified, I will contrast the two opposing arguments that Hobbes and Rousseau make about human nature. I will begin with Hobbes’s viewpoint. Hobbes has what I consider a quite negative opinion on human nature: he states that people are violent, conflicting, and are enemies to each other. He lays out a foundation for the cruelties of men based on the premise that “Nature hath made men so equal.” (141) Although some bodies may be “manifestly stronger” (141) than others and that although people may be “of quicker mind,” (141) in the end, the short inequalities become irrelevant and “not so considerable” (141) when all of human nature “is reckoned together.” (141) The short inequalities between men are not considerable enough to change the fact that “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest,” (141) and that the weakest will find a way to kill the strongest either by “secret machination,” (141) or by banding together with other people “that are in the same danger with himself.” (141)
Hobbes is stating that all men will find a way to kill each other. He is reiterating his premise that all men are created equal. Hobbes is also stating his conclusion here, which is that the human nature of people is such that they are violent, brutal, and conflicting. The human nature of people is also such, that if there were no influences of society, and everyone lived in the State of Nature, then people would be forever and constantly killing each other.
Rousseau’s opinion on human nature is opposite to that of Hobbes. He believes people are naturally free from both contempt and violence, will not harm each other, and will keep to themselves. He explains his belief about human nature, that all men are born with freedom, by giving the example of a family. Being free is desirable because the people are naturally freed from contempt. The correlation between societies and families are stated when he says that “the earliest and the only natural societies are families” (205-206) and claims the freedom of the child by saying “the children remain attached to the father no longer than they have need for his protection.” (205-206) He claims that at a given age, the dependency of the child onto the father and the duties that the father owes to the child are disestablished, and “the bond of nature is dissolved.” (205-206) Once this happens, both the child and the father “return equally to independence,” (205-206) and any such continuation of a union “is not in consequence of a natural, but a voluntary union.” (205-206) It “is maintained only by a convention.” (205-206)
Rousseau’s believes that people are free from contempt and violence with one another. He also says that families are the most natural, early, and close resemblance that we have to the State of Nature. The only bond in this primitive society is familial, and, at least after a certain age, the bond between the father and child is based on convention. As such, it can be dissolved, and once it is dissolved, both the father and child will return to independence and freedom. Thus, the family can be examined in order to determine how human nature is. This is due to the fact that, in a family, one can see a person both before and after they are given their natural freedom.
Between the two contrasting opinions of Hobbes and Rousseau as stated, I believe that Hobbes’s arguments are more valid and thus agree with his conclusion regarding human nature. There are two reasons that I have this opinion. The first reason is that I consider his reasons for the justification of battle between men to be valid. He proposed three reasons why men engage in war with each other: first “for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation.” (143) Each reason mentioned is a desire and necessity to the survival of mankind, and so, is built into human nature. His explanations of the reasoning behind each motive to invade include firstly that when men become greedy, they seek to “use violence to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle,” (143) secondly that when people are afraid of having their persons, wives, children, and cattle taken away, they will “defend them” (143), and thirdly that when people will avoid humiliation at all costs, they will fight when there is “any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.” (143) The basis of Hobbes’s arguments on human nature is that one can look to history to determine how human behavior is. These reasons proposed by Hobbes as to why men quarrel with each other are in my opinion, the reasons why anyone does anything in their lives.
The second reason I consider his argument to be a valid one is that I agree with the idea that the outcome of human nature, apart from society, is undesirable. Hobbes writes of a state that is created from the violent natures of men which is known as the state of war, and the quality of life within this state. He describes men’s lives as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (143) When in this state, “every man is enemy to every man” (143), and everyone must fend for themselves as “men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.” (143) Hobbes also describes the effects that this state of war has on society and the goods that are destroyed by it. In a time of war, there cannot be any business or production of goods “because the fruit thereof is uncertain,” (143) and consequently, there can be “no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing.” (143) As these things are what governments are built upon, none can exist as there is “no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society.” (143) Since these goods, which are essential to healthy states, are gone, then in the people there is only “continual fear, and danger of violent death.” (143)
Hobbes illustrates why the outcomes of human nature, either in the State of Nature or in real-life, are undesirable. All the goods to society will be destroyed, and society itself will fall to shambles. This destruction of society brings people to the State of Nature: the place where society does not exist. In the State of Nature, human nature can be pure and no longer constrained by the binds of society. Because of this, the conditions of human nature will be even more violent and extreme and will lead to even more undesirable outcomes. Thus, this explains why men have established social structures in order to attempt to mitigate these undesirables outcomes.
In contrast, I also consider Rousseau’s arguments about human nature to be invalid for two reasons. The first is that it is naive to think that people will not be in conflict with each other without an established society. Rousseau concludes from what was previously said that “families are the first models of political societies,” (206) and he correlates the chief of the state to “the father of the family” (206) and the children to the people--saying “the children [represents] the people.” (206) He shares a similarity between the two, saying that all are “born equal, and all free.” (206) From this, it is declared that people may only “alienate their liberty in order to obtain what is more useful” (206) for themselves and not for those who the people alienate their liberties to. Rousseau then claims the difference between the two societies, which is that in a family, there is a “paternal tenderness” (206) and “gratification” (206) that the father obtains when there is a “consciousness of benefiting those who are the objects,” and that this “makes a full amends to the father for the care he bestows on the children,” (206) while, in a state, “the pleasure of commanding takes the place of that love,” and the love, “the chief does not feel for his people.” (206)
Rousseau demonstrates through this that corruption and greed are inevitable occurrences in society. As there is a paternal tenderness and gratitude in the family that is not present in more advanced societies, being corrupt and greedy becomes more tempting. This behavior does not exist in the state of nature but only exists in societies. More importantly, this exemplifies how the outcome of human nature in the State of Nature is desirable. Since society is non-existent in the State of Nature, there will be no corruption caused by it, and human nature will be able to reach its full potential of freedom and desirability. I believe that it is incorrect to think that these families won’t have rivalries and competition with the other people who are not a part of their families, even in the absence of higher social constructs. This would not be a familial matter, and will certainly dispel the notion that families are any better than states or other higher level societies.
The second reason I find Rousseau’s argument invalid can be demonstrated through a hypothetical question: If the outcome of human nature is desirable, and people are free from both violence and contempt, and societies are created from humans and their nature, then why are there so many laws made in order to control human behavior? Where do these undesirable effects come from if not from human nature itself?
Rousseau writes of slavery and society’s influence on the man becoming a slave. He mentions Aristotle in his discussion, saying that “Aristotle was right; but he mistook the effect for the cause.” He agrees that “men who are born in slavery are born for slavery” (206) but disagrees with the notion of natural slavery, and says that “Slaves become so debased by their chains as to lose even the desire of breaking from them.” (206) The slaves “love their servitude.” (206) The only way that there would be “some who are slaves by nature,” (206) is if “men were made slaves against nature.” (207) Rousseau explains this claim by stating that “force made the first slaves,” (207) and that slavery “perpetuated their bondage” (207) by “degrading and corrupting its victims.” (207) I will make a counter-argument to the notion that it is only the fault of society that slaves have been degraded to such a low quality of life. If human nature leads us to live lives free of contempt—a desirable outcome—there would be no force that drives humans to form societies that enslave them.
Somerville, John, and Ronald E. Santoni. Social and Political Philosophy: Readings from Plato to Gandhi. Doubleday, 1963.