In the Second Discourse, Rousseau founds many of his arguments in opposition to Hobbes’ arguments about the state of nature. However, both of their concepts on the state of nature are based on completely different grounds. Rousseau also has a naïve interpretation of Hobbes’ natural man, which serves the theory that Rousseau did not fully understand Hobbes.
Firstly, while Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s arguments are founded in their perception of the state of nature, their presuppositions on what the state of nature actually is are radically different. For Rousseau, the state of nature can be interpreted literally, or as a period in time. His ‘nascent’ men are supposed to be actual human beings that lived within a specific time period of human evolution. This also implies, as Rousseau himself does, that humans today cannot revert to this ‘nascent’ state, and can only mimic it. Hobbes’ state of nature differs quite greatly, and not just because of moral principles. Hobbes’ state of nature, civil war, is not a period in time, nor has it ever actually existed. He argues that it is merely the point which men can potentially revert to in the absence of law and order. It is therefore impossible for Rousseau to base his arguments upon Hobbes’ when their definitions of the state of nature itself are different.
Secondly, Rousseau misinterprets Hobbes’ argument about men in the state of nature almost entirely. He states as follows, “Hobbes claims that man is naturally intrepid and seeks only to attack and fight” (82). The first problem with his interpretation comes with the use of the word intrepid. Intrepid is defined as someone who is fearless and adventurous, which is the opposite word Hobbes would use to describe his natural man. Hobbes’ natural man is actually in a perpetual state of fear, because without someone upholding peace, he cannot be assured that other people won’t kill him. Rousseau also thinks that Hobbes’ natural man seeks only to attack and fight, which is not the case either. Men merely do not see any constraint on killing one another, but are not naturally inclined towards homicide.
While there are many more references to Hobbes in Second Discourse, there is a clear issue with Rousseau’s critique of Hobbes. These two issues highlight why Rousseau’s perception of the state of nature according to Hobbes should be interpreted with skepticism.