By Bruce Long

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau passionately responded to the authoritarian political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is the English philosopher who, having survived through the internecine English civil war, wrote in his landmark work Leviathan that life in a state of nature (pre-civilised) is “nasty, brutish, and short”. (Hobbes, Leviathan).

Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and British Empiricist philosopher John Locke all produced quasi-anthropological narratives describing how civilisation comes about. According to the theistic Locke, there was a god responsible for creating and managing nature and humanity, and so even in an uncivilised state, people would be prevented from harming each other too much. There would be a divinely imposed limit on any strife. Hobbes was not very impressed with scholastics like Locke in the academy, and was known to goad them for their ignorance. This and his experience in the English Civil War led him to assert that if there was a god, then that was not enough to keep the uglier and baser outcomes of the instincts of human beings in check.

Hobbes’ disposition came less from some kind of revulsion at human nature – regarding it as sinful and corrupt – and more from what would now be called a pragmatic and naturalistic view. He deployed reasoning familiar to contemporary game theory. As a naturalistic philosopher, he surmised in his anthropological narrative that everything reduced to nature. In other words – he was no theist – but regarded instead that everything was based upon nature. He proposed that, in the state of nature, all people have the right of nature or the right to prevail based on logic and reasoned commitment to self-preservation. The right of nature in Hobbes’doctrine is the most fundamental and preeminent of all natural rights in Hobbes’ doctrines. It is that which remains when all else has failed. In other words – when everything and everyone else is trying to kill or harm you – your first recourse is to self-preservation by any means. This is very much what is referred to in contemporary game theory as a zero sum game (it’s them – or it’s you). The source of the nasty, brutish, short-lived life experience Hobbes ascribes to the state of nature.

Rousseau rejected the theistic view of Locke and the zero-sum assumptions of Hobbes. He saw people in the state of nature as a kind of noble savage (although this terminology was not deployed by Rousseau). He emphasised that people in such a state have an innate empathy and that this is what allows tribal and native communities to thrive and support each other (LaFreniere, 48). According to Rousseau, civilisation is the problem. With the growth of agriculture, trade and government comes the need for superiority, increased fiscally based competition for sex, the need for and the pursuit of prestige and influence, and the uneven distribution of resources. Then follows what Marx later called classism and with it – poverty and slums.


If people wanted to be happy and content and to live fulfilling lives, said Rousseau, then they needed to return to nature in meaningful in-principle ways, and as much as possible practically. He did not think that a return to the forests and a primeval state of community was likely or even possible. However, he thought that this was the ideal state of existence for humanity – a kind of natural Garden of Eden. What civilised communities should aspire to, said Rousseau, was to converge upon this state as much as possible. This required all kinds of limitations on the power of government, primary emphasis on civil liberties for individuals, and the preservation of individual agency. Basically – the opposite of what Hobbes had prescribed.

In addition to the armchair quasi-anthropological narratives about how civilisation develops, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau all used the social contract to support their ideals of civilised living. For Locke, the social contract was a disposition towards others under a god figure. According to Hobbes, the contract was between the Leviathan-ruler and the people. The people had comparatively few or no rights while the Leviathan was the public sword and was to be considered right even if it was wrong: a pre-figuring of much later pragmatist ethos.

For Rousseau, the social contract was between the people and the state, and each other. Democratic ideals and debate mediate it. Hobbes’ state was immutable, and challenge by the citizenry was illegal on pain of punishment. Rousseau’s view of government is diametrically opposed to such authoritarianism. Rousseau regarded that government is easily corrupted and often fails in its duties, function, and structures, and should be either revised or deposed by the people as part of their social responsibility if it does (Rousseau, The Social Contract, Chapters 10-11 or 86, 88-9).

What of the importance of the living environment itself? How does the shape and aesthetic of the city affect community and the individual? Rousseau was a denizen of Paris, which city he came to hate:

“The manner of living in Paris amidst people of pretensions was so little to my liking. The cabals of men of letters, their little candour in their writings, and the air of importance they gave themselves in the world were so odious to me. I found so little mildness, openness of heart, and frankness in the intercourse even of my friends. Disgusted with this life of tumult, I began ardently to wish to reside in the country.” (Rousseau, VIII, 452)

Of course one has to take into account that Rousseau, being as he was a typical eccentric philosopher (and by some accounts even more than eccentric), did have some social hangups. However, the city of Rousseau’s time, even the Renaissance inspired and world-renowned Paris, was significantly lacking in some of what we would today regard as necessary sanitary and civil infrastructure. And of course, the classism and inequality which Rousseau so hated thrived there. The irony is that Rousseau himself was very upwardly mobile as an intellectual, and made his fame himself from his talented use of his prose, and through his personality. He came to despise the cradle of his fame and grew to become socially infamous.


So too it is fair, I think, to take Rousseau’s love of nature and the state of nature as almost divine, and extend this to his love of the country as being an approximation of that state, and then to proceed to classify Rousseau as perhaps the earliest philosophical proponent of the greenfield urban plan. The more nature, the better. The less corrupt government and inequality, the better. Smaller, close-knit equinamitous and egalitarian communities living in clean environments close to nature, or as close to an approximation of nature as gardens and farms could provide.

Rousseau became all but an outcast due to his growing social antipathy and his alienation of most of his closest friends. He became suspicious of David Hume being a British agent (not an entirely unfair suspicion given Hume’s earlier contract work with the British Admiralty and Crown overseas), but alienated his close friend Denis Diderot on an almost incoherent basis. Rousseau’s philosophy – if not his politics – fell out of favour with the Parisienne elite. However, his laudation and lionisation of nature, and of the town and country over the city, was taken up numerously after his death – not least by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in The New World. Thoreau’s naturalistic proclivities are well known, but his Civil Disobedience also echoes closely Rousseau’s On the Social Contract with regards to the role and adequacy of government.

With regard to the city itself and planning philosophy, Rousseau’s thought is in one sense pre-theoretic and not concerned with such things directly, except inasmuch as the city – and specifically Paris – were representative for Rousseau of the problems presented by civilised society as a whole. This is clearly related to the ideas of greenfield and contemporary theories of designing urban space. It is hard to see how Rousseau’s thinking could align with a strongly positivistic approach to town planning, except perhaps where nature provides the objective basis of healthy environment. His view tends to make human beings and nurturing egalitarian communities, and their proximity to and dependence upon nature, the locus of the polis and the metropolis.

Rousseau’s political science, and his romanticism regarding, and laudation of, the role of nature as a nurturing protector and enabler of nobility and empathy, tends to suggest that he would favour, and has more heavily influenced at a deep philosophically salient level, the urban-planning constructivism of the modern to the postmodern era and digital age, with a heavy emphasis on greenfield urban planning.


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