Stage Theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 6
Words: 1759
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: College


Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith are influential thinkers of the eighteenth century. Although the two authors acted on various scopes, they were of the same time and provided relatively similar views on human evolution. Natural order and intellectual properties became the standpoints on which Rousseau and Smith debated and provided their arguments. Rousseau and Smith have established theories on social development and explained human evolution. Overall, the different perceptions of human nature through the prism of historical narratives at the time resulted in disparities between Rousseau’s and Smith’s moral evaluations of society.

Social Order of Rousseau and Smith

To begin with, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith published numerous works reflecting the main ideas carried through their investigations on social evolution. For instance, Rousseau acknowledged that a man is innocent of nature; interaction with nature does not imply social concepts such as possessions, greed, and vanity. Rousseau often compares a man to an innocent child unfamiliar with primitive forms of human desire. Natural goodness becomes the fundamental argument in Rousseau’s implications on social development. Oppositely, Adam Smith believes in inborn social interaction; he appreciates the theory of individuals’ economic interests, which exceed moral relations (Smith, p. 23). The scope of Smith’s scientific activity is primarily economic relations; he emphasizes the role of money, labor, and trade, which enables him to state the relationship between social evolution and finances.

Rousseau describes the human as a divine creature who is emphatic and endowed with the natural state of goodness. Historical narratives in Rousseau’s approach impact the moral evaluations of society; he believes that nature provides individuals with excellence and virtue. It is important to note that the era of Romanticism influenced Rousseau, the movement which found inspiration in emotions, nature, and liberty (Sagar, p. 18). Rousseau’s perfect society represents people of high morals who are not spoiled by greed, desires for possessions, and vanity. Therefore, his views are shaped primarily by the vision of natural emotionality and sensibility within his historical background; it explains why he appreciates natural goodness to a great extent.

In contrast, Adam Smith is an economist, and the historical narrative of his background plays a significant role. He values the capitalist system; his economic theories contributed to the formation of the contemporary economy. The moral evaluations of society in Adam Smith’s times are the desire for possessions and financial security; the community strives to earn more and improve its economic situation. Adam Smith dwells on self-esteem and love; he claims money is the driver of self-love and respect. Moreover, he sees a clear connection between social status and self-esteem; for Smith, the more money the individual has, the better their social adaptation and perception.

Society and the Self

Rousseau and Smith share different beliefs regarding the ways social development can be achieved. Rousseau considers that social expectations and standards influence the person adversely, as they develop distorted esteem of themselves. For example, for Rousseau, self-esteem is one of the fundamental concepts of human development; he believes that human possesses two types of personal self – self-identification and social perspective. The first type is characterized by self-awareness; it is closely linked to one’s perception and makes it possible to estimate oneself from a realistic view (Rousseau, p. 93). Comparably, Smith argues upon the conception of social perception; he claims that social perspective shapes self-esteem and helps the individual to grasp their behavior through the vision of social perception. Social approval or disapproval fosters the individual to shape their views, beliefs, and actions; through social assessment, social evolution happens. Therefore, Smith relies on social perspective in shaping a person’s mindset and behavior. For Smith, no individual is separated from society and social interaction. In contrast, for Rousseau, the individual’s interaction begins once they are separated from nature; the author claims adverse effects of social advancement.

In addition, the moral side plays a significant role in self-perception; the person can judge whether they act right or not, enabling them to make reasonable choices. Rousseau pleads that social esteem makes people vain, depriving them of natural goodness (Sagar, p. 19). It is feasible to draw a parallel between social perspective and adverse human characteristics concerning Rousseau’s point of view. For instance, social implications make the person earn more money and possess more property. Furthermore, the thinker believes that social assessment deprives humans of self-awareness, making individuals vain and self-centered. Besides social evaluation’s effects, humans start to doubt their natural value and social status. Therefore, although social assessment is essential in transition, Rousseau states its negative impact on human development.

Social Evolution Stages

Rousseau describes the transition from nature to society by dividing social evolution into five stages. The first stage starts in the infant age, and Rousseau identifies it as the period when no habits are permitted (Rousseau 120). The second stage is characterized by sensual reasoning, as the child cannot make grounded decisions. Children at this age rely on their physical perception and are interested in activities that can encourage their active pastime. Rousseau declares poetry and music as healthy alternatives to academic education, as he believes that natural goodness develops through sensual perception. In the third stage of pre-adolescence, the child starts to digress mentally; they can reason and imply arguments. Morality develops in the fourth stage; the person can assess their good or evil actions, suggest reasonable conclusions, and digress about the consequences of their behavior. The last stage, the manhood evolution, is a period of moral education; the person can socially adapt themselves to environmental changes. Apart from these characteristics, the individual carries moral responsibility for their actions and fosters empathy.

Comparable to Rousseau, Smith divides social development into stages and considers that people go through hunting, shepherding, agriculture, and transfer to trade (Hodacs and Persson, p. 2). Social stages are linked to stadial thinking, which has different interpretations and perceptions in countries. The idea of stadial thinking separates people into savage individuals and civil personalities. This thought emerged from the representation of Smith’s stage theory, in which he determined four levels of social development. In this model, the savage individual is in the lowest stage of human socialization (Hodacs and Persson, p. 3). Moreover, Rousseau states that a savage man is happier than a socialized individual, as the savage is free of desires and stress (Rousseau, p. 135). Thus, for Rousseau, nature provides people with natural happiness and freedom, and socialization deprives them of it.

Similar to Rousseau, Smith digresses the roots of social development, underlining the role of human feelings. Indeed, the fundamental distinction between Rosseau and Smith is the attitude toward self-esteem; for Smith, self-perception depends on possession and money. He argues that the more capital, the better; finances help to shape an individual’s higher self-esteem. Rousseau implies five essential stages of human development, vital for shaping the individual, highlighting the significance of natural maturation. For Smith, social evolution succeeds when the individual reaches civil society. Additively, Smith disputes that individuals are usually afraid to lose their possessions, social position, and respect for others. Smith divides social evolution into several phases that mark rebuke and punishment (Sagar, p. 12). Smith claims that social maturing emerges when the person starts to understand the appropriacy of their behavior.

For example, the impropriety of argument or judgment toward the individual can cause adverse effects or social punishment. An example of reward is the concept of relaxation; Smith thinks that the person strives to relax after work (Smith, p. 115). Therefore, Smith argues on social adaptation; for him, following social standards is essential to shape the cultural balance, while Rousseau highlights the positive impact of being deprived of possessions and social expectations.

Adam Smith believes the person is initially endowed with social implications; he does not separate social evolution into natural and civil stages. In contrast, Rousseau says that the transition from the natural state to society harms people and deprives them of natural goodness. In addition, Rousseau declares that possessions and money spoil people, making them greedy. Adam Smith thinks reversely; his standpoint on the connection between money and society states that finances help to establish a better social position. Furthermore, Rousseau stresses the role of self-awareness; for him, it is vital to avoid social assessment, as it harms self-esteem, making the individual vain. Reversely, Smith says that social perspective is one of the essential axioms in shaping an individual’s self-identification.

Historical Narratives that Impact Rousseau and Smith’s Works

It is vital to note that although the two men are of the same period, their historical narratives vary. Rousseau values human virtue given by nature, as his background appreciates nature, emotionality, and pureness. Apart from this, Rousseau is primarily a philosopher, influencing his standpoint on social standards. As a result, Rousseau’s moral evaluation of society is mainly based on the perception of human pureness and their emotional background. In contrast, Smith emphasizes the role of money in an individual’s life; his scope of activity is economy, which contributes to understanding his approach. Therefore, Adam Smith sees social development as economic progress, while Rousseau emphasizes the role of nature in this issue.

Stadial Thinking in Contemporary America

As stated, the theories of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith are concerned with social evolution. However, the attitude toward stadial thinking varies in the United States and Africa. People do not want to associate themselves with savage and wild individuals; contemporary America has gone far away from association with barbarians. However, this notion is not offensive in Africa; savagery is associated with manual labor, the absence of passions, and the desire for possessions (Hodacs and Persson, p. 3). Therefore, the attitude toward stadial thinking varies in different countries; in America, the perception is negative compared to Africa.


The authors’ approaches vary in this issue, as they establish various ways of human transition into civil society. Rousseau believes in the natural goodness of humanity and highlights the role of nature in shaping an individual’s attributes. He claims that the transition to society can harm the personality, making the individual fall to primitive human desires. In contrast, Smith declares that social evolution succeeds when economic prosperity is achieved. Adam Smith sees a clear parallel between financial and human relations, stating that finances can exceed morals. Moreover, Smith’s works greatly emphasize stadial thinking; people in various countries perceive the social transition differently. That is why as Rousseau and Smith share different beliefs regarding social evolution, their perception of society cannot be similar in any way. They use dissimilar criteria to morally evaluate humans, mainly based on historical narratives, which their works follow.

Works Cited

Hodacs, Hanna, and Persson, Mathias. “Globalizing the Savage: From Stadial Theory to a Theory of Luxury in Late-18th-century Swedish Discussions of Africa.” History of the Human Sciences, vol. 32, no. 4, SAGE Publications, 2019, pp. 1–15.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Amsterdam, Netherlands, Adfo Books, 2003.

Sagar, Paul. “Smith and Rousseau, After Hume and Mandeville.” Political Theory, vol. 46, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2018, pp. 29–58.

Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations. Annotated, Coterie Classics, 2016.