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Published in 1755, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (the Second Discourse) is one of the most important works of social philosophy of the Enlightenment. Much maligned and misunderstood in its own time, the Discourse is recognized today as a provocative and radically innovative text that anticipated anthropology, Marxist theory, the passionate rhetoric of Romanticism, and more broadly, an entire modern spirit of discontent with civilization. The debate in which Rousseau engaged himself with the Second Discourse was already well established in the mid-eighteenth century: inequality and its relation to natural law. His answers, however, were anything but familiar, and they retain a remarkable freshness and urgency for the contemporary reader.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712, and his mother died ten days after his birth. In 1722, his father, Isaac Rousseau, abandoned him. During his years of foster care, and later during two apprenticeships in his native Geneva, Rousseau received practically no formal education. He fled the city at the age of sixteen and began what was to become a lifetime of vagabondage and insecurity. An orphan, an autodidact, and a wanderer, Rousseau was unique among the major figures of the Enlightenment, and his writings are a testament to his fiercely independent and idiosyncratic spirit.
In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris, where he came into contact with the luminaries of the day. In 1749, he wrote the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (the First Discourse) for an essay competition proposed by the Academy of Dijon. It won the prize and brought Rousseau overnight notoriety. Contributing articles to the Encyclopedia on music and political economy, he was nevertheless to have turbulent relations with the philosophes of the Enlightenment. In the First Discourse he established an attitude that in many respects ran counter to the prevailing beliefs of his contemporaries: in progress, in the ascendancy of scientific method, in the capacity of reason to foster happiness and maximally to exploit “human perfectibility.”
Rousseau’s stance—that of an embattled contrarian—was further consolidated in the Second Discourse. In 1762, his monumental Social Contract and the didactic novel Emile were published, but were banned or otherwise condemned throughout Europe. Despite the unparalleled triumph of his 1761 Julie, or the New Heloise, the most widely read novel in France in the eighteenth century, Rousseau spent the last fifteen years or so of his life on the run or in exile, in deteriorating physical and (especially) mental health, and abandoning all but autobiographical writing (with the Confessions, the Dialogues, and the uncompleted Reveries of a Solitary Walker) until his death in 1778.
In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argues that humans are naturally good and capable of living free and contentedly in a state of nature, but that civilization corrupts us and makes us unhappy. This idea was to become the cornerstone of Rousseau’s philosophy, and a central theme of modernity. The natural goodness of humanity, on the one hand, and its corruption in the civil state, on the other, both inform his two greatest philosophical works, The Social Contract and Emile. The Social Contract asks: how do we form a just government? And Emile asks: how can we create an ideal citizen? In answering those questions, Rousseau takes as his point of departure the alienation and debasement of the individual that the Second Discourse laid out but left distressingly unresolved. Apart from the fact that the Second Discourse is a dazzling and brilliantly argued book, we should care about it because it helps us better grasp the epoch-making (but often complex and challenging) arguments of Emile and the Social Contract.
Like the First Discourse, the Second Discourse was written for the Dijon Academy’s essay competition. The question was: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” Despite the author’s now famous name, the Second Discourse did not win the prize, nor did Rousseau expect it to. The question was not original and had an implied answer (“yes, natural law justifies certain political and social inequalities like differential wealth or class”) that would uphold the status quo of the ancien régime. Rousseau’s answer not only opposed prevailing views but also went far beyond the somewhat banal context of the Academy’s question. The First Discourse had also adopted a combative position, but behind the sheer bravado of its rhetoric, one did not find the kind of subtle, sophisticated, and ultimately disturbing argument of the Second Discourse. For the most part, the Enlightenment was not prepared for such startling claims.
Rousseau’s argument turns a whole tradition of social and political philosophy on its head. The dominant position in discussions of inequality in the context of natural law (that is, laws that are self-evident to “reasonable” minds and that are therefore rooted in nature rather than in social convention) was that 1) humans are social beings by nature and that 2) humans “naturally” fall into unequal social and political groups. The two most important natural-rights philosophers of the early modern period, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694), argue strongly for the natural sociability of humanity, and most Enlightenment thinkers hold the same view. In the Second Discourse, however, Rousseau argues that in a state of nature, humans are solitary. Natural inequalities exist between people—in size, strength, agility, and the like—but since people are at the outset on their own and have no aggressive impulses toward their fellows, such inequalities are insignificant.
Here ends, in effect, Rousseau’s stake in the relationship between inequality and natural law. The inequalities that matter are not natural but social, not essential but conventional; he calls this latter category “moral inequality” or, interchangeably, “institutional inequality” (inégalité d’institution). It is only through this kind of inequality that one can imagine the poor agreeing to serve the rich, or human beings bought and sold as property. Surprisingly perhaps, moral inequality, having no basis in nature, is nevertheless all the more powerful for playing itself out symbolically. The slave may be far stronger than the master, or the poor healthier and more vigorous than the rich, but that does nothing to lessen the differences in wealth or social condition between them.
Rousseau seeks to explain how such a thing could happen. If, in the state of nature, humankind is solitary and fundamentally good (to the extent that “good” and “bad” mean anything at all in a pre-social state), why did humans become social beings in the first place? His answer is conjectural. More than that, he is not even sure that the state of nature ever existed. In order to grasp the earliest conditions of humans, he writes, “let us begin by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question.” This is an astonishing claim: the state of nature described in the Second Discourse is hypothetical, accessible only to the imagination.
What is not hypothetical for Rousseau is natural human goodness; his postulate of the state of nature is a plausible way of explaining it. This is perhaps the most important element of Rousseau’s thought: the idea that we are born good and become corrupted in civil life subtends not only all of his social and political philosophy but also his fiction and autobiography. Such an explanation leaves no room, moreover, for the Biblical account of human development and rejects the doctrine of original sin. If the social corruption of natural human goodness has no source extrinsic to humanity, neither does it appear to provide an intrinsic form of redemption.
The apparent pessimism of the Second Discourse helps to explain its generally unsympathetic and at times baffled reception. Rousseau circumvents a religious account of the degradation of the human condition but substitutes a secular variant that does not map out a rehabilitation of that condition. No doubt his contemporaries had little idea that he was to attempt to do just that in Emile and The Social Contract, but a careful reading of the Second Discourse reveals that signs pointing in that direction are already in place (even at the work’s inception, in the “Dedication to the Republic of Geneva”).
Rousseau imagines that in the state of nature humans come together only to reproduce; they do not wish to form families, because fathers have no nurturing instincts and mothers provide for their offspring only until the latter can fend for themselves. But if people take little interest in the well being of others, they also have little interest in causing them harm. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) had argued that the state of nature is a state of perpetual war, and that societies arise through social contracts only to protect individuals from the aggression of others. For Rousseau, Hobbes’ error—and indeed that of all prior philosophers—lay in not returning all the way to the origin; they ascribed to the state of nature characteristics that in fact derive from the social state.
In Rousseau’s view, the disposition of early humans is not toward aggression but toward an indifference that can quickly yield to compassion. They may not care what others are doing when all is well, but thanks to a visceral identification with another’s suffering, their inclination is to come to the aid of another suffering being. Pity or compassion may be the motor force behind social organization. If compassion is activated, a father might decide that it is better to remain with a mother and child in danger or distress.
The nascent family will require an effective means of communicating its needs. Increasing population and diversification of habitats will augment differences in the way people live and will further increase the need for communication. The first human language, the “cry of nature,” will evolve into the conventional signs constituted by words. Rousseau is nevertheless acutely aware of the paradox of the origin of languages. On the one hand, they seem to require a preexisting society of some sort in order to form. Yet on the other hand, languages also seem to be indispensable for the constitution of society. He took this question up in much greater detail in his Essay on the Origin of Languages.
With the formation of the family unit and the development of language, the stage is set for the institution of civil society in ever-increasing complexity, and eventually, the fall from goodness into corruption. A number of things have to happen to effect that change. One critical step is division of labor and increasing specialization. When one person has a certain skill that I do not possess to make or do something that I need, we become “unequal” until I can offer him in return something that he does not have or cannot do.
The expansion of specialized skills creates the rudiments of an economy. The path toward social stratification is vastly broadened through the development of agriculture and metallurgy. Thanks to metallurgy, ploughs and other specialized implements hasten the transition from subsistence to early forms of commercial agriculture. If one person or family is able to produce surplus crops, another may depend on that crop but become able to do something other than farming (such as make ploughs), upon which the farmer depends in turn. But not all dependencies will be equal, and as the economy develops it is not difficult to see how one individual or small group could exert power over a larger group.
This process is massively abetted by the “invention” of private property. Rousseau notes in the opening to part 2 of the Second Discourse: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” But much more than mere property is implied in this sentence. There is a sense that someone is being fooled (“found people simple enough to believe him”), and that, on some level, there is an attempt to make the arbitrary imposition of a conventional inequality appear natural and legitimate. For Rousseau, a declaration of proprietorship over objects is a deception, because (as he imagines someone urgently warning his fellows) “the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
This lie establishing property and the inequalities born of its pursuit led to the first institution of government. What appeared to be a social contract—a political association benefiting all of the contracting parties—was in reality a more insidious deception whereby the rich convince the poor to alienate their own liberty in exchange for the feeble illusion that the rich will protect and nurture them. What has become of the compassion that Rousseau identified as a fundamental impulse in the state of nature?
Compassion coexists with what Rousseau calls amour de soi, the positive self-love—self-regard, if one likes—that insures self-preservation. This inward-directed conception of our own identity is subject to change when one begins to have reason to compare oneself to others. Things like specialized skills and unequal private property make it almost inevitable that in comparing ourselves to others we will find cause for envy or pride. The self-satisfaction deriving from judging ourselves to be in any way “better” than someone else is the beginning of a transformation of self-regard into vanity, or what Rousseau calls amour-propre—the pernicious, narcissistic variant of amour de soi. Social life fosters comparisons that underscore some individual’s or some group’s inequality. And if I do not “really” have an advantage over someone else, there is nothing to prevent me from pretending that I do. Or why not appropriate the property on which the supposed advantage is based?
Amour-propre as vanity therefore encourages dissimulation, deception, suspicion, and theft. We all want to be esteemed by others, but how far are we willing to go to secure their admiration? In Rousseau’s view, far enough to subjugate, to steal, to humiliate, even to annihilate. There appears to be no limit to the moral inequalities we are willing to establish under the sway of amour-propre.
What can we do about it? In surveying his account of the origin of civil society and of moral inequality, Rousseau reflects that there was perhaps a golden age when there were autonomous family units but nothing larger or more stratified. If the state of nature ever existed, it would be impossible for humanity to return to it once socialization had begun. Similarly, it is just as untenable that civil society could ever return to the stage of the early families. There is, as Rousseau observes, no retrograde motion in human nature.
The situation sounds grim enough: inequality cannot be justified by natural law, but it exists nonetheless and feeds on a seemingly endless supply of human vanity. Government is a deception foisted on the unsuspecting poor by people who have become wealthy and powerful through the fiction of private property. And everywhere human liberty is sacrificed in the vain hope of security or prosperity. In August 1755, in an infamous letter to Rousseau, Voltaire wrote of the Second Discourse: “I have received, Sir, your new book against the human race, and I thank you for it.” Rousseau’s critique of a civilization whose ills might appear to have no remedy makes Voltaire’s sarcastic accusation of misanthropy understandable, if inaccurate.
Voltaire continues his letter by chiding Rousseau that no matter what truths he may lay bare, he will not succeed in “correcting” humanity. Then, responding caustically to his perception of Rousseau’s primitivism, he quips that the Second Discourse makes one want to “walk on all fours.” Satirical intentions to one side, Voltaire misunderstood the book in two important ways. Rousseau made it clear that a “correction” of institutions was not his goal, and also that a return to a prior state of humanity is impossible.
Suggesting possible solutions to the social and political problems raised in the Second Discourse was the task of the Social Contract. Rather than government being imposed as a ruse perpetrated on the most vulnerable members of society (that is, rather than being founded on an illegitimate contract), Rousseau seeks to articulate how just laws and a social pact rooted in the free consent of the governed might prevent the exploitative forms of inequality and replace injurious vanity with civic virtue. The reader might consider the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality as a work that poignantly held up the image of an unrecoverable state of natural freedom, but from whose unflinching analysis of inequality grew Rousseau’s belief, however qualified, that it was possible to create a new state of civil freedom.
Patrick Riley is Associate Professor of French at Colgate University. Specializing in the French Enlightenment and autobiography, he is author of Character and Conversion in Autobiography: Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, and Sartre (University of Virginia Press).