The Primitive State Of Man Vs. The Modern State Of Man Essay, Research Paper
The Primitive State of Man vs. The Modern State of Man: From Grunts to Gregorian Chants
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his discourse on the origin of inequality begins a new transition in philosophy regarding the natural laws and state of man. The question of our own existence and awareness as described by Descartes, Hobbes, and Hume now takes a bit of a turn as Rousseau begins to discuss his ideas on what might have been the original state of man during a primitive era. Distinguishing between modern and primitive man is a starting point for Rousseau where with the labeling of the two classes he can begin, and perhaps even remove himself from the world he is part of and hypothetically take on the identity of another to help with his argument.
Primitive man, usually thought of as savage and beast-like by modern men, lived in a very different world filled with constant struggle and uncertainty. Our ancestors of ancient times lived at the mercy of nature where natural selection, the survival of the fittest, took place unavoidably. Children were raised in very different ways that those of today where they took on the foundations and character of their parents and then strengthened these traits creating a stronger drive that will get passed along to the next generation. With this type of human interaction one can see that only the strong survive, creating a human race dependent upon only what their body will allow them to do. They knew of no tools or machines to assist them in their activities of human survival. However, with this utter reliance upon their bodies to achieve any goal, one can imagine the strength these people must have possessed to continue living.
Rousseau speaks of modern man surrounded by tools and machines to aid them in what otherwise would be a ruthless struggle for survival. The creation of government and society allowed for more interaction among men, and a civility where even the weak were able to prosper as the stronger paved the way to an easier, more luxurious life. Men, although still at the mercy of nature, were more prepared and better protected than their ancestors from mother nature.
However, with the creation of the tool, modern man also lost agility and the ability to survive without it. Take modern man and put him back into the environment from which he came, without tools and machines, most would perish. There is an obvious advantage that can be seen here in having all of one s forces ready for any event that may transpire. This is an important deduction about the state of primitive man that will be used to discuss the natural laws by which he lives. The strength and force of primitive man is something that has been taken for granted as modern man creates an image of a naked ferocious beast living in trees incapable of developing or attaining any type of intelligence or progress. However, Rousseau offers a different image where, although rugged and uncivilized, primitive man did possess skills and enough intelligence to learn from experiences. Primitive man when placed against a wild animal would have probably proved to be that animal s equal as his skill surpassed the beast s strength. With this skill man was able to choose his battles as there were always two alternatives: run or fight. Modern man in his habituation to society has become weak and dependent upon technique outside of his bare hands. (Rousseau, 43)
Even with this knowledge regarding the life of primitive man, modern men still refer to their ancestors as degenerate and refuse to see them as anything other than savages. Ironically our own reduction, which is seemingly less obvious, contains an implied absence that binds us to the tool and other people versus the implied presence primitive men had from reliance upon only themselves. Using personal technique as primitive man did to accomplish things brought about a satisfying quality that gave a feeling of self-worth, a presence. During these prehistoric times there was hardly a great variety of means for attaining something desired, and what modern men find odd is that there was hardly any attempt to correct this for quite some time. Emphasis was rather on the application of the old means, which, with the arousal of a new need, were extended, refined, and perfected. Perhaps people were content with their inefficiencies due to this implied presence. Furthermore, this presence was responsible for the maximum efficiency of man s talents. It was the technique of skilled know-how that counted, and had none of the characteristics of the instrumental technique we know today. (Ellul, 67, 68)
It would be delusional to think that because modern man no longer needs to climb trees for safety and seems to have broken through the prohibitions of primitive times, that we are free. Modern man instead is now bound by the confines of his social structure and technological civilization (Ellul, 320). As primitive man progressed into the social creature he is today, more weaknesses besides medical conditions and age (too young or too old) were incorporated into society. Illnesses and other sicknesses were a product of modern man and the extreme inequality located within this social structure incubated these problems. Primitive man did not know of comforts, sophisticated or spoiled foods, excesses of various kinds, mental exhaustion, depression and other mental anguishes. Rousseau explains that these perils are our own doing and would have been avoided had man abided by the solitary lifestyle prescribed to him by nature. Rousseau s point is most certainly evident where the ills of society such as our technological addictions and inescapable diseases that plague modern man are cruxes to his theme even more so today in the 20th century then during his time. (Rousseau, 42)
After his discussion on the physical state of man Rousseau takes a turn in his discourse to the metaphysics and moral state of primitive man. When compared to animals, wild or domesticated, man, more often than not, is able to contribute and control his own actions. The animals to which he is compared do not possess such control and their operations and actions are controlled instinctual. Some philosophers have stated that there is perhaps more difference between a man and another man, than between man and animal. It is not so much the fact that man is smarter or more skillful than the animals that distinguishes them then, but rather the fact that has just been mentioned. Having this free will and the power to know what your instincts are enable man to choose your own path regardless of what your intuition tells you to do in various circumstances. Animals have no choice but to obey what nature has told them to do; man feels the same stimulus, but knows he does not have to comply. (Rousseau, 45)
The needs of primitive man, combined with the power to overcome instinct are the roots of passion. Man can only desire and fear the things that they know or have ideas about, where without these passions why would man bother to reason in the first place? Rousseau explains that we seek to know only because we desire to find enjoyment. With our search for the things that bring about enjoyment, knowledge is obtained as man remembers the things he likes and also the things he does not like. Our passions are able to progress with this knowledge further separating primitive man from the beasts to which he is oftentimes compared. In fact, Rousseau believes that with this knowledge eventually the horrors of death come about, for animals, like humans, are capable of feeling pain, but do not know what it means to die. He explains that knowledge of death is one of the first major steps man makes in his withdrawing from the animal condition. However, for primitive man to attain such knowledge will take much more understanding of the world around him, for his means to find his enjoyment are still easily found at hand. Because of this he remains far from the degree of knowledge he needs to understand what curiosity and foresight which are in essence the building blocks to attain more knowledge. (Rousseau, 46)
The sarcastic tone of Rousseau clearly becomes evident as he discusses how primitive man was ever able to overcome such huge obstacles and gaps to turn into a social creature. Because of the lack of these building blocks, that is lacking curiosity and foresight, and knowing only whether something is only good or bad, Rousseau questions how man was able to cross such a wide gap to the being he is today without language or the frustration necessity. He argues that it had to have taken centuries before man was able to reproduce the fire sent from the sky, never mind know the consequences and applications it could bring. And even if one of them figured it out, his technique died along with him. (Rousseau, 47)
The problem of language then comes into question in that for modern man to evolve, or devolve (ultimately change into something else) into the social creature he is today he must have most certainly developed language out of a necessity to communicate with one another. A prerequisite of being social one would argue is that communication must take place. Rousseau explains that it language had to have been a result of primitive man coming together in a social manner. Using hand gestures and grunts man was able to create a means to show what the other was talking about. However, these grunts and hand gestures could only represent present objects and things that were in their possession. However, this type of communication was something that required attention rather than stimulate it and so men began to replace gestures with verbalization. The substitution of hand gestures to voice articulation could only come about by consent of two or more people and in a very difficult manner. To say that primitive man who was rationally inept was able to come up with a motive to form this consent without the use of language seems rather impossible. Rousseau points out that in order for this to take place it appears to be necessary in order to establish speech, speech was actually needed. (Rousseau, 50)
Primitive man, it could be inferred, perhaps had as their first words an expression that had a much broader definition than the words modern man finds in languages that are already formed. They did not have the breakup of their language as we do with ours in that they knew nothing of verbs and nouns but instead could have given each word a meaning we would have to say in a complete sentence. At first each object individually received it s own name without regard to a division of a kingdom or even a species. Every oak tree was given a different name for when defining two things, even though they may have similar qualities, it is easier at first to note the differences. What things have in common come later as they are usually harder to depict. Rousseau goes on to explain the utter hardships these primitive men must have had in order to take their language further. He speaks of ideas and forms and how every idea is purely intellectual. A monkey assuredly is unable to distinguish one archetype of a nut, to the archetype of another nut when the nut belongs to the very same species. He explains that the least involvement of the imagination, the very action of doing just that, makes the idea particular. He gives us the example of drawing a general tree and how, in spite of our own biasness, drawing what one sees in every tree would ultimately lead to a drawing that looks anything but a tree. Abstract things are perceived equally or envisioned only through the means of language. Rousseau concludes these thoughts on language by explaining that primitive man could never have imagined or even understood words like being, mind, figure, and movement when we as modern man who has vocalized communication and has been using such terminology for centuries do not fully understand them ourselves. These words could never be found in the state of primitive man for they are purely metaphysical. (Rousseau, 51)
Rousseau believes that in order for this gap, that is taking gestures to vocalizations, and then those primitive vocalizations to form the complex language of today a trait of primitive man must have been innately present. Much like the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, Rousseau asks was an already formed society needed in order to invent language, or, was an already invented language needed for the establishment of a society? (Rousseau, 51)
Nature clearly offered anything but a paved way for man to come together through mutual needs, did not offer any help in the establishment of speech, and did not, could not in her very essence prepare primitive man to become habituated to the social structure we know today. One can also note that it s almost ignorant to think man would have greater need for another man more so than any other beast of its time. Even if this need were present, how would one man induce motive in the other to help? Modern man continually speaks of how wretched his ancestors were, ironically, as we have already discussed the free nature and being, not to mention physical health these men possessed.
Perhaps what scares modern man most about primitive man was the fact that they were at the mercy of nature and had control only over themselves. Although they have always been able to sustain themselves, they still live by the whims of nature. Modern culture assumes control of such beast-like behavior and goes about collecting and hunting, ultimately preparing for what nature might have in store. Modern culture puts life into its own hands, whereas primitive culture stays at the mercy of something higher.
Rousseau s opinion here on the case of who s better off would most certainly be primitive man. Thinking about the chaos in the modern world one could also think of whether or not modern man was even needed to dominate the world, or whether man was needed at all. Perhaps the key error of philosophers including Hobbes and Descartes was that they believed that humans were superior to everything else. Here Rousseau, although still considering primitive man to be somewhat superior regarding other animals, brings man down to the mercy of nature. One can get the impression from Rousseau that he believed that perhaps the world wasn t made for man, but man was made for the world. Modern Man conceivably was not even needed to bring about order, and as one can see probably ensued more chaos than anything else. The natural or original state of primitive man is undoubtedly a way of life from which we should educate ourselves rather than ridicule.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage Books, New York; 1964.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. Hackett Publishing
Company, Cambridge; 1987.