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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

The Influence of Rousseau

The Influence of Rousseau.

The transfer of regard from the laws of Nature to the state of nature was, considering the circumstances I have referred to and the imaginative and speculative character of the French mind, a step, if not inevitable, at least natural. It was Jean Jacques Rousseau born at Geneva on the 28th June, 1712, that strange compound of weakness and strength, ignorance and knowledge, baseness and nobility, who affected this transfer. It is not within the limits of of my subject to say anything of the life of this strange man—one of the most unique characters in history—of whom it has been said "he formed a new social system and a new order of man," and the influence of whose writings upon the minds of his countrymen was summed up by Napoleon in the phrase "that without Rousseau there would not have been a Revolution." In his 'Discourse on Inequality,' written in 1753, he sets himself to inquire into the origin of inequality among men, and as to whether it is authorised by natural law. In answering this question he ascribes to an imaginary state of nature all the virtues previous writers and thinkers ascribed to natural law. In his wanderings amid the woods at St. Germaine (whither he had gone to think out his thesis) he tells us: "I sought for and found the image of primitive ages of which I boldly traced the history. I confounded the miserable falsehoods of men and comparing artificial men with the state of nature I dared to show them in their pretended improvement the real source of their miseries." Rousseau was not the first writer who had employed an assumed state of nature upon which to base a social dogma. Hobbes has his state of nature and so has Locke, although theirs differ, as I shall shortly show, widely from that of Rousseau. But, unlike him, Hobbes and Locke never claimed for their assumptions any previous existence in fact, nor attempted to prove that this hypothetical condition was ever an actuality by an appeal to history. It was characteristic of such a mind as Rousseau's to proceed upon the credo ut intelligem principle, and first erect his theory into a passionate creed, and then claim to have proved its truth by the most audacious assumptions of fact, scraps of unreliable history, and absurd prehistoric traditions. Such are the means by which he boldly declares he has established man's pristine condition of innocence and happiness, and shown how the race has fallen from its earthy paradise to its present perdition. I need not trouble you with the features of this primitive condition. Man, as described by Rousseau, in this earliest state is not so much a savage as a brute, seeking his food like an animal, possessed of no language, sleeping under the shelter of trees, mating with a female and leaving her again as do the beasts of the field. page 3 This, he tells us, is the first home of simplicity, innocence, and felicity, in which man was happier and more moral than his so-called civilised descendant of to-day. Rousseau's Golden Age is not, however, this first stage, but that midway between what I should call the brute stage and our present fevered unrest—realism: that condition of barbarism in which the savage has his hut, his own wife or wives, his dress of wild beast skins, and his ornaments of feather?, shells, and teeth; such a condition as probably the Maoris enjoyed when we came to these islands and taught them how to move the spirit's inner deeps by rum and true religion. This is the state in which man's lot was happiest, healthiest, and best. Independent, self-reliant, earning his own livelihood, uncurst by capitalist, landlord, or tax-gatherer. The true fall of man was from this state, and the road to our present misery lay through the development of language, of industries, of the modern form of the family, and finally of property. The growth of society and the growth of human wretchedness have moved on with equal step, and all our ghastly extremes of wealth and poverty are but the bitter fruit of so-called social progress. High above all other instruments on social evil stands the institution of property, chief source of all our suffering. "He was the true founder of society," says Rousseau, "who first enclosed a plot of land, and, claiming it as his own, found fools enough to believe him." With this institution grew inequality, dishonesty, strife, and misery. It has been the very upas tree of social life. Thus, then, we see the old theory of natural law giving birth to a philosophical state of nature, and leading to the idea of a past that was never present. Hut the most important development of this last-mentioned theory yet remains to be described. Rousseau necessarily conceived this natural condition as unpolitical, and to account for the creation of the state he invokes