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1551 words - 7 pages

The acquisition of knowledge and the retrogression from man’s natural state are both characteristics of modernity in Western civilization. Writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Fyodor Dostoevsky offer criticisms regarding the implications of these changes according to their respective historical contexts. Despite the continued progress of man since these contexts, the arguments these writers pose are still applicable today. Each offers a different perspective to be critically considered. Their accounts suggest that the burdens of inequality, oppression, and distancing man from his natural state accompany the perpetuation of progress, causing the authors to overdramatize modernity as a prelude to imminent social or political reform according to their various observations of man.
Rousseau’s depiction of the noble savage in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality separates man from society in order to argue that modernity has come with a cost to man’s natural state. Rousseau explores the uncivilized state of nature to form “conjectures…concerning what the human race could have become, if it had been left to itself” (Rousseau 17). Through his conjectures, Rousseau’s posits that the progress of man is detrimental to his well-being. Nevertheless, the formations of civil and, later, political societies were responsible for “perfect[ing] human reason while deteriorating the species” (Rousseau 43). He finds that the acquisition of knowledge is dangerous, and man is better off naïve about the true extent of the world (Rousseau 31). Aside from an instinct for self-preservation, the noble savage comes equipped with pity. In his natural state, this pity exists as amour de soi, or simply, good intentions. Without this pity, “men would never have been anything but monsters” (Rousseau 37). Through civilization, amour de soi has developed into amour-propre, which is a form of self-love dependent upon the opinions of others and the source of rational man’s reflection, a state Rousseau deems “contrary to nature” (Rousseau 22). The shifts from savage to civil and from civil to political bring about these changes to man’s state, but man “did not have enough experience to foresee [these] dangers” (Rousseau 56). He reflects on modern society as a hotbed of inequality and even slavery, but a slavery we readily accept. Rousseau sees modern, enslaved men doing “nothing but boast[ing] of the peace and tranquility they enjoy in their chains,” in hopes of one day attaining their own esteem (Rousseau 60). Despite these negative consequences of progress, “the habit of living together gave rise to the sweetest sentiments known to men: conjugal love and paternal love” (Rousseau 48). Ultimately, Rousseau predicts man will return to a savage state but take with him the corrupt behaviors developed through modernity (Rousseau 69).
Rousseau’s critique of modernity and exploration of man’s natural state gives a relatively pessimistic account of modern society. The...

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