For Rousseau to succeed in determining which societal institutions and structures contradict man’s natural goodness and freedom, he must first define the “natural.” Rousseau strips away all the ideas that centuries of development have imposed on the true nature of man and concludes that many of the ideas we take for granted, such as property, law, and moral inequality, actually have no basis in nature. For Rousseau, modern society generally compares unfavorably to the “state of nature.”

As Rousseau discusses in Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, the state of nature is the hypothetical, prehistoric place and time where human beings live uncorrupted by society. The most important characteristic of the state of nature is that people have complete physical freedom and are at liberty to do essentially as they wish. That said, the state of nature also carries the drawback that human beings have not yet discovered rationality or morality. In different works, Rousseau alternately emphasizes the benefits and shortfalls of the state of nature, but by and large he reveres it for the physical freedom it grants people, allowing them to be unencumbered by the coercive influence of the state and society.

In this regard, Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature is entirely more positive than Hobbes’s conception of the same idea, as Hobbes, who originated the term, viewed the state of nature as essentially a state of war and savagery. This difference in definition indicates the two philosophers’ differing views of human nature, which Rousseau viewed as essentially good and Hobbes as essentially base and brutal. Finally, Rousseau acknowledged that although we can never return to the state of nature, understanding it is essential for society’s members to more fully realize their natural goodness.