Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was a Swiss philosopher who described the state of nature—what life was like before governments were instituted—as the state “most suitable to mankind.” He broke sharply with his contemporaries by arguing that people were good prior to the development of civilization, but have been corrupted by society.
Rousseau’s central philosophical goal was to identify the ways society had distorted humanity’s innately good tendencies and characteristics. This essay explores Rousseau’s view of what went wrong and his proposed solution.
1. Humanity in the State of Nature
Writing prior to Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) assumed that life in the state of nature would be intolerable. He argued that without police, courts, and other authorities to protect people’s lives and belongings from those who would take them, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hobbes believed this violence was a result of human nature: human beings are never content merely to satisfy their own needs because they have “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” The desire for domination over others inevitably leads to conflict. Hobbes argued that government was justified because only it could prevent the violence endemic to the state of nature.
Rousseau’s picture of the state of nature, and human nature, was the opposite. He argued that people in their natural state were motivated by what he called amour de soi: a “love of self.” This meant living primarily to eat, sleep and reproduce for the continuation of the species. People with such minimal desires could meet their needs without resorting to violence and so life was peaceful, not the war “of every man, against every man” that Hobbes theorized.
2. What Went Wrong?
While Hobbes’ estimation of human nature might better reflect our experiences, Rousseau argued that we should not assume that human beings had always been so selfish and driven to conflict.
Rousseau proposed that the development of society had changed human nature itself, corrupting our natural goodness. In society, we became obsessed with vanity and the praise of our peers. The unceasing competition Hobbes spoke of was not a reflection of our original nature, but a distortion of it.
Why did human motivation change?
Rousseau explained the change through a mythical account of history. As people formed larger groups beyond the family, being noticed and esteemed became valuable. To be the best dancer or the best orator became valuable in the community; as a result, people began to desire more than mere survival. Rousseau argued that the novel value of attention and prestige “was the first step towards inequality, and . . . towards vice.”
With the advent of society, there was a new driver of human action: amour propre. Unlike amour de soi, which aimed at the maintenance and survival of the individual, amour propre aimed at one’s comparative worth. It is inherently competitive, focused on standing out and being noticed among the crowd. And, crucially, it is a value that must be had at another’s expense: we cannot all be the best dancer.
Rousseau’s amour propre might intuitively seem like a pathological form of self-love, but he argues that it is not inherently harmful. It is when armour propre is “inflamed” that it becomes harmful, where, rather than living for ourselves, we enter a state of “being-for-others.” Rather than living simply and modestly, concerned with satisfying our own needs, society drives us towards competition and division. At best, this discourages genuine connection with others and alienates us from our natural impulses. At worst, this competition makes us seek superiority over others.
A modern example of this inflammation might be social media. It is commonly understood to be unhealthy to continually check social media, but it is often still done compulsively. For many people, they are driven towards presenting themselves in the best light for the sake of people responding positively, even at costs to their own mental health.
3. What Can Be Done?
Rousseau did not think we could return to the state of nature, as he pictured it. Instead, the path forward was to reform how our society works in light of the dangers posed by amour propre. This is a two-step process.
First, the healthy love of self should be extended toward those around us, and eventually to the state that maintains our society, strengthening the bonds between citizens.
Second, the relationship between the citizen and the state must be reformed. Rousseau thought the key purpose of the government was to manage the conflict between the freedom of the individual and the authority of the state. He thought this tension could be mediated by a “general will”: a representation of the collective interest of the members of the society.
The concept of the general will requires that the people as a whole be represented in the ruler they live under. If they are not, then citizens are not bound by “any obligation of obedience” to the sovereign’s rulings. On Rousseau’s view, political rulings are illegitimate if they do not consider the perspectives of all community members.
With the general will in place, individuals will then see their own desires represented as part of the community: in a society ordered by the general will, individuals flourish when the rest of society flourishes. When this is the case, amour propre is no longer destructive; one need not subjugate others for the sake of one’s own well-being.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rousseau thought that life before government was the most suitable life for humanity: the state of nature was a beautiful place and the formation of society irrevocably damaged how people relate to one another, and themselves.
Yet rather than be bound by impulses toward fame, Rousseau argues that these desires can be redirected toward producing a society that better meets the needs of individuals. Through fostering a society founded on the will of its constituents, we can live a more harmonious existence, freeing ourselves from our own vanity.
 Rousseau (1755/2002), 105.
 Hobbes (1651/1962), Ch. 11 Section 2. To clarify, Hobbes did not necessarily think that this type of violence inevitably arose out of human nature, but rather that the state of nature placed individuals in a state of competition and fear, in which proactive violence was the only means to defend oneself. Rousseau thought otherwise.
 Hobbes (1651/1962), Ch. 11 Section 3: “Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war.”
 Rousseau (1755/2002), 97, note O.
 Rousseau (1755/2002), 97, note O.
 Hobbes (1651/1962), Ch. 13 Section 8.
 Rousseau (1755/2002), 118.
 Rousseau (1755/2002), 118.
 Rousseau (1755/2002), 118.
 Both amour de soi and amour propre can be translated to self-love, though with slightly different connotations. Amour propre is sometimes translated as selfishness, but this risks unfairly interpreting Rousseau’s point. As such, the terms will be used untranslated. See Dent (1989) for a discussion of the difficulty in translation.
 And even when one gains the prestige one desires, there is little satisfaction to be had: “to lose [these objects of desire] was a misfortune, to possess them [provided] no happiness,” Rousseau (1755/2002), 117.
 ‘This amour-propre in itself or relative to us is good and useful … It becomes good or bad only by the application made of it and the relations given to it’ (Rousseau 1921, 92). See Dent (1989) and Dent and O’Hagan (1998) for a fuller discussion.
 Rousseau (1762/1921), 40–41.
 Bertram (2020), 2.
 See Dent (1989), 56–58, 60.
 Not least because society has attenuated our nature, making us ill-suited to living in nature. Rousseau (1755/2002), 90.
 Dent (1989), 127.
 Secondarily, the individual must see their relationship to others in society. This begins with viewing peers not as competitors but as friends and allies. We extend the love we have for the people nearest to us onto the wider community (Dent , 143). We recognize and respect the individual agency and needs of others.
 Bertram (2020), 3. This tension has been magnified by the fact that our needs in modern society are now more complex than in the state of nature. We cannot meet our modern needs with cooperation in society.
 Bertram (2020), 3, 3.1.
 Dent (1989), 172.
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About the Author
Corey McCabe is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, with a BA (hons) in politics and philosophy, in addition to further advanced study in political science. His research focus is on early modern philosophy, and contemporary political theory and philosophy.