Rousseau research papers show that Rousseau, like any writer, is contextualized in his time. Therefore, it would not be entirely appropriate to apply modern psychological interpretations to Rousseau's depiction of human nature. It does little good to judge him in terms of modern advances, for example, by women in the twentieth century. He was a man of his time and he wrote from where he stood in that time. G.D.H. Cole, translator of Rousseau's The Social Contract and Discourses appeals to his readers to keep two things in mind.
- Rousseau wrote in the eighteenth century, and mostly in France. The French monarchy did not appreciate outspoken criticism, and Rousseau had to be very careful in what he said.
Secondly, Rousseau's theories are to be studied in a wider historical environment. Had critics studied him in an historical spirit, they would have seen that Rousseau's importance lies in the new use he makes of old ideas, in the transition he makes from old to new in the general conception of politics.
The first half of the Discourse on Inequality is taken up with an imaginary description of the state of nature, in which man is shown with ideas limited within the narrowest range, with little need of other human beings, and little care beyond provision for the necessities of the moment. Rousseau did not believe that this particular state of nature as he described ever existed; rather it is a concept that will help him develop his arguments. By contrasting natural man with civilized man, Rousseau intended to take a stand not for either side, but for the space in between the two, where people could have the comforts and some of the safety of the civilized world and still experience the simplicity and the goodness of nature. Granted that the extremes are just that, finding a place in the middle is not necessarily the optimal space.
In The Social Contract, Rousseau gives us a view of the of the same matter of which Hobbes speaks, the relationship between civil and religious authority. However, because Rousseau views the status quo of his time with much less equanimity than did Hobbes whose "dangerous dreams" led him to accept aspects of human life which Rousseau, being a person of an entirely different temperament, could not accept, Rousseau's treatment of the issue is similar in some details, but quite different in the solution proposed. For Rousseau the status quo is absolutely pernicious; European "civilization" is corrupt; its arts and refinements have rendered it effete and what some might call "human progress" has resulted in a situation where, "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains". A great deal of the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality extols the life of human beings in the state of nature, e.g. "inequality is barely perceptible in the state of nature, andits influence there is almost null". Rousseau is a man in search of a revolution and his answer to the ills that he saw everywhere around him was not royal absolutism, but an association of human beings who agree to behave in conformity to the "general will," an association in which "each man gives himself to all" and, in doing so "he gives himself to no one".