Rousseau and Aristotle: society makes people fully human

Yesterday, we started to discuss Rousseau’s The Social Contract in my modern Western Civ classes. In the ancient-medieval-early modern course, I assigned some excerpts from Plato and Aristotle. There was an interesting overlap between Aristotle’s and Rousseau’s conception of the relationship between the individual and the state.

Here is Aristotle (in the excerpt The Politics that I assigned) on the origins of the city-state:

Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are              defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A              social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society. . . .

Rousseau (Christopher Betts’ translation for Oxford World’s Classics, Book I, Ch. viii, p. 59):

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces in man a very remarkable change, replacing instinct by justice in his behavior, and conferring on his actions the moral quality that they had lacked before. It is only now, as the voice of duty succeeds to physical impulse and right to appetite, that man, who had previously thought of nothing but himself is compelled to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before he attends to his inclinations. Although, in the civil state, he deprives himself of a number of advantages which he has by nature, the others that he acquires are so great, so greatly are his faculties exercised and improved, his ideas amplified, his feelings ennobled, and his entire soul raised so much higher, that if the abuses that occur in his new condition did not frequently reduce him to a state lower than the one he has just left, he ought constantly to bless the happy moment when he was taken from it for ever, and which made of him, not a limited and stupid animal, but an intelligent being and a man.

Rousseau thinks that people are social because of circumstances rather than nature, but it’s interesting that they express the effects of society in a similar way. Rousseau must have read Aristotle, although I don’t know the extent of the latter’s influence on the former.



  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting this! Have you ever read “The Taste for the Other” by Gilbert Meilaender? I’ve not finished it but it sounds like the type of book you may like.

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