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The State of War

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If it were true that this unlimited and ungovernable greed would be developed
in every man to the degree our sophist supposes, it would still not produce
that state of universal war of each against all, the hideous picture of which
Hobbes dares to draw.

This unchecked desire to appropriate everything for oneself is incompatible


with that of destroying all one's fellows; and the conqueror, who, having killed
everyone, would have the misfortune to remain alone in the world, would
enjoy nothing of it for the very reason that he did possess everything. What is
wealth itself good for, if not to be communicated? What use will possession of
the whole universe be to him, if he is the only inhabitant of it? What? Will his
stomach devour all the fruits of the earth? Who will bring him all the products
of every region? Who will tell him about his rule over the vast solitudes which
he will not inhabit? What will he do with his treasures? Who will consume his
provisions? In whose eyes will he display his power? I understand. Instead of
massacring everyone he will put them all in chains, so that at least he has
slaves. That immediately changes the nature of the question; and since it is no
longer a matter of destruction, the state of war is abolished . . .

Man is naturally peaceful and fearful; at the slightest danger his first instinct is
to flee; he only becomes warlike through force of habit and experience.
However, self-interest, prejudices, revenge, all the passions which can make
him brave perils and death, are far from him in the state of nature. It is only
when he has made society with some man that he decides to attack another;
he only becomes a soldier after he has been a citizen . . .

There is therefore no general war of man against man; and the human race
was not formed solely to destroy itself . . . If natural law was only written in
human reason it would be little capable of directing most of our actions, but it
is rather engraved in the heart of man in ineffaceable characters and there it
speaks to him more strongly than all the precepts of philosophers. There it
cries out to him that he is not allowed to sacrifice the life of his fellow-man for
the preservation of his own, and it makes him horrified to spill human blood
without [being carried away by] anger, even when he sees himself obliged to
do so . . . There can have been fights and murders, but never, or very rarely,
long hostilities or wars . . . There is no war between men; there is only war
between states . . .

Man has a period of strength and greatness fixed by nature, which he cannot
pass. However he thinks of it, he finds all his faculties limited. His life is short,
his years are finite. His stomach does not grow with his wealth; his passions
increase in vain; his pleasures have their measure; his heart is like all the rest;
his capacity for enjoyment is always the same. In vain does he have an
elevated idea of himself, he always remains small.

The state on the other hand, being an artificial body, has no determined
measure; it has no definite size suitable to it, it can always increase; it feels
itself to be weak when there are stronger states than itself. Its security and its
preservation demand that it makes itself more powerful than all its neighbours.
It can only augment, nourish and exercise its strength at their expense . . .
The inequality of men has limits set down by the hands of nature, but that of
societies can grow constantly, until one alone absorbs all the others . . .

People have worked hard to reverse the true ideas of things. Everything leads
natural man to rest; to eat and sleep are the only needs he knows; and only
hunger overcomes his laziness. Out of this he has been made into a madman,
always ready to torment his fellows by passions which he does not know.
These passions do not exist there; on the contrary, they are aroused in the
midst of society by everything which can inflame them. Thousands of writers
have dared to say that the body politic is without passions and it has no reason
to be, except reason itself. As if we did not see the opposite: that the essence
of society consists in the activity of its members and that a state without
movement would be a dead body . . .

I open the books on right and morality, I listen to the scholars and jurists, and
moved by their persuasive words I deplore the miseries of nature. I admire the
peace and justice established by the civil order, I bless the wisdom of public
institutions and console myself for being a man by seeing myself as a citizen.
Well instructed in my duties and my happiness I close the book, leave the
classroom and look around me. I see wretched peoples groaning beneath a
yoke of iron, the human race crushed by a handful of oppressors; a starving
crowd, overwhelmed by hunger and suffering, their blood and their tears being
drunk by the rich, and everywhere the strong armed against the weak by the
terrible power of the laws . . .

I raise my eyes and look in the distance. I see fire and flames, the countryside
deserted, towns ransacked ... I hear a terrifying noise. What a tumult! What
cries! I approach them. I see a scene of murder, ten thousand men
slaughtered, the dead piled up in heaps, the dying trampled underfoot by
horse, everywhere the image of death and agony. This then is the outcome of
these peaceful institutions!

What man is there whose very entrails would not be moved by these sad
sights? But it is no longer permitted to be a man and plead the cause of
humanity. Justice and truth must give way before the interest of the most
powerful; that is the rule . . .

Who could have imagined without trembling the mad system of the natural war
of each against all? What strange animal is it who would think his good
attached to the destruction of his whole species! And how could anyone
imagine that such a monstrous and detestable species could last more than
two generations? This is where the desire, or rather the fury, to establish
despotism and passive obedience have led one of the finest geniuses 1 who has
lived . . .

I have already said, and I cannot repeat too often, that the mistake of Hobbes
and the philosophers is to confuse natural man with men whom they have in
front of them, and to transpose into one system a being who can only survive
in another. Man wishes his well-being and all that can contribute to it. That is
indisputable. But this well-being of man is naturally limited to physical need;
when he has a healthy soul and his body does not suffer, what does he lack to
be happy according to his constitution?

He who has nothing desires few things. He who commands no one has little
ambition. But superfluity awakens greed; the more you get, the more you
want. He who has much wants everything . . . This is the course of nature, this
is the development of the passions. A superficial philosopher observes souls
refashioned a hundred times, fermented in society, and believes he has
observed men. But to know man well you have to be able to unravel the
natural gradations of his feelings. It is not among the inhabitants of a great
city that we must look for the first features of nature in their imprint on the
human heart.

So this analytic method produces only horrors and mysteries, where the wisest
understand the least . . . They only know what they see and they have never
seen nature. They know very well what is a bourgeois of London or Paris, but
they will never know what is a man.

1 Although Rousseau disagreed radically with Hobbes' view of man, and detested his defence of absolutism,
he admired his ability. It is probable that he owed some elements of his own concept of sovereignty and of
the artificial nature of political society to his reading of Hobbes