On Nature and Natural Law

Note 5: Rousseau's Prescription for Human Origins. 3/23/99

Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men, has fashioned a perception of human origins that touches equally on a number of primary concepts that have always defined Judeo-Christian traditions associated with European versions of logocentric discourse. These several elements are: a belief that the world was created by God, that God's creative power is centered in the strength of His voice alone, that there is a natural, God-ordained hierarchy that arranges everything in the universe in a fixed scale running from highest to lowest, that this necessary stratification of created reality both implicitly and explicitly demonstrates a value-laden structure that places all objects and subjects in a descending order of best to worst, good to evil, right to wrong, and so forth. God's judgment, of course, is the final authority for deciding precisely where anything in the world should be placed in the structure of values. This idea, in turn, gives rise to the notion that certain chosen human agents are free to act on God's behalf to assign various objects and people to their rightful place in the great chain of being.

In his Essay on the Origin of Languages, Rousseau makes the claim that God was the initial source of human speech: "Adam spoke, Noah spoke; but it is known that Adam was taught by God Himself. In scattering, the children of Noah abandoned agriculture, and the common tongue perished with the first society. That had happened before there was any Tower of Babel." This same idea is put in a different way in the Discourse on Inequality when Rousseau argues that man never existed in a state of pure nature because "it is clear from the Holy Scriptures that the first man, having received his understanding and commandments immediately from God" was never forced by natural circumstances to develop language or any other social art on his own. The notion that the language of God (the Logos), which (wo)man originally knew, was lost to human culture because the children of Noah willfully abandoned it plays back into the idea that (wo)man is essentially sinful and incapable of keeping the best things that God has to offer. Rousseau reinforces this idea and expands its sense to include the concept of natural hierarchy when he notes that "Religion commands us to believe that, God Himself having taken men out of a state of nature immediately after the creation, they are unequal only because it is His will they should be so." Trading on the notion that God's act of creation itself is the cause of inequality among men, as the Judeo-Christian tradition has always done, stamps the coin of that idea with an inevitability that renders it a sin, a profound disobedience to God's will, to seek any other social condition except the one that exists in a state of determined hierarchy.

This idea, of course, is ideological through and through, in the sense that a belief of this kind has always been used by the dominant class of every Christian society to impose and maintain a social class structure that places some elements of society above every other element in the culture. Depending on how much resistance there is among the lower classes and members of the society to remain in the position imposed on them by their overlords, some amount of force and coercion is always required to maintain the balance of the social structure. This is true because in virtually every case where a few privileged people are given power over many underprivileged individuals an inevitable process of exploitation also arises and exists in societies that are socially stratified.

Rousseau, of course, did not invent this idea or this complex of interrelated perceptions of social reality. Chaucer's Parson, in the Canterbury Tales, articulates this concept as clearly as it can be said 350 years before Rousseau got around to repeating it for members of his own sociohistorical milieu who might have forgotten how it worked. The Parson argues, as Rousseau does, that God Himself ordained that some people should be held or kept in higher estate and degree than the others who occupy a lower status or class:"But certes, sith the time of grace cam, God ordeyned that som folk sholde be moore heigh in estaat and in degree, and som folk moore lough, and that everich sholde be served in his estaat and in his degree" (X.770). The idea of being "served" in one's natural estate or degree means simply that people should be treated by everyone around them in precisely the way that social convention demands. It would be just as sinful for a nobleman to treat a serf as an equal as it would be for a serf to treat his master as he would another churl. Social conventions were held and maintained in both directions in the Middle Ages and people were judged both coming and going, as it were, by how well and properly they maintained their respective status on all sides of the social structure.

The Parson goes on to clarify some of the more important issues of the social contract of the Middle Ages by using as his primary example the way in which the Pope was perceived in society. This is only natural, of course, because for any cleric in the fourteenth century the Supreme Pontiff occupied the highest status any human being could achieve. The Pope was the Vicar of Christ and vicariously represented the Savior in all aspects of His mythical being on the earth. The Parson says that

"The Pope calleth hymself servant of the servantz of God; but for as much as the estaat of hooly chirche ne myghte nat han be, ne the commune profit myghte nat han be kept, ne pees and rest in erthe, but if God hadde ordeyned that som men hadde hyer degree and som men lower, therfore was sovereyntee ordeyned, to kepe and mayntene and deffenden hire underlynges or hire subgetz in resoun, as ferforth as it lith in hire power, and nat to destroyen hem ne confounde." (X.770-774)

A problem with reading this passage exists because of the convention of double negatives in Middle English usage. The point of the three double-negative statements here, and their resolution in a rhetorical sense, is the statement that, if God had not ordained the higher and lower degrees of human reality in the structure of society, then there would be no church at all ("the estaat of hooly chirche ne myghte nat han be"), the "commune profit" (all good to those who deserve it and all ill to those who do not) could not and would not be kept in place, and finally, there would be no peace and no rest for anyone anywhere on the earth. By ordaining that some men exist in a "hyer degree" than others, God also insists that the fortunate ones must keep, maintain, and defend those who fall under their power and control to the best of their ability and do nothing that might destroy or confound them. Anyone who violates these rules and conventions of behavior, according to the Parson, will be suitably punished in the afterlife by having exactly the amount of mercy shown to them by Christ at the last judgment as they have shown to their underlings during their lives (X.775).

A final observation relating to the ultimate depth of the reach that the hierarchy had in Rousseau's thought can be summarized in this statement: " we put an end to the time-honoured disputes concerning the participation of animals in natural law: for it is clear that, being destitute of intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognise that law." I include this statement here to create a point of departure for a brief discussion of the differences one encounters between the way Europeans perceive reality and the way native Americans see essentially the same world. If native Americans embraced the notion of hierarchy, in the first place, which only those of us who have fallen victim to Christian ideology (or false consciousness) have done, we would be inclined to place animals above human beings in the "great chain of being" for reasons that stand in diametrical opposition to the ones Rousseau gives here for placing them below (wo)man. The idea that animals are "destitute of intelligence and liberty" is a fact taken only after it has been assumed that animals are inferior to human beings. This is especially true in the context of "natural law," not as Rousseau uses that term because the meaning he assigns to it is always already determined by what logocentric discourse refers to as the Law of God, which is anything but natural, but rather in the context of the real states of nature where all animals meet and share space in an ecosystem and in a biosphere that sustains their lives together. Animal "intelligence and liberty" is characterized by a consistent refusal to violate the integrity of one's shared living space for the sake of material gain beyond what is absolutely necessary to sustain life. Native Americans, like all other intelligent and liberated animals that natural processes have brought into being, do not destroy their living space, and the space of their fellow creatures, for the sake of greed for material wealth--only European animals do that.

What native Americans know, that Europeans have not learned yet, is that animals become scarce when they are over-exploited. Our way of saying that is to refer to the fact that only (wo)man came into being so weak and pitiful that she/he had to kill other animals to survive. That fact leads to the idea that we must show deep and abiding respect to our brothers, the ones we hunt and kill for food, or they will become angry with us for our lack of respect and go into long periods of hiding, refusing, as it were, to allow us to hunt and kill them anymore. Put this way the idea has a form that is useful for explaining the reality of life to children. Why do we put it in these terms? Because it is best to teach the very young how to live decently rather than wait until they have become old enough to be corrupted by the false consciousness of people too stupid to live on the face of the earth without destroying everything in sight.

What this story actually says, and I feel utterly foolish thinking I have to explain it, is that if you are stupid enough to exhaust the forest where you live of all edible plants and animals, they will become more and more difficult to find because their numbers have been reduced by your uncontrollable greed. If you hunt them to extinction, and you depend on them for your own life, then you die. But Christian creationism sees a different picture. "God will provide." If you exhaust the New England fishery by refusing to exercise control over your greed, as fishermen there have already done, then God will speak the magic words, "Let there be fish," and the fish will come back so the fishermen can do it all over again. Guess what? That is not the way it works. It has never worked that way. It never will. There is only one thing left to say: learn that lesson or die.

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