Human nature: political man and free individual

tempo di lettura: 8 minuti

Sviluppato nell’ambito del corso “Nature” (offerto dalla Ca’Foscari Summer School) in cui si è portata avanti una riflessione sul rapporto tra uomo e natura nella storia dell’etica occidentale, sotto la guida della Prof.ssa Joy E. Chaplin.

The aim of this dialogue is that of showing two different conceptions of man’s happiness in relation to society and nature. The Ancient Greek pre-industrial perspective (stressing on the ideas of the polis and on that of man as a political being) will be compared to the modern 18th-century one (which focuses on individual freedom). In order to do so, the excerpts taken into account are Aristotle’s Politics Book I and J. J. Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 5th walk. The core of the dialogue lies in the relationship between man and nature: Aristotle considers the nature of man as political in his relationship with the whole and thus considers social hierarchies as rational and naturally legitimised. In Rousseau’s perspective, instead, the nature of a man is that of being free and society is seen as a second artificial step compared to the previous “state of nature”; in this view, nature is considered as a shelter of freedom, secluded from the chains of social life.

The scene is set on St. Peter’s island, in the centre of Lake Biel.

Rousseau is alone stretching himself at full length in the boat floating on the lake’s calm water. His boat is slowly transported by the breeze and the stream of the water; he is lost in reveries, without any specific or determined thought in mind.

All of a sudden, a small wood ship with two people on board appears on the horizon and comes closer. Just one of the two man is rowing. The man who is not rowing is taller and has a long white beard: he is Aristotle, accompanied by his slave. Aristotle did not expect seeing anybody living on the island, so, very surprised, starts to loudly address Rousseau.

“Who is the one who can live isolated from society, as an arm without a body, here in the middle of this island?”

Rousseau rubs his eyes, opens them wide, sits upright and pretends to conceal his surprise.

“Moi? Moi, je suis l’homme le plus heureux du monde! I am the happiest of the men, if I only can lead the rest of my life on this unknown empty island.”

“How can you be a man? The one who denies the polis must be a beast, unable to live in society, or a god, so self-sufficient he does not need any. Never can this be the case of man, thus man is a political animal.”

“Indeed, I am something more than a man right now. I am so self-sufficient that I rely on nothing but myself and my own existence. I am almost like God, indeed, as long as this state lasts.”

“Man, when away from society, can be the most savage of the animals, since he can use his enormous power without rationality and justice. Justice is the principle of order in political society and the bond of man in States, thus man away from society can be the most unholy of the species. Indeed, how can a man be good by denying his nature?”

“How can society be natural, with all its fuss, troubles and duties? Even further, how can it be natural for a free-born man to be in social chains? I am the happiest of men because on this tiny island I made my own prison, so nothing can harm me and no other can cage me. My self-made prison is, in the end, my refuge and shelter, oblivious of society. In the magnificence of the creation – of any single flower, leaf or plant I find relief.”

“Man can never be, though, oblivious of society, since he was born political. Nature – far from being a personal playground of relief – is a marvellous ordered path or, as I like to say, it is a house in which each part is in place. Birds are meant to fly, as fish are meant to swim, thus man is meant to be rational and political because he is the only animal with logos: he is endowed with the power of reason and speech. Society is nothing but a gentle development of what nature is potentially in itself.

“What really differentiates man from other creatures is not just reason but free will, which man should always preserve and let no one deny. At the same time, the morality of man lies in his freedom. Man in nature, at first, is nothing but an individual, he is born alone and he dies alone as I am alone, in peace and free, on this island. Man is not born in the state, rather society is artificially made up by the free consensus of men, when interactions become more frequent and the need of preservation of self and property is felt. The struggle is: how can the freedom of a man be preserved without being reduced by society?”

Aristotle caresses his beard thoughtfully.

“If the whole body is destroyed, is there still a single foot or a single hand?”

Rousseau is perplexed, he visibly starts to be annoyed.

“Aren’t we discussing on the role of man in the state? How can it be related to…?”

Aristotle loudly interrupts his question and authoritatively states, raising his finger:

“Nature, at first, is itself rational and ordered, each part shares a specific aim. Each man, according to his inclination, potentially recovers a proper role. Hence, the state is by nature clearly prior to the individual, as the whole is of necessity prior to a single part. Consider nature and its rational hierarchies as a body: if the whole body is destroyed, is there still a single foot or a single hand? This is the meaning of my question.”

“You say that nature itself rationally disposes his parts, on which harmony lays the common good. But how can you think that a man – born free and equal as all men – may choose to alienate his freedom? Further – and I am asking your slave – is nature itself which decides who rules and who serves? Are the ones who rule the stronger, or the cleverer, or even the slier? Tomorrow rules might change and Aristotle, from a free-born man, could be turned into a slave. Is it nature that decides, in the end, what is our place in your so-called house? Social roles, hierarchies, laws – all these are the product of man, aimed at protecting, as much as they can, their original freedom, which is the only inalienable gift. Social roles and laws are necessary to man and may be useful, but it does not mean they are natural. Therefore, thinking that nature disposes exploitation of other men is the most unnatural of the thoughts.”

The slave, who has not spoken during the whole conversation, addresses Rousseau a grateful look, with sorrowful eyes.

“The presence of my slave is nothing but the prove of the fact that nature provides each part with a specific role. I would not be self-sufficient without him. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing.”

“According to you no isolated man can be self-sufficient, whereas I am. Furthermore, my happiness lies in my solitude. Here, I feel free enough to live without any regrets for the past nor hope for the future, out of time in an eternal present which is not spoiled by pleasure or pain. The only thing present is the sense of my existence and in this state, and this only, I can be said fully happy.”

“Can a life be lived without present and past, or joy, or pain be called human or natural, after all? Is there any difference between a life like this and that of a person sucked in an eternal sleep?  As Heraclitus states: the waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own. A life lived as in perpetual sleep, oblivious of the community, cannot do any good to others and is not sustainable in the end. Men can never deny this inner feeling of being political, since it is the sense of their being.”

“I would prefer thousand years of sleep in the shelter of my reveries than a single day in the nightmare of social constrains.”

“At this point, Monsieur Rousseau, do you think that your way of life – that of living isolated in order to be free, can represent a solution? What would happen if everybody decided to retire in private, oblivious of any trouble or duty? Contemplation can never exist separated from political life – and by political, I mean man’s life at the primary state of his nature. Living as in a dream means cowardice. Each isolated man will need food and water, then something to spend his time with – he is in the end just pretending to be self-sufficient. For instance, if you are here carefree on your boat is just because someone has made it and you did not have to put any effort into looking for materials or building it up. You are free of spending your days looking at flowers and plants with no occupation or preoccupation, just because the steward and his wife take care of you.”

A feeble rasping voice calls Rousseau from afar.

“Monsieur Rousseau!”

“There he is… the steward, I mean – I think I will have to go and join him and his wife for lunch. You know, I think his wife prepared me something special to celebrate the colony of rabbits we have just brought to the other island, and…”

Aristotle interrupts him sharply.

“I will go back to my polis, you have proved more than enough to me how the nature of man, even when embracing the unnatural desire of isolation, will never be detached from that of others. He will still rely on others’ esteem, love and help and this will always be an inner feeling or need of his.”

“At least, my dearest Aristotle, I am rowing by myself.”

Aristotle closes his eyes in thoughtful demeanour while his slave vigorously rows away from the middle of the lake.

Rousseau starts moving away to reach the coast, then a sudden wave shakes the boat and flips it over.

Rousseau wakes up, he is sweaty and confused. He looks around with his eyes wide open. He realises he is in the middle of the lake aboard his boat, with his Systema naturæ” is still open on his chest. The water has carried him many meters away from the coast, he must have fallen asleep in his reveries.

Then, a feeble voice calls Rousseau from afar: the steward is calling him for lunch.

“Monsieur Rousseau!”

by Federica Biscardi

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