Rousseau: the civil man’s loss of liberty

adamandeve“Being something and appearing to be something became two completely different things; and from this distinction there arose grand ostentation, deceptive cunning, and all the vices that follow in their wake. On the other hand, although man had previously been free and independent, we find him, so to speak, subject, by virtue of a multitude of fresh needs, to all of nature and particularly to his fellow men, whose slave in a sense he becomes even in becoming their master; rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help; and being midway between wealth and poverty does not put him in a position to get along without them”.

In this excerpt, Rousseau expounds on two main ideas: the incongruity between the individual’s external image and his actual qualities, and the individual’s dependency on others in society. Both lead to the individual’s loss of liberty. The excerpt is situated in Part 2 of the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which focuses on the origins of society and the inevitable birth of moral inequality when people congregate. Thus, the ideas conveyed here are used to illustrate the negative consequences of such inequality, and they reinforce Rousseau’s argument that the primitive man, rather than the enlightened civil man, dwelled in the “happiest and most durable epoch” (pg.50).

Rousseau asserts that “the savage lives in himself” (pg.70) while the “man accustomed to the ways of society is always outside himself” (pg.70). This is what he refers to when he highlights the divergence between “being something” and “appearing to be something” (pg. 54). He believes that this disparity between the individual and his appearance stems from the increasing “proximity” (pg.49) of individuals as man gradually forms a society. Previously, the “solitary lifestyle” (pg.22) of the savage man had prevented him from drawing comparisons between himself and others. Increased contact with his fellow men provided him with objects to draw comparisons from (pg.49), and this newfound appreciation for individual differences resulted in “ideas of merit and beauty” (pg.49), where some differences are regarded as more or less desirable. Rousseau pinpoints this stage of development as the moment where man no longer carried out his affairs independently and instead becomes concerned with gaining “public esteem” (pg.49). Since those who possess “mind, beauty, strength or skill […]” (pg.53) and other traits that society deems desirable receive rewards such as a rise in their social position, or “rank” (pg.53), there is an incentive, and even a necessity, for individuals to “show [themselves] to be something other than what [they] in fact [were]” (pg.54). To fulfill this, the individual inevitably resorts to “grand ostentation” (pg.53) and “deceptive cunning” (pg.53. The former is perhaps more characteristic of those who already possess some superior qualities – it refers to flamboyant attempts to flaunt or exaggerate these qualities so that society can confer on him more “esteem” (pg.49) than he is due. Meanwhile, all individuals, regardless of whether they possess superior qualities or not, can utilize their “deceptive cunning” (pg.54) to trick others into believing that they are more distinguished than they actually are. Rousseau also states that other “vices” (pg.54) will “follow in [the] wake” (pg.54) of “grand ostentation” (pg.54) and “deceptive cunning” (pg.54). Although he does not mention any vice specifically, it is likely that he is referring to vices such as vanity and lying, which can be traced back to the above two behaviors. Ultimately, the divergence between the individual and his appearance leads to the decline of individuality because he is no longer able to be himself. Although Rousseau mentions that the civil man has a “prodigious diversity of educations and different lifestyles” (pg.42) when compared to the savage life, which is marked by “simplicity and uniformity” (pg.42), it is ironic that this variety is still a reinforcement of uniformity. Due to the expectations of society, the individual nevertheless strives to conform to the socially accepted criteria of various desirable traits. Thus, he assumes an artificial image that fits this highly esteemed mold, and he loses the liberty to be who he really is.

In addition, this excerpt explores the dependency of the individual on others in society. Rousseau believes that the savage man had “no dwelling” (pg.23), were “naked” (pg.23), and “lack[ed] all those useful things we take to be so necessary” (pg.23). The simplicity of his lifestyle (pg.22) meant that he was not “subjecting [himself] to a universal dependence” (pg.35) because he did not need anything he could not gather himself. Rousseau sums up the freedom of the savage man in his rhetorical question: “And what can be the chains of dependence among men who possess nothing?” (pg.42) In contrast, the metallurgy and agricultural revolutions that made man civilized allowed him to procure “a great deal of leisure time” (pg.48). The civil man is therefore able to enjoy luxuries and having enjoyed them, he forms an attachment to these pleasures – these luxuries become necessities that he views as essential to his happiness, and he is “unhappy about losing them” (pg.48). Society therefore creates this “multitude of fresh needs” (pg.54) that are, to the savage man, completely unnecessary, and they are “fresh” because they are artificially constructed by society to be important. In order to satisfy this wave of desires, man becomes dependent on others, for he requires the goods and services that other members of society now provide. Rousseau asserts that this is the origin of man’s dependency because “it is impossible to enslave a man without having first put him in a position of being incapable of doing without another” (pg.43). Although contemporary understanding is such that the poor are often beholden to the rich, Rousseau makes it clear that this dependency becomes part of the human condition and all are affected by it, regardless of their social status. He parallels their similar fates of enslavement in the line, “rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help” (pg.54). While the poor depend on the charity of the rich for their sustenance, the former is also enslaved to the lower class because they require luxurious products that are provided by the latter. Even individuals who do not occupy either extreme of the spectrum and neither enjoy “wealth” (pg.54) nor “poverty” (pg.54) remain trapped in this chain of dependency. As members of society, they still desire luxuries and being middle class, they have the ability to enjoy some of it. Thus, they also require the services of others. Similarly, they remain dependent on the rich for assistance. Perhaps “help” does not have to be strictly interpreted as charity – the middle class and poor provide services to the rich in return for wages, and hence depend on them for the ability to fulfill their material desires. Moreover, Rousseau states that man is not only enslaved to his “fellow men” (pg.54) for he is also “subject […] to nature” (pg.54). To satisfy luxuries, man must extract and exploit natural resources, and he is therefore beholden to how much the earth yields. Furthermore, this dependency on nature also means that he is a victim of nature’s unpredictability and tyranny. For example, natural disasters can result in the destruction of the material goods that man deems crucial to his existence. This reliance on nature and “fellow men” (g.54) therefore leads to the civil man’s loss of liberty. His self-agency has eroded because he no longer solely determines his happiness.

By exploring man’s loss of liberty in two aspects of his socialized life, Rousseau presents a compelling argument against the state of the civil man. Those who find his case unpersuasive may argue that this decline in freedom is a worthy tradeoff for “conveniences” (pg. 48) and material pleasures because man can find genuine happiness in these things, and are not, as Rousseau claims, “[unhappy] about possessing them” (pg.48). However, Rousseau’s counteracts such opposition with his claim that “liberty” (pg.62) is an “essential gift[s]” (pg.62) of nature. Unlike material pleasures, which can only appeal to man’s artificially constructed desires in society, liberty is something that man would have prized above all else if he had remained in his uncorrupted state of nature. By terming man’s freedom as a “gift”, Rousseau suggests that this liberty is freely given, and it does not come with the insidious chains of dependency that other material goods do. Thus, Rousseau contrasts between the liberty that man is given unconditionally but willfully discards, and the material luxuries that man pursues despite the prospect of slavery. This highlights the tragedy of the civil man and serves to strengthen Rousseau’s claim that man cannot be happy in civilized societies, and if he does, it is out of ignorance.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality . Translated by Donald A. Cress. Hackett Publishing Company, 1755.


Categories: Philosophy

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