Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [1753]


Dedication “To the Republic of Geneva [25]

Desirable features in a birthplace:

1.      SIZE limited by the extent of human faculties – i.e., by the possibility of being well-governed

2.      where the sovereign and the people share the same common interest of the common happiness.  This could only happen where the sovereign is the people.

3.      where one is free, and this can only happen where everyone equally is subject to the same laws (i.e., the sovereign is not above the law).  NOTE: this is the first hint that freedom and equality are importantly interrelated for Rousseau.

4.      Not a newly constituted republic because “liberty is like those solid and tasty foods or those full-bodied wines which are appropriate for nourishing and strengthening robust constitutions that are used to them, but which overpower, ruin and intoxicate the weak and delicate who are not suited for them” [27].
NOTE: distinction between liberty and “an unbridled license which is its opposite”

5.      Combination of “fortunate impotence” and security – i.e., no desire or ability to invade neighbors, who are in an identical situation.

6.      The right of legislation is common to all citizens BUT the right of proposing new laws belonged only to the Magistrates, who respected “the great antiquity” of the laws.

In other words: Geneva!


Preface [33]

The Discourse is an entry in an essay competition asking what the origin of the inequality of humans is.  Is it natural or artificial?  Rousseau, as we shall see, concludes the latter.  In the preface he discusses questions that need to be cleared up before the question can be answered.  In particular, how can we know what is humankind’s natural state, given that modern humans are so much the product of civilization?  As he puts it:

how will man be successful in seeing himself as nature formed him through all the changes that the succession of time and things must have produced in his original constitution, and in separating what he derives from his own wherewithal from what circumstances and his porgress have added to or changed in his primitive state? [33]

Analogy of weathered statue of Glaucus that looked like a wild beast – how can we know the original now?

Illustrating the problem: so many theorists have claimed to have had a clear grasp of man’s natural state, but as they all disagree, it can’t be that easy!  One problem in particular is that some theorists assume humans to have in their pre-social states, powers that are surely social in origin (these include language and reason, according to Rousseau).  Rousseau’s suggestion: the “human soul” always had “two principles that are prior to reason”:

  1. self-interest
  2. pity

These two taken together are the basis for “all the rules of natural right” and reason only comes along later to rationalize them.  “In this way one is not obliged to make a man a philosopher before making him a man” [35] – that is, humans could have the basic drives necessary for morality and social living without being hyper-rational.


Intro to Part I [37]

Two kinds of inequality:

  1. Natural or Physical – e.g., differences in age, health, strength, qualities of mind
  2. Moral or Political – depends on CONVENTION


Misunderstandings about the state of nature: all previous philosophers have projected on to humans in this state features of humans that are in fact products of civilization, and therefore conventional rather than natural.  Rousseau boasts:

O man, whatever country you may be from, whatever your opinions may be, listen: here is your history, as I have thought to read it, not in the books of your fellowmen, who are liars, but in nature, who never lies. [39]

Is he claiming to see into the past?  Well, not exactly.  He compares his “findings” with those of Physicists investigating the origin of the universe.  So, just as scientists tell us about the Big Bang without actually having been there, so he can tell us about primitive humans by deducing what they must have been like.


Part I [39]

Assume natural man was physically similar to his current state (but notice how much Rousseau for allows the possibility of evolution (see also mention of Orangutans in note 10, p. 96) – this in 1753!

40 -          nature treats humans like Sparta did – i.e., survival of the fittest

41 -          savage man kicks modern man’s ass! 

42 -          savage man is neither intrepid nor timid – more sensibly cautious.  Like modern “primitives” who walk naked in the jungle without fear
ALSO: how medicine is a sham and illnesses are the product of society: “someone could easily write the history of human maladies by following the history of civil societies”

43 -          comparison of wild and domesticated animals to modern vs. savage man.

In becoming habituated to the ways of society and a slave, he becomes weak, fearful, and servile; his soft and effeminate lifestyle completes the enervation of both his strength and his courage

44 -          Distinction between PHYSICAL and MORAL viewpoints – savage humans are physically similar to animals, but have the crucial moral power of free will

45 -          Humans, unlike animals, have the power of willing which gives them perfectibility - that is, they can change.  A horse of 10,000 years ago is the same as today, but humans have changed radically.  Savage man “begin(s) with purely animal functions” but develops

46 -          We start with NEEDS (food, etc.) which lead to PASSIONS (desires – e.g. for food) which in turn lead to reasoning (necessity is the mother of invention – “the peoples of the north are more industrious than those of the south because they cannot get along as well without being so”).  But savage man at first has no conception beyond the present – story about the “Carib” who sells his bed in the morning because he does not foresee the evening.

47 -          The vital spur of change: communication.  This only happens when the population grows enough that regular encounters with others happen.

48 -          How did language originate?  One suggestion is in the family but Rousseau argues that the family is not the natural state of humans.  Instead, mothers only nurse infants because they have to nurse, and afterwards because of “habit”.  Furthermore, the children leave as soon as they are able.  So there is no stable family to foster communication.

49 -          Greater puzzle: thought needs language at the same time as language needs thought, so you can’t argue that one is natural and causes the other.  Solution: origin of language in instinct (which would seem to suggest that animals can have language).

50 -          Crudeness of early language: no general terms

51 -          Unsolved problem: did language or society cause the other?

52 -          Hobbes’s false claim: life in the State of Nature was miserable:

Now I would very much like someone to explain to me what kind of misery can there be for a free being whose heart is as peace and whose body is in good health?...

I ask if anyone has ever heard tell of a savage who was living in liberty ever dreaming of complaining about his life and of killing himself. [52]

53 -           Hobbes’s “mistake”: concluding that “because man has no idea of goodness he is naturally evil” [Hobbes does not in fact claim this].  Also: projecting “a multitude of passions” onto savage man that are in fact products of society.  In fact, “the calm of the passions and the ignorance of vice” prevents savage man from doing evil.  FURTHERMORE, Hobbes only concentrates on man’s self-interest, ignoring the other faculty [35] of pity.

54 -          In fact, pity is greater amongst savages because “Reason is what engenders egocentrism and… turns man in upon himself”.

55 -          “Pity is what, in the state of nature, takes the place of laws, mores and virtue, with the advantage that non one is tempted to disobey its sweet voice.”  Thus savages would never pick on the helpless because they are driven by pity.

56 -          Two aspects of love: PHYSICAL (lust), which is non-specific and just driven by the urge to procreate, and MORAL, which is individualized, fixed on an individual.  Rousseau claims that the latter is an artificial, social construct, promoted by women.  To savage man, in contrast “any woman suits his purpose”.  Thus, savage humans are free of the dangers of obsessive love.

57 -          Summary:

Wandering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without dwelling, without war, without relationships, with no need for his fellow men, and correspondingly with no desire to do them harm, perhaps never even recognizing any of them individually, savage man, subject to few passions and self-sufficient, had only the sentiments and enlightenment appropriate to that state; he felt only his true needs, took notice of only what he believed he had an interest in seeing’ and that his intelligence made no more progress than his vanity.

58 -           Point of the foregoing: “how far even natural inequality [let alone political] is from having much reality in” the state of nature as other writers claim.  Even differences in things like temperament and mental powers are vastly augmented by society.  Humans did not compare each other, so would not even notice differences in beauty.
FURTHERMORE: the idea that the strong naturally enslave the weak is false because in the state of nature it is practically impossible (and not worth the effort) to enslave another.

59 -          Key point about servitude:

Since the bonds of servitude are formed merely from the mutual dependence of men and the reciprocal needs that unite them, it is impossible to enslave a man without having first put him in the position of being incapable of doing without another.  This being a situation that did not exist in the state of nature, it leaves each person free of the yoke, and renders pointless the law of the strongest.


“Inequality is hardly observable in the state of nature”


“to show its origin and process in the successive developments of the human mind.”


Part II [60]

60 -          Famous quote about property:

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mind and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.  What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someon pulled up the states or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this impostor.  You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

This is out of place at this juncture (i.e., at the stage of human development so far described by Rousseau), but it is a taster for what is to follow.  Rousseau will argue that civilization emerges principally because of property (echoing Locke) but is in general a bad thing (not Locke’s view). 

So far, however, we are still in the first stage of human development, outlined in part one, where humans are naturally solitary and do not even form family groups.

61 -          Illustration of adaptability (or perfectibility – c.f. p. 45) of humans – those by the coast become fishers, those in forests hunters, etc.
Humans observe other humans but are not yet in competition with them.  (This picture is contrary to Hobbes’s description of the state of nature as a war of all against all.)  There is fleeting cooperation, but this “herd” is simply

62 -          “some sort of free association, that obligated no one and that lasted only as long as the passing need that had formed it”.  This is a crude idea of mutual commitments, but easily forgotten (“oh look, a hare!”) – thus humans are not ready for a social contract.
BUT now we have the “first revolution” bringing us to stage two of human development: family life.  In this stage humans developed:
“industry” – tools and huts
“a kind of property” – huts again.  Although few squabbles yet break out, because anyone can make themselves a hut
“habit of living together” – this gives rise to “the sweetest senti-

63 -          ments known to men: conjugal love and paternal love”
“leisure time” – NOT a good thing, according to Rousseau:

In this new state, with a simple and solitary life, very limited needs, and the tools they had invented to provide for them, since men enjoyed a great deal of leisure time, they used it to procure for themselves many types of conveniences unknown to their fathers; and that was the first yoke they imposed on themselves without realizing it, and the first source of evils they prepared for their descendants.

This was because they developed needs for things they never needed before (SUVs, Cell Phones, etc.) “and they were unhappy about losing them without being happy about possessing them”

This stage is followed by stage three, tribes:

men came together and united into different bands, eventually forming in each country a particular nation, united by mores and characteristic features, not be regulations and laws, but by the same kind of life and foods and by the common influence of the climate.

At this stage, when different families are in proximity to each other, COMPARISON becomes a problem here because it leads to the ideas of merit and beauty “which produce feelings of preference”

64 -          JEALOUSY results, particularly when the dancing and singing started:

The one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded.  And this was the first step toward inequality and, at the same time, toward vice.  From these first preferences were born vanity and contempt on the one hand, and shame and envy on the other.  And the fermentation caused by these new leavens eventually produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.

One problem was the sudden need to be respected and to punish people who diss you:

every voluntary wrong became an outrage, because along with the harm that resulted from the injury, the offended party saw in it contempt for his person, which often was more insufferable than the harm itself.  Hence each man punished the contempt shown him in a manner proportionate to the esteem in which he held himself; acts of revenge became terrible, and men became bloodthirsty and cruel.

This “is precisely the stage reached by most of the savage people known to us” which is why Hobbes and like theorists presume the state of nature to be a place of war.

65 -          That said, this state “must have been the happiest and most durable epoch” and

this state was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never have happened.

What was the “fatal chance”?  Division of labor, which led to the twin developments of metallurgy and agriculture:

it is iron and wheat that have civilized men and ruined the human race

66 -          PROPERTY follows from division of land, and from property follows the “first rules of justice”

67 -          We now have entered stage four: interdependence, where initially negligible natural inequality snowballs into vast inequalities where “in labouring equally, the one earned a great deal while the other barely had enough to live”.  This stage brings about the development of the arts, languages, talents, fortunes, mental faculties (like memory and imagination), but also grand ostentation because people realize that if they don’t have skills, they better fake them.
MASTER/SLAVE relationship:

although man had previously been free and independent, we find him, so to speak, subject, by virtue of a multitude of fresh needs, to all of nature and particularly to his fellowmen, whose slave in a sense he becomes even in becoming their master; rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help...It is therefore necessary for him to seek incessantly to interest them in his fate and to make them find their own profit, in fact or in appearance, in working for his. [67/8]

68 -          Property has thus caused inequality which causes theft and violence.  Pretty soon we are (finally) in a Hobbesian state of war:

There arose between the right of the strongest and the right of the first occupant a perpetual conflict that ended only in fights and murders.  Emerging society gave way to the most horrible state of war.

69 -          THE TRICK BY THE RICH: the rich realize they have everything to lose in this situation, as they are the property owners, and in the current state of things, the poor will die if they do not steal, because the rich have snapped up all the land, so the rich (knowing full-well they do not really have a right to their “property”, and also knowing that, while powerful enough to crush small numbers of attackers, each rich person is vulnerable to “troops of bandits”)

pressed by necessity, finally conceived the most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind.  It was to use in his favor the very strength of those who attacked him, to turn his adversaries into his defenders, to instill in them other maxims, and to give them other institutions which were as favorable to him as natural right was unfavorable to him.

That is: the rich cooked up the idea of civil society: of a system of laws.  In the voice of Monty Burns, the rich man says:

Let us unite in order to protect the weak from oppression, restrain the ambitious, and assure everyone of possessing what belongs to him.  Let us institute rules of justice and peace to which all will be obliged to conform... instead of turning our forces against ourselves, let us gather them into one supreme power that governs us according to wise laws, that protects and defends all the members of the association...