John Robertson
The Case for the Enlightenment

Rousseau's response to Mandeville was both an appropriation and a critique. He agreed with Mandeville that man was not naturally sociable. The earliest men and women were solitary beings, their only passions being amour de soi, a desire for preservation, and pity, a sympathy for the suffering of other creatures which fell far short of sociability. As population grew, however, men and women were forced into more frequent contact. Gradually they formed families, then small societies, developing language to persuade each other to meet their needs. As they communicated, they began to identify with each other, estimating themselves in the eyes of others. To amour de soi they added the passion of amour propre. Resembling Mandeville's 'self-liking,' Rousseau's amour propre was a reflexive passion, based on the judgement of others. But Rousseau also attributed to man a quality completely absent from Mandeville's account, a capacity to choose, or will, his values, a capacity which Rousseau called man's 'perfectibility.' By equipping natural man with this capacity Rousseau reopened a question which Mandeville had treated far less seriously, the question of men's capacity for hypocrisy.

For Mandeville, hypocrisy arose from the discrepancy between the arbitrary definitions of virtue and vice established by the first legislators and the actual passions governing men's behaviour. It was harmful, he suggested, only when those definitions were taken at face value by overzealous moral reformers, or when clergymen were given free rein to impose their ascetic values on the laity. Hume had countered that even this was to exaggerate the problem. The clergy, to be sure, were hypocritical preachers of self-denial. But ordinary men derived their values from their passions, not against them, judging moral worth by what was 'useful and agreeable.' Rousseau did not engage with Hume, but his response to Mandeville demonstrated his hostility to such straightforward Epicureanism. His objection was that it ignored the force of the Augustinian insight into man's capacity for moral deception. The multifarious ways in which men deceive their fellows, professing certain values while pursuing the gratification of their passions, had been explored at length by the late seventeenth-century moralist La Rochefoucauld, and were the subject of renewed affection by French dramatists in the 1740s and 17740s. What Rousseau now added was an interest in languag€e as the instrument of such deception. It was an interest Mandeville had anticipated, but Hume had ignored. The crucial case of linguistic deception, Rousseau argued in the Discours sur l'inegalite, was that which produced the institution of property, when one man not only appropriated a piece of land to his own use, but persuaded others to accept his claim. It was property which entrenched inequality at the heart of modern society, and thereby enlarged almost infinitely the scope for hypocrisy, as men competed to pretend to be what they were not. From that moment, Rousseau argued, moral corruption was unavoidable, and was destined steadily to advance until men fell under the yoke of despotism. Only by a wholly new act of will, he subsequently argued in Du Contrat Social (1762), could they hope to rediscover the possibility of virtue, and realise the promise of their original perfectibility.

Smith first responded to the challenge of Rousseau in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759; he continued the argument in the Wealth of Nations. Even then, however, Smith was not satisfied. Returning to the Theory of Moral Sentiments at the very end of his life, his final revisions show him still wrestling over his answer. How this response to Rousseau should be understood is now central to Smith scholarship. At the heart of the problem, Smith agreed with Rousseau, was inequality. Smith had no illusions about the scale of inequality in modern societies, and no society he recognised, was more unequal than a fully commercial society. But such inequality was not incompatible with a distribution of wealth which enabled the poorest classes to live better than ever before.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.