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    Frontispiece Interpretation of Rousseau’s Discourse Essay

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    In this essay I will provide an interpretation of the frontispiece in Rousseau’s second discourse, a summary of some important ideas in Rousseau’s work, and an explanation how the frontispiece corresponds to Rousseau’s ideas. A description and a brief analysis of the frontispiece are necessary. The frontispiece us a black and white wood engraving pressed on to paper. The style is reminiscent of the high renaissance engraver Albrecht Durer. The stark black and white contrast is reflective of the thematic contrast between the figures within the frontispiece.

    The left side of the piece features five adult white men. For descriptive purposes, these men will be called “the nobles”. All wearing plumed hats, pointed shoe, and frilly shirts; these are staples of ostentatious European fashion. In the background behind the nobles is a castle towering to the clouds. Four of the five nobles appear to be arguing, perhaps there is a power struggle among them. Unlike his peers, the fifth noble is sitting. His facial expression and body language seem to indicate that he is in a state of dissatisfaction and deep reflection.

    On the opposite side of the frontispiece is a tribe of naked savages sitting around huts. This part of the piece contains little detail and the faces of the tribesmen are hidden. The tribe’s nakedness, primitive shelters, and position in the background suggest that the tribe is living in the distant past. In the foreground between the tribe and the nobles, a central figure stands. The central figure is a barefoot man in a loin cloth, a necklace hung over his neck and a sword at his hip, his back is to the nobles and his left hand is pointing towards the tribe.

    The light source of the frontispiece illuminates the central figure’s chest, while his backside remains shadowed. Looking back over his right shoulder, there is no longing in his eyes to return to the nobles, but rather a look of contempt. Before the central figure a bundle of clothes and other items lay on the ground, presumably these are possessions of the central figure he is leaving behind. Below the frontispiece, “He returns to his equals” is inscribed. In addition, Rousseau instructs us to see note P.

    In note P, it is revealed that the frontispiece is actually the depiction of a historical event. The Dutch came to Africa around the 16th century. The Dutch called the natives “Hottentots” and introduced them to a European lifestyle that they have never seen. The Dutch governor of the Cape of Good Hope adopted an infant Hottentot, raising him in the Christian faith and educating him in European customs. As a young man, the governor’s adopted son visited his people for the first time. He was introduced to the way his ancestors have lived for generations.

    For once he did not feel like a misfit in the world. The governor’s adopted son returned to the Dutch wearing a sheepskin loincloth, his old clothes bundled in a pile. The young denied the Christian faith and the European lifestyle and said, “My resolution is to live and die in the religion, ways, and customs of my ancestors. The sole favor I ask of you is to let me keep the necklace and cutlass I am wearing. ” (225). The governor’s son then returned to live with his people without listening to a reply from his old family. The story behind the frontispiece is enigmatic.

    Why does the young man hold on to the cutlass and the necklace? He wants to reject the European ways of life and venture wholeheartedly into the ways of his ancestors, but he still holds on to pieces of his European life. He says he wants to keep the necklace and sword on account of the love he has for the governor, but he does not even afford his loved ones the chance to say good-bye. How could the governor’s son love the man who kidnapped him and robbed him of his way of life? The inscription below the frontispiece is also troubling.

    The governor’s son returns to his native people but it seems he is no longer their equal. His tribesmen are naked and primitive. The governor’s son returns to them clothed, armed, and educated. He is superior to the tribe in many ways, how is he equal to the tribesmen’some of these questions can be answered by studying Rousseau’s work in the second discourse. In the preface of the second discourse, Rousseau compares the evolution of man to the statue of Gloucest, a once beautiful work of art that fell into the sea and became disfigured by the elements (91).

    Rousseau believes that man has taken a massive departure away from his natural state and continues on a path towards a more unnatural state (92). What is man’s natural state and what caused this departure? Rousseau attempts to explore the state of nature just as many other philosophers have; he conducts a thought experiment. Rousseau says concerning the state of nature, “The research which can be undertaken concerning this subject must not be taken for historical truths, but only hypothetical and conditional reasonings better suited to clarify the nature of things than to show their true origin” (103).

    This thought experiment involves eliminating man from all technology and artificial faculties that have come as a result of man’s evolution. Rousseau considers man to be a savage, saying, “I see an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but all things considered, the most advantageously organized of all. I see him satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that furnished his meal; and therewith all his needs are satisfied” (105). For Rousseau the natural man is a solitary nomad.

    His needs are few and immediate. Rather than a cultivated sense of reason or natural instincts to find ways of satisfying his needs, the natural man copies the survival techniques of other animals. Rousseau says, “Men, dispersed among the animals imitate their industry where each species has only its own proper instinct, man feeds himself equally well with the most diverse foods which other animals share and consequently finds subsistence more easily. ” (105-106). Man is like a more able bodied raccoon, able to scavenge and survive in many different situations.

    Man is unique; he has no natural predators as a result of his adaptability. Men can fight off or find numerous ways to evade potentially harmful predators, such as climbing trees (108). Most animals do not have the option to choose their battles. Rousseau calls the adaptive versatile survival quality “perfectibility” (115). It is man’s natural ability to improve himself. Rousseau says, “the faculty of self perfection, a faculty which, with the aid of circumstances, successfully develops all the others, and resides among us as much in the species as in the individual (115).

    Perfectibility is the quality that has allowed us to transcend all other animals. Rousseau claims that perfectibility applied to the passions is what caused a supreme cultivation of man’s ability to reason, saying, “we seek to know only because we desire to have pleasure, and it is impossible to conceive why one who had neither desires nor fears would go through the trouble of reasoning” (110). Man’s greatest asset to survival is also the source of all his misfortune and enlightenment. Without perfectibility humanity would not have reason, without reason men would not form society, which is an unnatural state.

    Rousseau believes that idea of private property is the beginning of man’s departure from his natural state. He says, “The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the founder of society” (141). Private property caused the expansion of the human race to new areas and the production of technology. It created the need for new industry. Rousseau says, men, “Along the sea and rivers invented the fishing line and hook, and became fishermen and the eaters of fish.

    In forests they made bows and arrows, and became hunters and warriors. In cold countries they covered themselves, with the skins of the beasts they killed” (143). The needs of men were no longer so simple and immediate. Men began living in closer proximity to one another. More complex language were needed to communicate with each other (145). Laws and rules were needed to keep peace. Rousseau says, “The idea of justice stems from believing everyone has a right to be considered by other people” (149).

    Natural man simply did not have the capacity to conceive of justice because of his undeveloped reasoning and his solitary lifestyle. Instead of living in the shade of trees and caves men started building shelters. This is the begging of the age of the huts. Rousseau says the age of the huts, “was the epoch of a first revolution, which produced the establishment and differentiation of families and introduced a sort of property- from which perhaps many quarrels and fights arose” (146). Men and women began to live together in these huts. This is the beginning of the family, a society within society (147).

    The course of man at this point has been forever altered. Even still, the age of the huts was not a far departure from the state of nature. Rousseau claims the introduction of the economy catapulted men further out of the natural state. He says men should have, “applied themselves only to tasks that a single person could do that did not require the cooperation of several hands, they lived free as soon as they observed that it was useful for a single person to have the provisions of two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, labor became necessary” (151).

    Social classes developed based upon peoples skills one could provide other people. Some became more valuable than others; inequality resulted (154-155). The introduction of the economy produced an increased desire to consume, which caused for an increased need for technology, which then caused an increased expansion between the classes. The longer this went on, the greater the distance between man and his natural state became. Rousseau believes that man has reached a point where man cannot fully return to his natural state (157).

    The nobles in the frontispiece are symbolic of the high society. They are materialistic and have many needs. They are in a constant power struggle because of pressures society has placed upon them to be superior. They have the need to have an outward display of power by wearing fancy clothes. The tribe is the depiction of men living in a more natural state. The tribesmen live a simpler more authentic lifestyle, and have been maintaining their way of life for generations. Their needs are fewer, they do not have the constant struggle for power because they are equal with each other.

    The central figure of the frontispiece is a man who desperately wants to reconnect to his more natural state. He recognizes that he cannot make a full return to his natural state. How can he forget his entire life living as a noble? In the same sense how can we, as a society, forget all of the knowledge that has accumulated for thousands of years? The central figure recognizes that the technology and education he can bring back to his people can be beneficial, especially in dealings with people such as the nobles.

    Since we can not make the full return back to our natural state, we should try, as Rousseau says, “maintaining a golden mean between the indolence of the primitive and the petulant activity of our vanity” (151). The moral of the frontispiece and of Rousseau’s second discourse are the same; be a natural man in an unnatural society. This is done by recognizing people as equals and curbing our desire to always consume more than is necessary.


    Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Roger D. Masters, Judith R. Masters, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The First and Second Discourses. New York: St. Martin’s, 1964. Print.

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