IB EXTENDED ESSAY What is the validity of Rousseau’s “men in a state of nature” and education according to nature? What is the allure of these concepts? DISCIPLINE OF ESSAY: PHILOSOPHY
In literature and in history noble savages are often idealized as symbols of freedom , therefore obliging the concept of naturalistic fallacy (the belief that all that is natural is good). Caspar Hauser, a man who spent his entire childhood outside of human society, was later regarded as a prophet and idiot savant. In literature, the character of Queequeg, the protagonist’s cannibal friend, in Melville’s Moby Dick appears as a model of strength of character, nobility, and physical ability. In popular culture, Tarzan, the boy raised by apes, first developed by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914, represents the noble savage through his embodiment of all the qualities most valued in our society. Our culture has romanticized these three examples for their noble savageness, what can we gain from their stories, beyond a superficial admiration? What is the allure? Rousseau’s Emile offers an interesting perspective on education. In the book, Rousseau raises his fictional pupil, Emile, based on the patterns and developments of nature, avoiding the education provided by society. This enhances certain aspects of Emile’s characters, inhibits others, and sometimes paradoxically stifles his development. Because in some ways Rousseau creates a man-made “noble savage”, who in fact contradicts his principles, we must question the validity of his methods. Then what is an effective education according to nature? Are education and nature fundamentally opposed? In order to resolve this, we must consider education on a more basic level, as something that exists among almost all cognizant groups. Education therefore cannot be considered as a corruptive element of society. We must look beyond the superficial layers of culture and
even humanity and observe education as an element of nature. In this way, we may discover the benefits of a true education according to nature.
The man most immersed in today’s society still feels the inevitable pull of his primal self. Although much of humanity has left the era of complete familiarity with the natural world in favor of a complex and self-made civilization, even the man most deeply embedded in his society at one time or another feels “the call of the wild”. This return to nature may inspire a momentary outburst of uninhibited emotion, or may entail such extreme measures as a complete rejection of society in favor of a hermit-like existence. Throughout history and in literature, there has been a recurring phenomenon of humans abandoning their societies in the Western world to live a life that more closely follows nature’s patterns. For some, this meant a move to the countryside, but others chose to start life anew in the seemingly more “primitive” cultures of the former colonies. While some believe that society saves us from the horrors of living as beasts, others, such as the eighteenth century philosopher Rousseau, believe that society corrupts humanity by inhibiting our natural selves. Hence, the “myth of the noble savage”1, the theory that we are all born good and that society gradually instills evil into us. In literature, this myth is illustrated through the use of “savage” characters, which are respected and admired by the Western characters for their clear-mindedness. A popular belief,
a concept dating back to ancient Greece, the term was coined in John Dryden’s 1672 play Conquest of Granada but later attributed to Rousseau, though he never used the term in any of his writings.
the naturalistic fallacy, is that living according to nature provides a purer, simpler, more honest, more logical, happier, and more successful way of life. In his 1762 book, Emile: or, On Education, Rousseau details how to raise a child according to the natural order, thereby molding his understanding of the ideal human being. Beginning with the principle that man is born good, Rousseau explains how to maintain that natural goodness while still taking part in the supposedly evil society of the time. I will first examine examples of man’s attraction to natural living in history and literature, then the successes and downfalls of Rousseau’s method of education, and finally I will offer a philosophical perspective on education according to nature.
Literature and history provide us with countless of examples of people who embody the ideals of the “noble savage” that others often find attractive. At its root, this attraction is due to their dissatisfaction with the life they currently lead in their own society, and the sometimes naive assumption that life would be better outside the confines of their society, in nature. Because society requires us to suppress our natural selves, living according to nature allows man to feel freer and more comfortable with himself and therefore more content. This may inspire in him an admiration for more “primitive” societies or characters. This appreciation could stem from a desire for a simplicity that he assumes that the other culture has. Another reason for his attraction could be the exoticism or glamorization of a lifestyle so different from his own. Unfortunately, these expectations and assumptions are most often an idealized illusion about life according to nature.
In our cultures, there are numerous examples of characters admired for their strong connection to nature or to their primal selves. One of them is the somewhat legendary historical figure of Kaspar Hauser, a man locked in a stable for all of his formative years, with barely any grasp of language and limited use of his body. When he finally made an appearance in the society of 19th century Nuremberg, he gained an almost prophet-like persona and stunned the intellectual elite with his spontaneous philosophical musings and surprisingly perceptive comments. One account2, reads:
"When Professor Daumer held the North Pole towards him, Caspar put his hand to the pit of his stomach, and, drawing his waistcoat in an outward direction, said that it drew him thus; and that a current of air seemed to proceed from him. The South Pole affected him less powerfully; and he said that it blew upon him."
In fictionalized accounts of his story, his connection to the natural state of man is developed further as the source of his insightfulness, thereby cementing the philosophical link between natural living and clarity of thought. In literature, another character that is admired as a “noble savage” is Queequeg, a secondary character in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Queequeg is from a South Pacific island, and though the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Ishmael, initially mocks his idolatry and cannibalism (he says of him: “There was excellent blood in his veins—royal stuff; though sadly vitiated, I fear, by the cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth.”3), they ultimately form a brother-like bond and Ishmael gains a certain reverence towards Queequeg. Ishmael is soon awed by Queequeg’s loyalty and generosity, and in the novel he seems to represent the epitome of virility, nobility and 2 3
Von Feuerbach, page 132. Melville, page 49
strength of character. After one particularly dangerous occasion where Queequeg risks his own life to save another sailor’s (who, in fact, had just slighted him), Ishmael remarks of him:
“He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies. He only asked for water—fresh water— something to wipe the brine off; that done, he put on dry clothes, lighted his pipe, and leaning against the bulwarks, and mildly eyeing those around him, seemed to be saying to himself—"It's a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.”4
Again, the character initially regarded as more “primitive” proves to be the most lucid and respectable. Because this man is has been raised closer to nature, he seems to have a power and connection with the Earth that is stronger than that of the characters raised in New England society, and they are impressed by his strength of body and of character. He himself senses his superiority because of his evident supremacy over the rest of the crew in terms of physical strength and moral values. One of the most popularized and extreme cases of the “noble savage” in our culture is Tarzan, the fictional boy raised by apes, first appearing in the 1914 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Over the past century, Tarzan has become a folk hero and embodies all the qualities valued by our society. He is courageous, loyal, intelligent, generous, and ethical, supports those that are weaker than him, has great physical strength, enhanced senses, can read body language well, and is a good judge of character. Later in the series, he serves as a vehicle for the author’s stand against topics such as racism and sexism, perhaps as a counter to previous
Ibid, page 55
racist and sexist elements in the series. Though he easily adapts to Western society, he criticizes the hypocrisy of civilization and decides to return to the jungle. Burroughs described Tarzan’s philosophy as an “extreme return to nature” had mentioned that Tarzan preferred to “strip off the thin veneer of society”5. For nearly a century now, Tarzan has served as a role model and hero to our society’s youth, therefore romanticizing the lifestyle of “the noble savage”. He has been influential to many of the most respected members of Western society, for example, the scientist Jane Goodall. Once again, living close to nature (including being raised by animals) is linked with humanitarianism and moral integrity. So, why are we so attracted to figures living according to nature? There are several factors that contribute to the allure. Sometimes, it stems from the idea that living in nature or in a less developed society provides a simpler life, a less complex system of social codes and expectations. The characters living according to nature seem to be above the petty and superficial values of some modern societies. Natural living and good morals are often linked in “noble savages”. There is equally a theme in literature and history of the upper-class romantic elite who long to leave their luxurious lives in favor of a more humble situation, for example Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France, who commissioned a farm to be built for her amusement at Versailles. However, a mere displacement from an intensely social milieu into a more subdued natural environment does not automatically lead to moral perfection, and characters such as these tend to be quite naïve in their approach towards natural living: their enjoyment of the lifestyle is sometimes even an insult to the real lives of hard-working farmers or the ancient traditions of the cultures they long to experience. A true dedication to living according to nature requires a willingness to participate in even the most unromantic aspects of the lifestyle and a deep understanding and full 5
Burroughs, chapter 2
appreciation for the complexities and hardships of another culture’s way of life. While an admiration for the morals of “noble savages” is commendable, it must be accompanied by a true and in depth knowledge and respect for the all elements of the life to which one aspires, rather than a mere selection of the most alluring parts.
Rousseau’s 1762 book, Emile, or On Education, provides an interesting perspective on raising a child educated according to nature yet capable of living successfully in the then modern and extremely complex society of 18th century France. Of Emile, the fictional child raised in the book according to Rousseau’s principles, he states: “Emile is not a savage to be relegated to the desert. He is a savage made to inhabit cities” 6. Inspired by the lifestyles of peasants and “savages”, it is the first absolute philosophy of education in Western civilization. The book was influential to the work of his contemporary Jean Itard with his ward Victor of Aveyron, a boy raised alone in the wilderness and discovered in 1797; and to the French educational reforms after the Revolution. Rousseau’s work still remains pertinent and influential to today’s educational strategies. The essential theory which opens the book is that “everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man”, to paraphrase, man is born good but is corrupted by society7. Rousseau, as the narrator, acts as a tutor to his fictional protagonist and young ward, Émile. Throughout the text, Rousseau offers methods of maintaining Emile’s innate goodness and protecting him from the dishonesty of society. Rousseau’s strategy
Rousseau, Emile… page 205 Similarly, in Rousseau’s Social Contract: “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. 7
carefully enhances some of Emile’s qualities, shelters him from others, and eventually sometimes stifles his natural development. Rousseau’s methods carefully nurture Émile in order to enhance certain qualities and build his resilience. Throughout the book, Émile is exposed to certain things in order to foster his tolerance. One of the first pieces of advice given by Rousseau is not to swaddle a child too tightly, because this would inhibit muscle development. Émile is also made to take cold baths from the beginning of his life, so that he does not develop a need for warm ones, and will be able to endure any temperature of water:
I would want him growing up to become accustomed little by little to bathing sometimes in hot water at all bearable degrees and often in cold water at all possible degrees. Thus, after having been habituated to bear the various temperatures of water which, being a denser fluid, touches us at more points and affects us more, one would become almost insensitive to the various temperatures of the air.8
In his early development, he is provided with the kind of upbringing that he would receive in a natural environment, with none of the luxuries that society has to offer. Rousseau also encourages him to discover many things on his own, mainly scientific or mathematical theories. In this way, Rousseau fosters his capability for curiosity and independent discovery and therefore complete understanding of the natural world. His world is quite open to him, and there are not very many restrictions as to what he can and cannot do. He is free to play as much as he wants, eat as much as he wants, and in this way he gains responsibility for his own habits and learns by experience and trial and error how
Rousseau, Emile page 60.
to monitor his decisions. Although his is free within the world created by Rousseau, this world is limited in what it has to offer. As his tutor, Rousseau carefully controls what is accessible to Émile and what is not. His stance on how Émile should be formally educated is perhaps most extreme. In his childhood, Émile only has access to one book, Robinson
Crusoe. Interestingly enough, this book is very related to the concept of the “noble savage”. Rousseau hopes that Émile will be inspired by the story, learn from it, and attempt to emulate:
I want him to think he is Robinson himself, too see himself dressed in skins, wearing a large cap, carrying a large saber and all the rest of the character’s grotesque equipment, with the exception of the parasol, which he will not need.9
This reasoning is typical of Rousseau’s philosophy; he commends the values of the “noble savage” but carefully edits the slightest discrepancy. Rousseau has a very low esteem of a child’s capabilities, in one part of the book he brutally dissects la Fontaine’s fable for children, “Le corbeau et le renard”, explaining line by line why the poem would be incomprehensible to children. He is also very opposed to learning bilingually, believing that this only serves to confuse the child, though today this argument has been strongly refuted. Because Rousseau has such little faith in the child’s capacities, he does not give him access to books in order to learn. Because his resources to knowledge are so limited, he is forced to gain all his knowledge through experience. However, this system of learning if often completely engineered by Rousseau, and not truly conducive to natural discovery.
Rousseau : Emile… page 185
Émile’s universe is somewhat micro-managed by Rousseau’s carefully constructed method of teaching. Rousseau vigilantly controls each of Êmile’s experiences, planning the experiment, making subtle suggestions, predicting reactions and outcomes. He hopes that Emile will ultimately have a sense of having discovered something for himself. However, his entire discovery process is designed and induced by his tutor, and therefore not a natural discovery into itself. Although Emile gains the ability to think critically and form his own conclusions, his discoveries are often so staged that we are forced to wonder whether he would “naturally” encounter them. Emile is forced to learn everything by discovery and experience, from geometry to good morals. Rousseau’s methods are often painstakingly complicated and impractical, and at times seem to build a more naïve student than an intelligent one. He sometimes even relies on the strategy of premeditated humiliation in order for Emile to learn a moral lesson. Although many of his techniques do seem effective and innovative, too much emphasis is placed on sheltering Emile from reality. Rousseau argues that by restricting Emile’s access to the outside world, he allows Emile to form his own morals, knowledge base, and feelings rather than being completely influenced by others’ thoughts. In this way, Emile would become a more genuine and self-sufficient person. However, it is sometimes doubtful whether this will ultimately serve Emile well, especially when Rousseau makes such statements as
I would want a young man’s society to be chosen so carefully that he thinks well of those who live with him; and I would want him to know the world so well that he thinks ill of all that takes place in it.10
Rousseau, Emile… page 237
Though Rousseau is trying to emphasize Emile’s appreciation for the individual rather than for society, which is admirable in it’s own way, this negative sort of mindset is somewhat disturbing. At the beginning of the book, Rousseau says, of Emile,
Everywhere he will be first, everywhere he will become chief of the others. They will always sense his superiority over them. Without wanting to command, he will be the master, without believing they are obeying, they will obey.11
Why such a need for power? It seems almost disharmonious with the principles upon which Emile is founded. The attempt to create a “superior being” is dissonant with Emile’s outstanding moral judgment and appreciation and consideration for others. Although generally quite well thought out and inventive, at times Rousseau’s methods and intentions seem very questionable, and Emile’s potential to thrive in society with the upbringing he has had seems unrealistic. Overall, Rousseau’s ideas and strategies provide a fascinating and exciting form of education. In particular, his methods towards self-sufficiency, resilience, and genuineness seem very constructive to education. However, some of his ideas seem nearly impossible to achieve in today’s society. Even if a child were raised in such a sheltered and artificial world as Emile was, he would not be able to live successfully in the world outside of that of his upbringing, in Rousseau’s time or ours. We must now modify some of Rousseau’s principles to be more practical in the modern age.
Ibid., page 162
Then what is an effective education according to nature? Are not the concepts of “education” and “nature” fundamentally opposed? How can we combine the two elements? Nature and education seem opposed in that education, as we think of it, can be defined as a series artificial situations created to teach a lesson in preparation for real life. However, education truly encompasses a broad range of life experiences and experiments that affect our approach to dilemmas later in life. Some form of education comes inherently to any species that lives in a group, has a large brain capacity and substantial life span. The capacity to teach and transmit knowledge is one that is innate to many species, and therefore is not a corruptive element of society. Society is an important part of human nature; some even argue that someone is not truly human if they haven’t been raised amongst their own. Education according to nature must then follow the natural pattern of so many other species, that is to say a process of learning based on both experiential and transmitted knowledge. So what is a true education according to nature? Does Rousseau’s version really demonstrate a true adherence to human nature? Is society our downfall and/or just part of our nature as humans? There is definitely much to be gained from education according to nature, and much about it that remains to be defined or perhaps redeemed. There lies an undeniable paradox in the fundamental nature of Emile, the child envisioned by Rousseau. In theory, his education is based almost solely on basic human nature and the natural progression of a human left to his own devices. However, a vital part of human nature is left out of his education: contact with the society and culture of his own species. Rousseau, his tutor, exposes him only to a carefully crafted artificial utopia filled with an extremely limited collection of humans and culture. In this way, Rousseau creates a “man-made
noble savage”; he carefully forms Emile according to select characteristics that he values among savages and peasants. However, Emile himself never comes into contact with other “savages”, and his interactions with peasants are limited to the perspective of an outside observer, or to the occasions when peasants are used to teach a lesson. Emile always seems very separate from any others, when he does encounter other humans, they are there for educational purposes, and he does not have any friends or family apart from Rousseau. Therefore, he lacks a “pack mentality” which is essential to human nature itself. Let us now attempt to delve even deeper into the experiment proposed by Rousseau. Let us imagine “the forbidden experiment”: a child that truly has no contact with any other human, yet has the means to lively healthily and comfortably. Would it gain muscle development and control? Probably it would eventually, but perhaps not as quickly as a nurtured child (perhaps it would not walk on two legs, like many feral children). It certainly would not have a capacity for language aside from meaningless noises; even the gibberish of babies is an attempt at imitating the language around them. It would most likely be curious, but surely not as self-sufficient as Emile. It is very unlikely that is would observe its environment and ask itself such questions as whether a stick submerged in water is broken or not, as Emile and Rousseau do. Left on their own, it would develop a more abstract level of analysis and in some ways would be selfsufficient, by learning through trial and error. It is questionable whether the child would gain enough insight to be distinguished from an animal. Also, it cannot be ignored that so many things cannot be learned by that trial and error: imagine if the child came across a deadly plant and unknowingly ate it. That is a lesson that can only be learned through the trial and error of others. As humans, and even as animals, we depend on each other to succeed and to thrive. Although the child would potentially survive and learn independently in an isolated environment, it
would never develop the characteristics that define us as humans, such as language and documentation. Through this extreme hypothetical experiment, we have observed that human society is imperative to a child’s development. But what importance does culture hold in all this? Rousseau deprives Emile of most aspects of culture, though he is raised in the French countryside, his immediate environment created by Rousseau is quite undefined. He is exposed to culture on very few occasions and in limited quantities: he is allowed to read only Defoe’s Robinson
Crusoe, and on one occasion is taken to the circus (which ultimately lends to teach a lesson). However, is not difference in culture the primary reason for Rousseau’s appreciation of the “noble savage”? In some respects, looking at culture seems a very superficial way of analyzing human nature. When carefully considered, cultural behaviors and differences seem only minor embellishments to a more basic and universal human nature. For example, so many cultures share the same allegories and archetypes, which only differ mildly through surface elements such as setting, clothing, etc. The key plot points and characters often remain constant across the cultural spectrum. What is truly extraordinary is that these stories were conceived independently in the different cultures, in a time before globalization and cultural exchange. Therefore, human nature itself must provide some kind of universal set of experiences that inspire the same types of legends and histories. Although we differ in our cultures and beliefs, we are all united by the life patterns imposed upon us by nature. Yet, how is it that culture and environment can cause such extreme differences in life experiences? For example, this summer I lived and taught in a rural community in the mountains of Western Honduras. In the evenings, I would sit on the front porch of my host family’s house and read Emile in
preparation for this essay. About half the neighbors would walk by and ask “Estudiando?” (“Studying?”). The other half would ask “Descansando?” (“Relaxing?”). Like many post-colonial cultures, Honduran culture has been heavily influenced by Western values. However, in my particular town, the most important skill to have was the ability to work with your hands and work the land. While my culture and education relies on intellectual ability, Honduran culture in that sector of society relies primarily on physical and practical abilities. Of course, the Honduran approach is more closely related to our basic natural instincts. However, despite these seemingly opposed approaches to life, there was not much significant “cultural adjusting” to be done. Fundamentally, we shared the same interests such as music, storytelling, games, eating, and socializing. My culture’s emphasis on intellectualism is simply an extension of a more basic form of storytelling and transmission of knowledge, which is due the loss of a need for more essential work such as providing food, shelter, etc. In the same way, literature is essentially a more developed form of storytelling (from which Emile is deprived) and teaching by example. By depriving Emile of stories as a source of learning is to remove an important part of human nature. The more “embellishment” we add to the facilitation of basic human needs, the more we differentiate between cultures. In that case, do we not all have the potential to live as “noble savages”, as we seem to so desire? It would simply require a “stripping away” of all the cultural elements that distance us from our primary human nature. Yet is it really possible to completely emancipate ourselves from the culture in which we were raised? Many define themselves by their culture rather than by their human nature. There is much to be said for the impact that culture has on our way of life. However, we all share the characteristics of human nature, so theoretically
we all have the capacity to live according to nature. In spite of this, few of us choose to follow our natural impulses and pursue that lifestyle. Why is this? In order to answer, we must evaluate exactly what a true education according to nature has to offer and what it lacks. By living by the most basic patterns of human nature, our lives would be characteristically different. By Rousseau’s principles, we would be more resilient, genuine, self-sufficient, and independent-minded. Our most fundamental needs would be met, but there would be no exploration or expansion into a deeper train of thought. However, we would lack a strong sense of culture and definition of self. Living only by our primal needs would actually be a very narrow and overly simplistic way of life. Although we may gain a lot of character and insight by this method of living, we must not be hesitant to expand on human nature and explore further realms of human capacity. Not to use our privilege of being human would be to waste the potential that we gain by being a product of human nature. Education according to nature provides an incredibly strong basis, but we must further what we have to offer as humans, such as scientific and intellectual progress, by expanding the boundaries of our capacity for complex thought. Then why do we not choose to live as “noble savages”, though many of us are so seduced by the idea? The fact remains that we are, in our nature, deeply rooted in our respective societies and cultures. Though in our core there is little to distinguish between our cultures, it is rare for a human to abandon its culture in favor of another: part of our nature is the group into which we are born. What distinguishes us from animals is our ongoing pursuit of progress, our capacity for expansion and discovery being a privilege of being human. Education should provide opportunities for discovery, and build our abilities to expand human knowledge. We must not let our ability to develop humanity be hindered by the laws of nature. What we gain from education according to nature is a sense of our
natural humanity and resilience, which can provide building blocks for discovery and progress. Despite the naturalistic fallacy, society will not be corruptive as long as it does not lose its roots in human nature.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Burroughs, Edgar Rice, The Return of Tarzan, 1915. 1st World Publishing, 2004.
Dryden, John, The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards; In Two Parts, 1672. Printed by T.N. for Henry Herringman.
Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick, 1851. Harper and Row, Publishers.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile; or On Education. 1762. (translation by Allan Bloom, 1979). Basic Books, Inc.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right, 1762. (translation by Maurice Cranston, 1968). Penguin Books, London.
Von Feuerbach, Anselm, Caspar Hauser, 1832. Translated by Gotfried Linberg, Allen and Ticknor.