Rosseau Theory of the State of Nature

Eric Martin
3 min readJul 24, 2021


In Rosseau's theory of the state of nature, man is essentially pre-man. Man, that we know of, and that is envisioned in the Hobbes and Locke view of the state of nature, is really a man forced by society. Rousseau said that we need to go back even further. For Rosseau, this is a real place that existed before man came into society with each other, though, unlike Locke, we cannot go back to it. To get to a state of nature, you have to strip off everything that society contributes to man, including language, reason, and sociability. Man is an animal without thought operating purely on instinct (Capaldi 2011, 66).

In the state of nature, men have two guiding principles, self-preservation and pity. These two principles provide a kind of balance, each preventing the other from being exercised to excess. Rousseau’s theme was that man in the state of nature is naturally good. The caveat to that goodness is that man in the state of nature is not good because he chooses to be good but because he is in a pre-social, pre-moral state (Hardwick, 2011).

The cultivation of the land is the source of private property (Strauss 1987, 256). Conflict arises because those with more land have more to lose than those without property. They propose a compact to set up a supreme power that will rule all men in accordance with the law and protect the possessions of each.

Rousseau believes that moral corruption inevitably follows economic progress because they themselves emerge from vices of the soul. At best idle curiosity is their source, and often they come from a desire for unnecessary comforts, which only weaken men and satisfy unnecessary wants (Strauss 1987, 254).

The general will is a law that is in the interest of all people in society, as opposed to individual will, which is the interest of the specific citizen. Law is the product of the general will, which arises when a man forms associations to protect the common good and each person. This would appear to be done via direct democracy as each individual participates in the legislation. Since each member of society is both legislature and citizen, they must make laws that can be applied to all members of society, themselves included (Strauss 1987, 257).

Rousseau believes that Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence (Capaldi 2011, 93) and that true Christians are made to be slaves because Christians are occupied solely with heavenly things. Since a Christian country is not of this world, then they don’t care what the state is doing around them. If the state is good, then he may fear he might grow proud of his country. If the state is bad, he prays for the hand of God to come down hard on it. Instead of virtues and morality coming from God, the Sovereign or general will should fix the articles. Without these rules, a man cannot be a good citizen or faithful subject.


Capaldi , Nicholas. “The Two Narratives of Political Economy ,” 2011.

Hardwick, N., 2011. Rousseau And The Social Contract Tradition. [online] E-International Relations. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2020].

Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey, eds. “History of Political Philosophy.” VitalSource Bookshelf Online, 1987.



Eric Martin

Husband. Father. Veteran. Purple Heart Recipient Twitter: @actionaxiom