Discourse on Inequality  

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"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!" — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754, tr. unidentified, probably based on[1], with edits by JWG

He shocked Western civilization with his Second Discourse by proposing that humans had once been solitary animals, without reason or language or communities, and had developed these things due to accidents of pre-history. (This proposal was also less famously made by Giambattista Vico.) In other words, Rousseau argued that human nature was not only not fixed, but not even approximately fixed compared to what had been assumed before him. Humans are political, and rational, and have language now, but originally they had none of these things.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes), also commonly known as the "Second Discourse", is a work by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The text was written in 1754 in response to a prize competition of the Academy of Dijon answering the prompt: What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law? Though he was not recognized by the prize committee for this piece (as he had been for the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences) he nevertheless published the text in 1755.


Rousseau discusses two types of inequality, natural or physical and ethical or political. Natural inequality involves differences between one man's physical strength and that of another – it is a product of nature. Rousseau is not concerned with this type of inequality and wishes to investigate moral inequality. He argues moral inequality is endemic to a civil society and relates and causes differences in power and wealth. This type of inequality is established by convention. Rousseau appears to take a cynical view of civil society, where man has strayed from his "natural state" of isolation and consequent freedom to satisfy his individual needs and desires. For Rousseau, civil society is a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak in order to maintain their power or wealth. But this is Rousseau's final conclusion; he begins his discussion with an analysis of a natural man who has not yet acquired language or abstract thought.

Rousseau's natural man is much different from that of Hobbes. In fact, Rousseau explicitly points this out at various points throughout his work. Rousseau discredits Hobbes for taking an overly cynical view of man. Unlike Hobbes's natural man, Rousseau's is not motivated by fear of death because he cannot conceive of that end, thus fear of death already suggests a movement out of the state of nature. Rousseau's natural man is more or less like any other animal, where "self-preservation being his chief and almost sole concern" and "the only goods he recognizes in the universe are food, a female, and sleep..." This natural man, unlike Hobbes's, is not in constant state of fear and anxiety.

Rousseau's natural man possesses a few qualities that allow him to distinguish himself from the animals over a long period of time. Of importance is man's ability to choose, which Rousseau refers to as "free-agency" (f. libre-arbitre). However Rousseau's proclamation of man's free will is undermined by his belief that man is "a being that always acts in accordance with certain and invariable principles" , and indeed contradicts the basic premise of the Discourse itself: that we can logically infer what actions man must have taken over the course of his development. In addition, Rousseau argues that "another principle which has escaped Hobbes" is man's compassion. This quality of man also motivates him to interact. Finally, man possesses the quality of "perfectibility," which allows him to improve his own physical condition/environmental situation and develop ever more sophisticated survival tactics. The increasing regularity and convention of man's contact with other men transfigures his basic capacity for reason and reflection, his natural or naive love of self (amour de soi) into a corrupting dependency on the perceptions and favor of others. Natural, non-destructive love of self advances gradually yet qualitatively into a state of amour propre, a love of self now driven by pride and jealousy rather than merely elemental self-preservation. This accession to amour propre has four consequences: (1) competition, (2) self-comparison with others, (3) hatred, and (4) urge for power. These all lead to Rousseau's cynical civil society. But amour de soi also suggests a significant step out of the state of nature.

Rousseau's man is a "savage" man. He is a loner and self-sufficient. Any battle or skirmish was only to protect himself. The natural man was in prime condition, fast, and strong, capable of caring for himself. He killed only for his own self preservation. When the natural man established property as his own, this was the "beginning of evil" according to Rousseau. The natural man should have "pulled up the stakes" to prevent this evil from spreading. This property established divisions in the natural world. The first was the master-slave relationship. Property also led to the creation of families. The natural man was no longer alone. The subsequent divisions almost all stem from this division of land.


The work is dedicated to the state of Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace. In the dedication, he praises Geneva as a good, if not perfect, republic. The qualities he picks out for praise include the stability of its laws and institutions, the community spirit of its inhabitants, and its good relations with neighbouring states, neither threatening them nor threatened by them.

See also


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