Rousseau's Political Theory of Second Nature

20 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 3 May 2010


Rousseau is famous for his romantic depictions of solitary walkers, who pass through the landscape leaving at most a negligible trace. But it is perhaps less well recognized that he also explores another feature of the human presence in the natural world: he emphasizes that as human beings come to live in social groups they must transform the landscape in order to survive. Thus, in the Discourse on Inequality, whereas 'savage man' makes use of what nature puts into his hands without having to alter the source of those goods, Rousseau associates 'civil man' with quite substantial alterations of the landscape, as human beings learn through their economic activities to exploit natural processes. It follows that the evolution of human nature and social life that Rousseau recounts in the Discourse can also be read as the story of humanity transforming its habitat from primordial wilderness into the 'second nature' of an agricultural countryside. After tracking Rousseau's descriptive project of recounting the development of second nature through socially organized labor, I shall argue that he pairs it with a normative project of evaluating the condition of the transformed landscape in moral and political terms. Thus, I will conclude, Rousseau advocates an agrarian political vision in which republican institutions and environmental quality are mutually sustaining.

Keywords: Rousseau, environment, second nature, wilderness, agrarianism

Suggested Citation

Trachtenberg, Zev, Rousseau's Political Theory of Second Nature. Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN:

Zev Trachtenberg (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma ( email )

Department of Philosophy 455 W. Lindsey St., Rm 60
455 W Lindsey St. Rm 605
Norman, OK 73019
United States

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