Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jonathan Marks
Rousseau is notorious for elaborating two apparently contradictory accounts of human well-being: primitive, natural man (mislabled the noble savage) and the citizen (who is totally socialized or "denatured"). Most readers find both extremes impossible and undesirable. In his carefully argued book, Jonathan Marks suggests that Rousseau agrees.
Marks, a Carthage College professor of political science and philosophy, argues that what is best by nature for man according to Rousseau is a kind of balance of contradictory elements that is more productive of happiness than the bourgeois' conflicted existence—a "natural perfection of a naturally disharmonious being." He elaborates several such possibilities. In his Discourses, Rousseau calls the state of savage society, which has already developed far from the original state of nature, "the best state for mankind." In the Émile, an imaginary account of the best possible education for an ordinary man, he combines in a different way elements of individuality and independence with preparation for compassionate, dutiful participation in social life. And in The Social Contract, the citizens of a legitimate modern republic would likewise exemplify a balance of opposites, enjoying individual rights and spheres of activity alongside their dedication to the general will. In short, the perfection of man involves not impossible unity but happy balance.
This assessment is thorough and exceptionally fair-minded in its discussion of other interpreters of Rousseau. Marks recovers an analysis of liberalism's problems that is more radical and yet more balanced than modern communitarian approaches. He shows that Rousseau's rhetorical extremism, being in the service of moderation, is no political vice.
—James H. Nichols, Jr.
Claremont McKenna College
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This article appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books