The Rise and Fall of Species-Life

AuthorGeoffrey Gershenson
Published date01 July 2006
Date01 July 2006
Subject MatterArticles
The Rise and Fall of Species-Life
Rousseau’s Critique of Liberalism
Geoffrey Gershenson McGill University, Canada
abstract: Rousseau’s founding critique of liberalism, the Discourse on the Origin
of Inequality, takes the ambiguous form of a sweeping myth of civilization. Political
theorists usually interpret the myth by reading it as a tale of passage from
primordial nature to civil society, but what happens when we privilege another of
the essay’s organizing devices, its symbolic depiction of the history of the species as
the life of an individual? Interpreted through this metaphor, Rousseau’s myth
becomes a charged tale of a ‘life’ gone wrong, one that sheds interesting light on
his critique of bourgeois society and selfhood.
key words: gender, history, liberalism, metaphor, nature, property, psychoanalysis,
republicanism, selfhood, sexuality
Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) delivers the founding
critique of liberalism, but the form of the essay – a mythical history of the human
species – renders it an elusive and perplexing point of origin. Sweeping and
contradictory in its movements, the myth permits diverse and conflicting inter-
pretations of its meaning. Among political theorists, the tendency is to read the
Second Discourse as a tale of passage from the state of nature to civil society. That
perspective helps to place Rousseau in the context of Hobbes, Locke, and early
modern political philosophy, but it overlooks the significance of another of the
essay’s major tropes: its metaphorical comparison of the history of the species to
an individual life. According to this metaphor, history takes the shape of a ‘life’
divided by ‘ages’, each of which has corrupted the species and constituted the
present crisis. Can this metaphor illuminate the meaning and character of
Rousseau’s critique? This article proposes to find out, interpreting Rousseau’s
opposition to liberal modernity in the Second Discourse through its ages-of-life
Interpreters agree that the Second Discourse marks an important turn in the
history of political thought. Launching an attack against market society and
possessive individualism, Rousseau breaks with the liberal tradition of Locke and
Contact address: Geoffrey Gershenson, McGill University, 3715 Peel St, CDAS, Room
216, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X1, Canada.
European Journal
of Political Theory
© SAGE Publications Ltd,
London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi
issn 1474-8851, 5(3)281–300
[DOI: 10.1177/1474885106064662]
paves the way for Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. But the ambiguity of the essay’s
form ensures that much else about the Second Discourse remains unclear. A sweep-
ing myth of human history that mostly speculates on the course of pre-history, the
essay returns to a deep past buried by successive layers of culture and lost to collec-
tive memory. Rousseau proposes to retrieve that past through a myth of origins,1
but the open-ended nature of the myth creates uncertainty about the meaning of its
critique. Interpreters can take different sides on any number of basic questions,
including the truth-status of the text (does it deliver universal truths about the
human condition or is it a historically specific allegory of bourgeois culture?), the
scope of its dissent (is it an attack on all societies or the market society in par-
ticular?), the ideal it means to uphold (the solitary life in nature, the pre-political
community, the civic republic, or some combination of the three?), and the politics
of transformation it implies (personal and moral reform, social and political revo-
lution, or stoic acceptance?).
Perplexity about the meaning of Rousseau’s myth also stems from its complex
trajectory, which depicts historical decline taking place dialectically, with positive
and negative historical moments alternating across a succession of phases.2No
logic of historical causality seems to capture the dialectical movements as a whole,
leading to the suspicion that the trajectory of Rousseau’s myth is driven by an
allegorical or conceptual logic more than a historical sociological one. But if
Rousseau means to offer an allegory or theory rather than a history of corruption,
the narrative thread that organizes the essay’s historical particulars into a concep-
tual totality remains obscure.
One can, of course, rely on the narrative thread provided by Rousseau’s con-
trast between the state of nature and civil society. Rousseau first splits the state of
nature into two, depicting the natural history of the species as a journey from
pre-social innocence to a second, social state of nature that culminates in the
horrors of market society. That paves the way for a second passage, this one from
the second state of nature to civil or political society, the society of laws and gov-
ernment. This threefold sequence of original nature, second nature, and civil
society allows Rousseau to articulate three corresponding ideas basic to his wider
vision: the original goodness of nature, the corruption by society (perhaps the
central idea of part 2), and the politics of virtue. Each is central to his legacy: the
preoccupation with the goodness of pre-social nature, with its concern for the
vitality of feeling beneath reason, paves the way for Romanticism and psycho-
analysis;3the notion that society corrupts prepares the ground for Marx and
19th-century critiques of capitalism,4and the politics of virtue inspires Kantian
ethics and revolutionary strands of republican thought.5
This article traces the narrative thread provided by that other trope at the
center of the Second Discourse, its metaphorical depiction of the course of history
as an individual life divisible by ages. Rousseau certainly did not invent the ages-
of-life or ages-of-man metaphor, which recurs through classical and modern
poetry, philosophy, and historiography from Hesiod to Augustine to the early
European Journal of Political Theory 5(3)

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