From philosophy to literature: The myth of the natural man Essay

From philosophy to literature:

The myth of the natural man

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It was in the year 1754 when French philosopher, Jean Jacques-Rousseau wrote about the book “Discourse on the origin and basis of inequality among men”. He discussed in the book the difference between the natural man and the civilized man. Moreover, he also discussed about the two types of inequality, natural or physical and ethical or political. Furthermore, natural inequality involves differences between one man’s physical strength and that of another – it is a product of nature. However, Rousseau is more inclined in studying the moral inequalities. He said that moral inequalities were more endemic to a civil society. He believed that this was the cause of differences in power and wealth.

This was the first analysis of Rousseau about the natural man who has not yet acquired language or abstract thought.

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody”

            Basically, what Rousseau was trying to convey in the above statement was the difference between the “natural” man and the “civilized” man. Natural man is self-sufficient, compassionate and has the ability to improve his own physical condition/environmental situation and develops ever more sophisticated survival tactics.

                Rousseau was a major critic of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was an English philosopher and he pointed out that since the man in the “state of nature” has no idea of goodness, he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue. However, Rousseau never suggested that man in the “state of nature” acts morally. In fact, his natural man is virtually identical to the chimpanzee, orangutan or ape and that the “natural” goodness of humanity and is thus the goodness of an animal, which are neither good nor bad.

                In other words, Rousseau’s concept of natural man was best summed-up by his invention of the idea “noble savage”. Savage by his own definition is untamed. It is far from the English meaning of the word which is fierceness and brutality.

As what was said earlier, the natural man is a loner and self-sufficient. In addition, He is in prime condition, fast, and strong, capable of caring for himself. He only kills for his own self-preservation.

According to Rousseau, when the natural man established property as his own, this would be the “beginning of evil”. This property established divisions in the natural world. The first was the master-slave relationship. Property also led to the creation of families. The natural man was no longer alone. The subsequent divisions almost all stems from this division of land.

            It was earlier noted that Rousseau criticized Thomas Hobbes for his definition of the natural man. This was basically because the two philosophers had different approaches on the term “state of nature” which is to describe the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state’s foundation. In other words, this was before rule of law came into play.

            The concept of the state of nature was first written by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan during the 17th century. He wrote that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man”. Judging from the statement, he wanted to suggest that during the state of nature, there was no governing power to control the people. Meaning, the people could do anything they wish to do. However, since all the people could do anything that they wanted, they would have to compete with other people if there were conflict of interest. Hobbes also wrote that “every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it” continued by “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself”. This was his way of changing the state of nature into a civil government.

            Several philosophers followed Hobbes in defining their own version of the state of nature; there were John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Rousseau and David Hume. Each philosopher gave their definition of the state of nature in their respective books.

            John Locke, widely known as Father of Liberalism, he wrote about the state of nature in his book Second treatise on Civil Government written during the 1680s. He said that “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it”, and that law was a reason. He added that reason teaches that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions”; and that anyone violating any of this may be punished. His personal view of the state of nature was mainly because of his Christian faith. Moreover, the reason we may not harm another is that we are all the possessions of God and do not own ourselves.

            On the other hand, Montesquieu used the concept of the state of nature in his book Spirit of the Laws published during 1748. He argued that the initial proposition of the state of nature and its laws were antecedents of the Civil Society that the Positive Law also created. His political philosophy was enormously influential upon the thinking of the U.S. founding fathers that cited him more than any other political philosopher.

            Just like his argument on the theory of natural man, Rousseau also challenged Hobbes’ view of the state of nature. Rousseau claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of the society in which they were raised. He affirmed that people were neither good nor bad. Men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their bad habits were the products of civilization. Nevertheless the conditions of nature forced people to enter a state of society by establishing a civil society.

            Lastly, David Hume, a Scottish philosopher who influenced the development of skepticism and empiricism. He wrote in his book, A Treatise of Human Nature, written in 1739 that human beings were naturally sociable. He said that “Tis utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition, which precedes society; but that his very first state and situation may justly be esteem’d social. This, however, hinders not, but that philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the suppos’d state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never cou’d have any reality.” He was trying to say that the shift from the state of nature to civil society was inevitable.  Changes such as creation of Laws and the continuous intellectual improvement of men could be some of the factors that affected this transition.

            The philosophers were not only inclined to have their own definition of the concept state of nature, some of them even influenced the creation of the concept natural rights theories which played a major factor in creating a government in the political and civil society.

            Thomas Hobbes’ conception of natural rights extended from his conception of man in a state of nature. He argued in his book Leviathan that natural rights of man was “to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own judgement, and Reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” What is he trying to arrived at was that denying this right was just absurd to expect carnivores might reject meat or fish stop swimming.

            He also differentiated natural “liberties” from natural “laws”. He mentioned in his book Leviathan that liberties describes as “a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving his life; and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may best be preserved.”

            Hobbes believed that having too much liberty was highly undesirable. He argued that the world would be at chaos causing human life to be solitary, poor and short. Thus, he formulated another theory in order for other humans, who wish to live peacefully should give up most of their natural rights and create moral obligations, to establish political and civil society. This is one of the earliest formulations of the theory of government known as the social contract.

He also wrote in Leviathan that the state of nature where man’s life was consisted entirely with of liberties and no laws, he wrote that “It followeth, that in such a condition, every man has the right to every thing; even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural Right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man… of living out the time, which Nature ordinarily allows men to live.”

            In addition to Hobbes’ point of view, he thinks that once a civil government is instituted, the state of nature would disappear between individuals because of the civil power which exists to enforce contracts. Between nations, however, no such power currently exists and therefore nations have the same rights to preserve themselves – including making war – as individuals possessed.

On the other hand, John Locke conceptualized the rights as natural and unalienable. He said that man’s natural rights were life, liberty and property.

            With the philosophers creating the blue print in building a nation, several American writers attempted to create the U.S History when the nation gained independence in the 1800s. A lot of the histories of America from the early and mid-1800s achieved additional drama through their authors’ interpretations of the growing greatness of the nation.

            Several early American writers include Samuel Miller, Mercy Otis Warren, George Bancroft, Washington Irving, Zebulon Pike, Ralph Emerson, and James Cooper among others. Moreover, George Bancroft was regarded as the Father of American History while James Cooper was regarded as the first true American Novelist.

            James Fennimore Cooper was born in 1789, his favorite subject for writing his novels were American Revolution and Romance. All the novels of the first period of Cooper’s literary career during 1820 to 1828 were as experimental as the first two. Three novels dealt with the frontier and Native American life such as The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Prairie while the other three dealt with the sea with titles The Pilot, The Red Rover, and The Water Witch and lastly three with American history with The Spy, Lionel Lincoln, and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.

            James Cooper’s novels were written in such a way that his novels should be appropriate in open society. Thus, his novels included the core of the “American problem” which was how the original trio of “unalienable rights” – life, liberty, and property could be applied to a society in which the right of the Native American possessors of the land were denied by the civilized conqueror who took it from them for his own profit, thus defying the basic Christian ethic of individual integrity and brotherly love?

            His famous masterpieces were the five Leatherstocking series with titles The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). It featured the fictional character Natty Bumpo, the resourceful woodsman living with the Delaware Indians. Natty Bumpo or Leather-Stocking as he was called in the series as a whole was neither the “natural man” nor the “civilized man” of European theorists such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau; he was the American individualist who was creating a new society by a code of personal fulfillment under sound moral self-guidance, improvising as he went along. In The Pioneers, Natty was an irritable man whose gift was his ability to argue his rights with both Indian John and Judge Temple. On the other hand, The Last of the Mohicans, Natty was younger and the romantic story line took over, making it the most popular of all Cooper’s novels. However, In the Prairie, Natty in his last days became a tragic figure driven west, into the setting sun, in a search for his ideal way of life. To most of Cooper’s readers these stories were pure romances of adventure, and their social significance was easily overlooked. After thirteen years of hiatus from writing the Leather-stocking series, he wrote the other two chapters in the life of Natty Bumpo. The Pathfinder, in which Cooper used his own experiences on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812, and The Deerslayer, which filled the young manhood of his hero.

            However, not all other novelists or essayists praised Cooper’s novels. In fact, Mark Twain wrote an essay, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses in 1895, he particularly criticized The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder. He wrote that “In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record because Twain listed 19 rules of “governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction”, 18 of which Cooper violates in The Deerslayer”

            In addition, James Lowell, an American poet and essayist, wrote in his work, a fable for critics, He said that James Cooper had undemocratic class consciousness and tended to give limitations to his female characters. He wrote “And the women he draws from one model don’t vary, / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie”

            However, some may not notice but all Cooper’s fictions reflected his concern to educate his audience in the requirements of democracy. Though he could be oppressively schoolmasterish at times, but his characters including women were often more richly developed than was usually recognized. The novels also constituted a record of American life and society and at their best present richness, depth, and complexity that was unsurpassed in American fiction. This was Cooper’s opinion regarding political liberty written in one of his works,

“Individuality is the aim of political liberty. By leaving to the citizen as much freedom of action and of being, as comports with order and the rights of others, the institutions render him truly a freeman. He is left to pursue his means of happiness in his own manner.”

REFERENCES: “James Fenimore Cooper” Answers corp., Web. August 8, 2010

Reid, Margaret. “American Literature: Prose.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.

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Wikipedia. “John Locke” July 30, 2010. Web.

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Wikipedia. “Natural and Legal Rights” August 4, 2010. Web. August 8, 2010.

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Wikipedia. “Thomas Hobbes” August 7, 2010. Web., August 8, 2010