[Hilton’s note: In 1970, anthropologist Robert Ardrey published a book with the same title as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 landmark work, The Social Contract, which established the French philosopher as the father of the Romantic Movement. Ardrey’s text constitutes a logical counterpoint to Rousseau’s thesis about humankind by introducing the discoveries of ethology to the mix.]
When Dobzhansky writes, “The philosophy of modern democracies, of Western and eastern varieties as well, is the doctrine of equality, natural goodness, and the limitless perfectibility of man,” with a certain reservation all is purest Rousseau. Perfectibility was to be the contribution of the nineteenth century. But as the image of God may be viewed from a thousand angles, so the image of Rousseau inhabits our day.
And the image may well inspire the future as well. Should any doubt it, they have only to read a roaring summation by the Durants:
“First of all, of course, he was the mother of the Romantic movement…But what shall we mean by the Romantic movement? The rebellion of feeling against reason, of instinct against intellect, of sentiment against object, of solitude against society, of myth and legend against history, … of emotional expression against conventional restraints, of individual freedom against social order, of youth against authority, of democracy against aristocracy, of man against state.”
The Durants’ catalogue of revolt, one image of Rousseau, forms a useful checklist for measuring his reincarnation in the spirit of the contemporary young. With the ebb of the Romantic tide many an idol was carried out to sea, never, we thought, to be seen again. But with the tide’s new flow we watch the same old breakers crashing on the same old beaches.
Such a spirit as the Durants record stemmed largely from his earlier work, Discourse on Inequality, often known as the Second Discourse, which he published in 1755. In it he analyzed primal men as equal and good, the coming of property rights as the source of inequality, and society as the final instrument of ruin created to perpetuate inequality. In 1762 he presented The Social Contract as the revolutionary society in which, property abolished, individuals surrender all sovereignty to “the general will,” thus regaining as fully as possible the amity and equality of the origins. The principle was to reappear as the mystique, if not the reality, of the totalitarian state.
Rousseau’s work appeared over a century before Darwin’s Descent of Man, whereas mine appears just a century afterward. And if I have taken his title and dedicated this work to his memory, it is to throw into sharpest relief just what the natural sciences have brought to our understanding of man and the group. In many a way his mind was remarkably modern. He saw man, as I have mentioned, as a portion of nature. He looked to human origins for better understanding of the human outcome. From many a hint one may gather that he pondered over the way of the animal as of significance to the way of man, and one must bow to a visionary who centuries before the coming of ethology glimpsed a truth. And finally one must recognize that Rousseau’s objective, no less nor more than my own, looked to nature and natural law for human solutions.
In a sense he asked all the right questions. But he asked them too soon. Without the theory of evolution to guide him, without the past century’s assimilation of proven conclusions in the natural sciences, and in particular without the explosion of the past two or three decades that has transformed biology into virtually a new science, Rousseau could use only his intuitions concerning the nature of nature. And never could a man have guessed so disastrously wrong.
Rousseau’s vision of asocial primal man became his founding fallacy. He could not know that not a species in our primate family since the early pro-simian, the mouse lemur, has led a solitary life. He could not know that life in organised societies is so characteristically the animal way that a few brief references to such species as the leopard have been sufficient to dispose of those capable of solitary existence. He could not know that xenophobia in a state of nature is as common as the grouping of familiars.
“Man is born free, yet everywhere we see him in chains” is the celebrated opening line of The Social Contract. Yet more definitive of Rousseau’s thought is the opening line of Emile, published in the same year and a work he regarded as more important. […] With the opening sentence of Emile the Age of the Alibi was launched: Nature made me happy and good, and if I am otherwise, it is society’s fault. Rousseau’s founding fallacy that primal man knew no society is compounded by the second assumption that man in a state of nature was happy and good. That Rousseau knew nothing of the territorial imperative in animal life and regarded the invention of private property as the curse that man brought on himself becomes a minor ignorance.
What I believe should be stressed is that Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his time had every right to be wrong. How could he know that natural men were created unequal, or that original goodness is as unlikely as original equality? How could he know that the institution of privately defended property, like the institution of society, was an evolutionary invention far antedating man and his primate family? How could he know in the days before dart that man was descended from predatory primates who killed for a living? Not even Darwin knew that.
The catastrophe is not that Rousseau was wrong but that after two centuries we are wrong; that biological advances since Darwin’s time have penetrated our thinking not at all; that fashions of thought today are as firmly grounded in the Rousseau fallacies as if the natural sciences had never existed.