Sentimental belief in the socially corrective power of benevolence gave way during the 1780s to a more urgent and polemical expression of natural rights. The subject of the rights (or wrongs) of man (and woman) came to be a powerful genre which dictated the terms in which political change were expressed by both commentators and creative writers. The essential bases of this form were established by the Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose works came to be enormously influential in revolutionary France and in England. At the heart of his approach in a variety of fields is a belief in ‘the natural goodness of Man’, the phrase chosen by Arthur M. Melzer as the title for his book:

By nature, man lacks a specific desire to harm others, and, even more important, he lacks all the needs, passions, and prejudices that now put his interests in essential and systematic conflict with others. He is naturally self-sufficient and content, and therefore strife with others is never intrinsically pleasant, it is rarely useful, and it troubles his inner repose.1

By glossing ‘nature’ in ‘natural’, and giving such a human face to natural law’s ‘reasonable man’ with his innate predilection for doing good and avoiding evil, Rousseau opens up the terrain of natural rights in many different areas of application, and gives those who follow, a powerful tool of analysis.


Civil Society Social Contract French Revolution Moral Indignation Natural Goodness 
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  1. 1.
    Arthur M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseaus Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 16.Google Scholar
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    Quotations from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, transl. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Books, 1984).Google Scholar
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    Quotations from The Social Contract, transl. and ed. Maurice Cranston (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 64.Google Scholar
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    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile transl. Barbara Foxley (London: Dent, 1911), 183.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, ed. Henry Collins (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 116. A useful collection of Paine’s writings is Thomas Paine: Political Writings, ed. Bruce Kuklick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). A recent, excellent biography is by John Keane, Thomas Paine: A Political Life (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995).Google Scholar
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    A Vindication o f the Rights of Men (1790), in Mary Wollstonecra ft: Political Writings, ed. Janet Todd (London: W. Pickering, 1993).Google Scholar
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    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 98.Google Scholar
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    See the volume by Maria J. Falco ed., Feminist Interpretations o f Mary Wollstonecraft (University Park, Pennsylvania: University State University Press, 1996), especially the contribution by Virginia Sapiro and Penny A. Weiss, ‘Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft’, 179–208.Google Scholar
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    See P. M. Kemp-Ashraf, ‘Thomas Spence’, in P. M. Kemp-Ashraf and Jack Mitchell (eds), Essays in Honour o f William Gallacher (Berlin: Allen and Unwin, 1966), 280–4, cited by Gallop, PigsMeat, 48, fn 3.Google Scholar
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    This section quotes from and draws upon William Laurence Brown’s An Essay on the Natural Equality o f Men: On the Rights that Result from it, and on the Duties which it Imposes, with new introduction by William Scott (London and Tokyo: Routledge, Thoemmes Press, 1994), History of British Philosophy, The Scottish Enlightenment, Third Series. Page numbers in the text refer to this volume.Google Scholar

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© R. S. White 2005

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