Rousseau on property

This quote, which opens up the second part of his Discourse on Inequality, gives the flavor of Rousseau’s critique of his society:

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it upon himself to say this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would humankind have been spared, by someone who, pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had cried out to his fellow men: “Beware not to listen to this imposter [sic]. You are the lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!” But it is very likely that by then things had already reached a point where they could no longer remain as they were. For this idea of property, depending on many prior ideas which could only have arisen successively, was not formed all at once in the human mind. Quite some progress had to have been made, industry and enlightenment acquired, transmitted, and augmented from age to age, before this last stage of the state of nature was reached. (70)

From Helena Rosenblatt’s translation

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7 comments

  1. I have trouble following Rousseau.

    (1) On the one hand, he suggests that (private) property is the foundation of civil society.

    (2) On the other hand, he suggests that wars and crimes would have been avoided if there were no (private) property.

    (3) He then suggests that the idea of (private) property is a deeply derivative (artificial? fallacious?) construct.

    Did Rousseau believe that “civil society” was a bad thing? Did he really believe that less wars and crime would exist in a society without private property?

    Far from being deeply derivative, the concept of private property seems pretty direct to me, beginning with our bodies and extending to the limited resources within our reach.

    Of course, our claims of property and our actual ability to defend those claims is a slightly different matter, which might be what Rousseau is referring to, along with the legal constructs which support the basic premise of private property. But he seems to take direct issue with the origins of property, which makes no sense to me.

  2. Interestingly enough, Rousseau (at least in his First and Second Discourses) believed that civil society was corrupting. Unlike a lot of other social contract thinkers at the time, he idealized the “state of nature.”

    Civil society was a trick that eventually gave absolute governments their power over people.

    I think it’s crazy too.

  3. He seems to have come to the conclusion that civil society was necessary and could do some good things by the time that The Social Contract came out in 1762.

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