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How to understand the phrase in boldface?

The body being the only instrument that savage man is acquainted with, he employs it to different uses, of which ours, for want of practice, are incapable; and we may thank our industry for the loss of that strength and agility, which necessity obliges him to acquire. Had he a hatchet, would his hand so easily snap off from an oak so stout a branch? Had he a sling, would it dart a stone to so great a distance? Had he a ladder, would he run so nimbly up a tree? Had he a horse, would he with such swiftness shoot along the plain? Give civilized man but time to gather about him all his machines, and no doubt he will be an overmatch for the savage: but if you have a mind to see a contest still more unequal, place them naked and unarmed one opposite to the other; and you will soon discover the advantage there is in perpetually having all our forces at our disposal, in being constantly prepared against all events, and in always carrying ourselves, as it were, whole and entire about us.

-- from Rousseau's “Discourse on Inequality”

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First, some of the idiomatic pieces:

  • As it were can be 'bracketed out' of this sentence (it is in fact bracketed out with commas). It contributes nothing to the meaning, it just tells us that Rousseau is speaking figuratively rather than literally.

  • To carry X about one is a rather old-fashioned expression (this is a 1910 translation of Rousseau) meaning to carry something on one's person, to carry it with them where it is readily accessible.

What Rousseau is saying is that the hypothetical 'savage' has no tools but his own body. But although he may be defeated by a 'civilized man' with his tools and machines, if you set them against each other naked, the savage will defeat the civilized man, because the civilized man is deprived of the tools he relies on while the 'savage' still has all his—and is expert in their use.

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  • This is such a good explanation. It's rare these days to encounter such a heavy use of the subjunctive, which I love; I'd been eager to dive into this one, but you did a much better job at explaining it so very simply, so I didn't even bother posting mine. +1 sir. – Giambattista Dec 9 '13 at 7:37

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