The Brothers of Tarzan

ShaVonda Gaudin

 

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From the Department Of Philosophy

 

 


 

During the famous period in history known as the Enlightenment, great philosophers rose up and dared to question the unquestionable, dared to probe the controversial, and dared to seek the truth through the phenomenon of reasoning alone. It is not surprising that one of the main issues intellectuals sought to "reason out" was the existence of an often conflict-ridden state of society, plagued by wars, civil unrest, and other disputes which arose from a number of injustices and/or violent impulses. One of the leading thinkers of his day, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau addresses this state of the world around him by analyzing the origin of what he thought to be the problem causing man's ultimate discontent - that of social inequality. In his book, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau develops this "foundation" of inequality by carefully dissecting the essence of man in the state of nature. He explores what man was like in the earliest state that he can imagine him living in - before the beginning of "civilized" living. By looking at natural man Rousseau paints the background picture for the state of the earth and mankind leading up to that radical event which would change human history forever: the establishment of (social) inequality among men. However, through studying Rousseau's vision of natural man, one may realize that perhaps such a theory of primitive mankind is not as convincing as admirers of this very elaborate explanation would initially believe. Of course, before substantiating such a bold claim, one must examine the layout of Rousseau's "natural man" very carefully.

There are two ways in which Rousseau organizes his portrait of natural man in the most creative yet thorough way possible. Those aspects include man's physical being and his metaphysical / moral being. An image that comes to mind after reading Rousseau's "First Part" in Discourse on Inequality is that of a man in a loin cloth with long hair, a swift, agile body, swinging by vine over a dense, entangled mass of green vegetation which may or may not contain a diverse community of venomous creatures and predators that would endanger his well-being. Amusingly, one immediately associates him with some sort of Tarzan - a man who was raised by the wild and is able to merely swing from one tree to another across the jungle with ease. Yet, this is precisely how Rousseau alludes to that of man's physical characteristics in his early existence as a species. He is raw, "come from the hands of nature," and his ability to leap over vast areas of vegetation is only due to his lack of a car - or lack of a lawnmower for depleting the entangled obstacle in his pathway. His physically strong and agile constitution is conditioned to withstand the harsh circumstances regularly proceeding from the bowels of Mother Nature, and his body has so evolved that if the environment in which he lives is rigidly cold, he is born with a hairy body. Lacking any type of audio/visual devices, or any objects that are suggestive of technological development which help him to conquer the limits of his own physical capabilities, his senses are considerably more acute than that of modern man. For those who are born with an incurable astigmatism or a damaged eardrum they are simply pushed to the side and thrown out of the way (i.e. perish) if they cannot calculate some way in which to decipher their surroundings accurately. In other words, Nature followed what Rousseau refers to as the "Law of Sparta." This natural bias on the part of Nature is expected, seeing as how man must fight or flee from other beasts in his environment from time to time. An incorrigible handicap would render him in a most unfavorable position and leave him at the merciless hands of a predator. His competency in handling predators is essential. Rousseau says,

"Since his own preservation is almost his sole concern, his best-developed faculties must be those devoted principally to attack and defense..." (15).

Because he is always on the defense, natural man not only utilizes his own strengths but becomes very skillful in his evading the predator or in capturing the prey by utilizing the various instincts and survival habits of others. For animals that are obviously much stronger than he, he uses his ability to manipulate the surrounding to confuse and often conquer his opponent. The only real inevitable foes that he will almost never defeat include infancy, old age, and illness (though not as inevitable or as likely as the other two). Finally, Rousseau sees man as secluded from others - "alone and idle" - in which he only comes in contact with others to procreate and/or by a simple chance meeting. This is because, having considerable adequate strength at all times, he doesn't need others for survival. Rather, nature tends to provide him abundantly with sources of nutrition and shelter.

The next aspect from which the reader gains a clear perspective of Rousseu's natural man is the metaphysical, or moral side of man. Amongst all the species on this vast and diverse planet, man is the only species with the ability to reason. However, this is only a part of what distinguishes man from all other animals. Specifically, it is his ability to transcend his own instincts and freely choose for himself what he will eat, when he will sleep, and where he will travel. This phenomenon of "free agency," as termed by Rousseau, is the consequence of choice and is not ruled by natural instincts - which would enslave him to various impulses and prevent him from acting in his own capacity. The ability to reason or actively use his mind is directly related to this. Also related to the ability to reason yet more distinctive is his "faculty of self-improvement" in which he naturally desires to convenience his life with more suitable methods of living, so that from one hundred-year period to the next he is never the same man as he started out being. Yet, this desire to improve often leads him to becoming more of a hazard to himself and nature than a help, and he often pays for such ambition. According to Rousseau, man is rather dull and stupid. He has little knowledge, thus he has few "passions" or desires and lives a simple life. He desires only what he needs, and he never imagines obtaining more than the necessities. His desires are particularly limited by his lack of foresight so that even if his passions were extended beyond necessity for a day, he most likely couldn't maintain them because of his failure to realize their benefit for future purposes. Also related to his "dullness" is his inability to communicate. Having no speech, man is limited from associating with others. He is also limited in developing higher, more philosophical thoughts because of this absence of language. If he were able to think as such, he still would have no way of communicating it with others and that knowledge would be lost. Finally, although man in his natural state possesses no sense of developed emotional capabilities except that of fear (of lurking predators, etc.) he does have one emotional component which Rousseau deems to be very important - that of his natural compassion for others. This is precisely what keeps him from harming others without just cause and from destroying other species at random. Of the general moral code of the time, Rousseau describes it as thus:

"Do what is good for you, with the least possible harm to others..." (29).

This implied rule is different from today's popular golden rule in that it lacks the element of a direct association with others for the purpose of doing good; rather, there is an indirect association. In other words, the above statement is more reflective of the general idea of Rousseau that there were "no strings attached" to such natural compassion, and it was only the consequence of the inherent repugnance at seeing others harmed.   Furthermore, there were no "love" relationships - an "artificial" sentiment as seen by Rousseau that is the product of a more social atmosphere.

Having examined Rousseau's vision of natural man carefully, one can now recognize certain inconsistencies inherent in this elaborate sketch. Particularly among those contradictions and flaws, there are Rousseau's claims that man lacks language and foresight, and that he is a very isolated creature from the other members of his species. First, Rousseau argues that natural man - as a unique species with the ability to reason - should possess no type of language or communication abilities, even in his most nascent state. It is quite hard to believe that naturally reasoning humans were never able to associate symbolic labels with objects. How was reasoning possible (how did they think ) if they possessed no ability to represent what they experienced or came into contact with through a form of codified expression, whether mentally or with the use of their bodies and /or vocal cords, to distinguish between things as basic as the face of a monkey from the leaf of a tree? And surely, if man had the ability to process images in his mind (evidence = memory) and couple that with his ability to reason, then he should have had an imagination - though not as large at the beginning of time as it is today (due to the lack of knowledge) - but some type of imagination nonetheless, which is also contradicted in Rousseau's conception of natural man. Because he can be seen as having some type of memory and a consequent imagination this also means that Rousseau's natural man possesses foresight as well. If not the consequence of a rather sizable imagination surely he would have foresight due to his memory being coupled with reason. To elucidate the matter, one should first think critically about Rousseau's example of the Carib man and then recognize the problems that stem from that statement. He says,

"Such is the Carib's degree of foresight even today; he sells his cotton bed in the morning and comes weeping to buy it back in the evening having failed toforsee that he would need it for the next night." (20)

There is an obvious discrepancy in the Carib man's behavior: unless he has a specific mental deficiency or short-term memory loss, it would be hard for him not to learn from his first mistake. Foresight is partly the result of experience, and having experienced certain things man would inevitably plan for certain expected situations. Not yet possessing tools, in the very least, he would know which trees to sleep under, which caves to avoid for fear of lions, which type of berries were the sweetest and least harmful to him - all because of his ability to learn, his possession of memory, and his concern for self-preservation.

Probably the most glaring contradiction of Rousseau's is his proposal that man is often "alone" and isolated having virtually no association with other men or any kind of social relationship with them. Yet it seems as if man should have had a slightly more extensive connection with other members of his species even in this early stage for several reasons. One can first use the argument that contrary to the outlined theory, man is a "naturally social" species. One knows that man comes from another man - not directly from nature - and this establishes the first inevitable association - that of a mother nursing her child. Still before this association, and without even venturing into a religious explanation, one can reasonably say that there has to have been a "first man" and a "first woman" to procreate the earth. Whether these first members of the human race were evolutionary creatures, refined over time, or whether they were the handiwork of a supernatural entity, they must have developed an association slightly beyond that of a "quick chance meeting" simply because they, being the only ones from the beginning, might not have seen another so similar to themselves. One can suppose here that some type of bond between these two uniquely crafted species was formed, even if only for the sake of being drawn to a species which looked like them in a world where that distinct similarity was quite rare, or even if for the sake of an easier survival due to the two of them working together.

If one will not accept this "naturally social" theory, then one must look at an alternative perspective concerning the element of "natural compassion" in man. Originally, one would think that Rousseau's claim that men are "reasoning men" with "free agency" would play a major factor in his more social nature. However, this characteristic of natural man cannot be used to substantiate the claim that men were originally more social creatures than Rousseau thought simply because although they were rational in nature, Rousseau envisions nature as being so abundant that there was no need to cultivate this reasoning for social purposes. In other words, this semi-paradise of the earth provided man with everything that he needed to survive without his forming social units. Thus, although the inevitable association of man with others of his species as an indirect consequence of his sense of self-preservation was possible , this association would have quickly come to an end after having succeeded in preserving one's life. (This idea is relevant only if one accepts the idea of an "abundant, human-sustaining natural world" that Rousseau theorizes). It is plausible that man's reasoning capacity alone may not have made him a social species, yet it is precisely his element of "natural compassion" (perhaps combined with reasoning) that would allow him to reject his life of isolation and lead him to form bonds with other members of his species strong enough to create the most simple social units. Before further explication of the above point, one must first re-examine Rousseau's use of the Law of Sparta to illustrate Nature. He says,

"Nature treats them precisely as the law of Sparta treatedthe children of citizens; it makes strong and robust those with good constitution and lets all the others perish." (11)

There are inconsistencies inherent in this comparison due to Rousseau's immediately preceding statement that the children of natural men were brought into the world with the "excellent constitution of their parents." If the children of natural men possessed the same constitution of their parents, there would be no need for Nature to let any of them perish. In fact, the "abundant nature" that Rousseau envisions should be so abundant that the possibility for weaker offspring would be very minimal. (Later, scientists would call this the occurrence of genetic mutations.)  

Because Rousseau did not possess the knowledge that Darwin had concerning the basis of evolutionary changes, one must ignore this slight error in the formulation of early mankind in nature that Rousseau has presented. If one were to insist that there was the production of weaker offspring during early human history despite the abundance and consistency of nature, one must then wonder whether or not all of those offspring who were "weaker" truly perished (as Rousseau implies by comparing them to the children of Sparta)? It is true that Nature, in its earliest and most fertile stages, rendered an environment in which "physically inadequate" human beings were more apt to perish, but would man's element of human compassion allow him to see the weaker suffer and consequently allow them to perish? In the case that men and women were so isolated that they rarely came across another human being suffering, surely they witnessed a particular group of others suffering on a more consistent basis - but in a different way. It is this inevitably "weaker" segment of the population that Rousseau does not fully address - that of the children . Though it is obvious that the human trait of natural compassion would not allow a mother to leave her babies to defend themselves, at what age does she leave them to the "hands" of nature? One must consider the reality of a five year old child left alone in the middle of the jungle (or desert, or plains) having to confront a venomous snake, or a poisonous scorpion, or a tree that was so tall that fear prevented him from climbing it. Would they have truly used their wits alone to conquer nature on their own (which was not in fact a harsh environment but simply an alien one to them if they had only experienced it for so long)? Is it really likely that a mere eight-year-old child (or ten, or twelve for that matter) would survive nature by living an isolated life? Would they not have to find comfort in relying on other beings to learn what they needed to learn until they were truly ready to be a "loner" in the wild? The creator of the character Tarzan, who left him in the hands of an ape family, realized this even though Rousseau did not, and it is precisely this need to be taught , this need to be guided and an adult's (if not a mother's) compassion for a child who would most likely experience pain and suffering without such guidance, that should have led natural man to form basic social units of adult + children. Even wolves travel in packs, and fish swim together in the sea - why would humans not have done the same? One might call it tiny families, others might call it traveling groups, but it is definitely his element of natural compassion and his need to have some sort of example to follow (a teacher, parent, or guide) in order to preserve himself that gives one reason to believe that man was not so isolated after all.   

By far, one of Rousseau's most interesting takes on the metaphysical aspect of natural man is the fact that he has an inherent attribute of compassion. Man's compassion implies a certain emotion that he displays for others. Yet, as unrecognized by Rousseau, it is precisely this emotion which leads to all others - sadness, happiness, fear, etc. It should not be assumed that natural man developed the same extent or versions of these emotions as we, living in a more civilized society, have today. However, because of this one emotion natural man was not as "soulless" and "heartless" as Rousseau envisions. Even certain animals have a certain solemn attitude towards the dead. Although early humans lacked technology and knowledge of mathematical and physical concepts they did have the capacity to learn and the peculiar trait of "free agency." These attributes combined with his natural compassion are not only what made him unique, but should have produced a species with more passions than any other species on earth. Thus, although Rousseau makes a well-thought out proposal for the state of natural man, he ends up creating a spectacle that lacks any true liveliness - so much so that it contradicts what it means to be a human being. One must admit that certain things that made natural man a human being during very early times still - thousands of years later - make human beings who we are today. Although Rousseau's portrait is not totally unsubstantial, let's face it - even the character Tarzan had a form of communication with his gorilla family, and even though he is portrayed as having remarkable dexterity, he has (not mere reasoning) but obvious intelligence as well. More than likely, by studying Tarzan - a fictional character - one might have a better vision of what "natural" man probably was like because of his more conspicuous use of reason and more realistic display of emotion. In the meantime, we should be satisfied with labeling the men in the state nature as described by Rousseau, as more appropriately called the "alienated brothers of Tarzan."

 


 

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