Sociability and Human Nature: Rousseau’s Criticism of Mandeville in ‘The Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men’
The discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men is considered to be the first important political writing of Jean-Jeacques Rousseau. Seeking the causes which beget inequality, Rousseau begins examining human nature, in order to distinguish between the natural characteristics of man and those arising from social interaction. The first part of this work is an accurate description of man as Rousseau imagines him to have been in the state of nature, the second part is a description of the fall of man from this genuine state, and the origin of inequality. His criticism of Mandeville concerns the definition he gives of the primitive condition of the human being. Mandeville believes that man’s actions are the result of the only innate attribute of man: self-love. Rousseau on the contrary claims that, besides the drive of our own preservation (which he calls self-preservation instead of self-love), there is a natural feeling, another sort of instinct, not less strong, which is compassion. Because of the existence of this disposition, Rousseau believes that man is basically good. Although Mandeville and Rousseau have a different anthropological view of man, they seem to reach a similar conclusion about a couple of issue, i.e. the beginning of social engagement and the state of unsociability as a natural instinct. Reading carefully the description of human nature in the Second Discourse, though, it becomes clear that the gap between these two philosophers narrows. The supposed goodness of the savage is not real goodness, it is rather a sort of innocence, and precisely the kind of innocence which is typical of beings lacking reason, and therefore unable to commit evil deliberately. Rousseau is critical of thinkers, such as Mandeville, who portray the human being as an evil and self-interested creature, on the grounds of the existence of a natural feeling of pity. The sort of pity Rousseau talks about, though, has neither sympathy nor benevolence, nor any kind of connection with goodness, insofar as this compassion is something that belongs to man just in the state of nature, when he is not yet a man, but just an animal. Therefore the human being in this primitive condition does learn to be sociable, insofar as, in Rousseau’s opinion as well as in Mandeville’s, the fulfilment of needs and passions is the drive to seek the help of other human beings, while in the state of nature the lack of strong individual needs affords independence. The need to bond with other human beings begins, according to Rousseau, just after the fall from the state of nature, but this is not eventually as significant as it might seem at first: only leaving the state of nature the savage becomes a man, whereas, just before that, he was no more than a mere beast. The issue is that if Rousseau is to make an inquiry on man, he cannot divert his attention from man himself, trying to make a portrait of the savage, because this savage has more in common with animals than he does with contemporary man.