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The Economy of Pity

    A.  . . .
    B.  . . .
    C.  Rousseau thus comes to evoke the awakening of pity by the imagination—that is to say by representation and reflection—in the double but actually in the single sense of those words.  In the same chapter, he forbids us to think that before the actualisation of pity through imagination, man is wicked and bellicose.  Let us recall Starobinski's interpretation: "In the Essay, Rousseau does not admit the possibility of an unpremeditated burst of sympathy, and seems more inclined to sustain the Hobbesian idea of the war of all against all":

They were not bound by an idea of common brotherhood and, having no rule but that of force, they believed themselves each other's enemies.  . . .  An individual isolated on the face of the earth, at the mercy of mankind, is bound to be a ferocious animal.  [Essay, pp. 31-32]

    Rousseau does not say "they were each other's enemies" but "they believed themselves each other's enemies."  It seems to be that we have the right to, and indeed should, consider that nuance.  Primitive hostility comes out of a primitive illusion.  This first opinion is due to a misguided belief, born of isolation, feebleness, dereliction.  That it is only a simple opinion and already an illusion appears clearly in these three sentences that must not be overlooked:

. . . they believed themselves each other's enemies.  This belief was due to their weakness and ignorance.  Knowing nothing, they feared everything.  They attacked in self-defense.  An individual isolated on the face of the earth . . . [Essay, p. 32.  Italics added.]

    Ferocity is thus not bellicose but fearful.  Above all, it is incapable of declaring war.  It is the animal's characteristic ("ferocious animal"), the characteristic of the isolated being who, not having been awakened to pity by the imagination, does not yet participate in sociality or in humankind.  That animal, let us emphasise, "would be ready to do unto others all the evil that he feared from them.  Fear and weakness are the sources of cruelty" [Essay, p. 32.  Italics added].  Cruelty is not positive wickedness.  The disposition to do evil finds its resource only in the other, in the illusory representation of evil that the other seems disposed to do to me.
    Is this not already sufficient reason for setting aside the resemblance with the Hobbesian theory of a natural war that imagination and reason would merely organise into a sort of economy of aggressivity?  But Rousseau's text is even clearer.  In the Essay, the paragraph that occupies us comprises another proposition which forbids us to consider the moment of slumbering pity as the moment of bellicose wickedness, as a "Hobbesian" moment.  How in fact does Rousseau describe that moment (here at least it does not matter if it is real or mythic), the structural instance of slumbering pity?  What, according to him, is that moment when language, imagination, relation to death, etc., are still reserved?
    At that moment, he says, "he who has never been reflective is incapable of being merciful or just or pitying" [p. 32].  To be sure.  But that is not to say that he would be unjust and pitiless.  He is simply held short of that opposition of values.  For Rousseau follows up immediately: "He is just as incapable of being malicious and vindictive.  He who imagines nothing is aware only of himself; he is isolated in the midst of mankind" (ibid.).
    In that "state," the oppositions available in Hobbes have neither sense nor value.  The system of appreciation within which political philosophy moves, has as yet no chance to function.  And one thus sees more clearly within what (neutral, naked, and bare) element that system enters into play.  Here one may speak with indifference of goodness or badness, of peace or war: each time it will be as true as false, always irrelevant.  What Rousseau thus reveals is the neutral origin of all ethico-political conceptuality, its field of objectivity, and its axiological system.  All the oppositions that follow in the wake of the classical philosophy of history, culture, and society must therefore be neutralised.  Before this neutralisation, or this reduction, political philosophy proceeds within the naiveté of acquired and accidental evidence.  And it incessantly risks "the blunder made by those who, in reasoning on the state of nature, always import into it ideas gathered in a state of society" (Second Discourse, p. 146) [p. 174].
    The reduction that the Essay operates has a particular style.  Rousseau neutralises oppositions by erasing them; and he erases them by affirming contradictory values at the same time.  The procedure is used with coherence and firmness, precisely in Chapter 9:

This accounts for the apparent contradictions seen in the fathers of nations: so natural, and so inhuman; such ferocious behaviour and such tender hearts.  . . .  These barbaric times were a golden age, not because men were united, but because they were separated.  . . .  If you wish, men would attack each other when they met, but they rarely met.  A state of war prevailed universally, and the entire earth was at peace [p.33]. 1

    To privilege one of the two terms, to believe that only a state of war actually existed, was the Hobbesian error that strangely "redoubles" the illusory "opinion" of the first "men" who "believed they were enemies of each other."  Again no difference between Essay and Discourse.  The reduction operating within the Essay will be confirmed in the Discourse, precisely in the course of a critique of Hobbes.  What is reproached in Hobbes is precisely that he concludes too quickly that men were neither naturally awakened to pity, nor "bound by any idea of common fraternity," that they were therefore wicked and bellicose.  We cannot read the Essay as Hobbes might have hastily interpreted it.  We cannot conclude wickedness from nongoodness.  The Essay says it and the Discourse confirms it, if we assume that the latter comes after the former:

Above all, let us not conclude, with Hobbes, that because man has no idea of goodness, he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue.  . . .  Hobbes did not reflect that the same cause, which prevents a savage from making use of his reason, as our jurists hold, prevents him also from abusing his faculties, as Hobbes himself allows: so that it may be justly said that savages are not bad merely because they do not know what it is to be good: for it is neither the development of the understanding nor the restraint of law that hinders them from doing ill; but the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice: tanto plus in illis proficit vitiorum ignoratio, quam in his cognitio virtutis. 2


    1.  The Essay allows us to believe as little in original war as in the Golden Age.  From these two points of view, the Essay matches the great Rousseauist theses.  In the Geneva manuscript (the first version of The Social Contract, dating from 1756), Rousseau writes that "the golden age was always a condition alien to the human race."

    2.  Pages 153-54 [pp. 181-82; Cole's note: Justin, Hist. ii, 2.  So much more does the ignorance of vice profit the one sort than the knowledge of virtue the other.]  Cf. also p. 152 and the fragment on L'état de nature: "As long as men retained their first innocence, they needed no guide other than the voice of Nature; as long as they did not become evil, they were dispensed from being good" ([Pléiade, vol. 3,] p. 476).