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Gentle Savages and Fierce Citizens against Civilization: Unraveling Rousseau's Paradoxes


  • Matthew D. Mendham is Post-Doctoral Fellow, the Program in Democracy and Citizenship and the Department of Political Science, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322 (,

  • A previous version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. For their helpful comments, I thank Vittorio Hösle, Michael Zuckert, Jennifer Herdt, Mary Keys, Shmulik Nili, and three anonymous reviewers. For their generous support, I thank the University of Notre Dame, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.


Rousseau seems to argue, on one hand, that moderns are luxurious, lazy, weak, and soft, in opposition to primitive hardiness, vigor, ferocity, and rustic virtue. On the other hand, he depicts modern life as cruel, frenzied, competitive, and harsh, in opposition to primitive gentleness, idleness, abundance, and spontaneity. Is Rousseau, then, simply an imaginative ideologue, forwarding wildly opposed and oscillating characterizations of these eras, merely to be contrarian? This article attempts to demonstrate a degree of coherence in his analyses, by focusing on the various sociopolitical contexts he discusses, and the various moral characterizations and norms which apply to each of these contexts. Building upon a half-century of interpretations, it offers an innovative logical typology of Rousseau's social thought—in terms of social complexity, environmental resources, and normative foundation—which may explain many of his central paradoxes.