31. The State of Nature & The Social Contract [QP]

Before the world was politicised in that primordial state just before socialisation, man was free. But was freedom what man needed? The answer to this question is dependent upon your interpretation of human nature. For eons, religions have functioned as a regulative measure to attenuate our baser instincts (murder, theft, rape), but what if we are aiming for a secular solution? What are the characteristics of the State of Nature,a period directly before civilisation and society? John Locke (1632-1704) provides an apt description:

“[The] state all men are naturally in, is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and to dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” – John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (3)

This may sound like a direct plagiarism from the Anarchist’s cookbook, but in reality, it quite rightly assumes that men under no societal or cultural constraints have immense freedom to control their own lives. We are reminded that how we to respond to this state of nature,is purely dependent on our interpretation of human nature. One may believe that men in this state are “noble savages” as Rousseau claimed, but that doesn’t stop people from harnessing what power they have to kill whomever they want and take whatever they want. What if, in return for our natural liberty we might gain security from laws which are for our mutual benefit. This is where the Social Contract comes in handy, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau might help us understand what it entails:

“By substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked…in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature…What [he] loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. Man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (36)

In this transaction, man trades his selfish and violent freedom for an all-inclusive, non-excludable freedom. We enter into a social contract with any state, the instant that we begin to acknowledge the laws which they have designed for us. The power of democracy surges through the veins of a well-operated state, which exists due to our collective agreement to sell what we don’t need to be able to buy what we do need. Might almost certainly does not make right. In the social contract, which freed us from the state of nature, paradoxically, we become freer when we are not. Rousseau perfectly captures this notion in the first page of The Social Contract (1762):

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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