Discourse on the Origin of Inequality - Rousseau's Conception of Private Property

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In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau holds that the institution of private property has corrupted human nature and humanity, such that, man, whose incipient nature is pure and inclined to goodness and compassion, eventually degenerates to displaying traits of deceit, cunning and trickery (Rousseau, 2008, 159). However, it is this author’s contention that Rousseau fails to account for any of the possible positives and advantages which arose out of the institution of private property.

Rousseau begins by discussing his view of primitive man, whose existence is defined by a state of nature prior to the development of civil society: primitive man would have simple needs, would display a natural instinct for his own self-preservation, as well as a natural aversion toward the suffering of other men and creatures (ibid, 154). In Rousseau's view, primitive man does not associate with others, is motivated by sheer instinct, and the natural desire to perpetuate himself and his species (ibid, 154). Therefore, he engages in the sexual act devoid of all emotional or physical attraction: “Man’s first sentiment was that of his existence, and his first concern was that of his own preservation” (ibid, 154). Thus, Rousseau fundamentally rejects the notion that man is savage, deceitful and violent. This is in direct opposition to Hobbes' view, in particular, who was wont to attribute these pernicious qualities to man's basic nature (ibid, 153). Rousseau contends that philosophers, such as Hobbes, imposed a distorted and negative conception of human nature as a result of the ill effects of society (ibid, 156). The fatalistic qualities to which Hobbes alludes, in Rousseau's view, are born out of the institutions of civil society; Rousseau asserts, by contrast, that primitive man is rather one “whose heart is at peace and whose body is health” (ibid, 152). Furthermore, primitive man has no desire to subordinate other humans. His concern is only for his own survival, which does not impose or encroach on others (ibid, 155). Without relationships that are endemic to society, man has not cultivated reason, has no knowledge of good or evil, and does not possess unfavourable faculties, behaviours and attributes of the social and civilized man (ibid, 156). Rousseau continues to describe the incidents that caused man to become more social and therefore corrupt. As relations between individuals progressed, man developed perceptions, feelings, desires and fears toward certain objects and away from others, leading to the development of reason: “In instinct alone, man had everything he needed to live in the state of nature, and in cultivated reason, man has everything he needs to live in society” (ibid, 152). Further, Rousseau points to the discovery of competition between animals and between humans, the sudden need for tools, exercise and agility, in order to secure goods for man’s own self-sustenance (ibid, 157). With these advances came the discovery of iron and wheat, the cultivation of land, the acquisition and division of property, and, finally, to the establishment of laws surrounding private property (ibid, 158). “The true founder of civil society was the first man, who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine,' and came across people simple enough to believe him” (ibid, 154). As man began to acquire private property and personal possessions, the necessity to protect such property arose. Rousseau's summation of human development ultimately led to his contention that the state's primary function is the protection of private property, without which, man would have no need for the state. As Rousseau remarks, “the recognition of property led to the first rules of justice” (ibid, 158). While the proposition of "rules of justice" may lead to one's surmise that society was thus marked by civility, Rousseau explains his views on the insidious effects of private property on...
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