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Discourse on Inequality

Jean-Jacques Rousseau




Background Information

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712; his mother died on July 7. His father, Isaac Rousseau, was a watchmaker. Isaac left Geneva after an argument in 1722; Rousseau nevertheless had a high opinion of his father, referring to him in the dedication to the Discourse as "the virtuous Citizen to whom I owe my life." Rousseau worked as a clerk to a notary, and then was apprenticed to an engraver. He had no formal education, but read widely in ancient and modern authors, inspired initially by his father's collection of books. When, in 1728, Rousseau found himself locked out of Geneva at night, he decided to travel abroad to seek his fortune.

He met Madame des Warens, a noted Catholic lady of leisure, in Savoy. Rousseau began to write whilst living with her. They eventually became lovers, and des Warens persuaded him to convert to Catholicism. Rousseau worked as a servant, music teacher and engraver. From 1740–41, he worked as a private tutor for Monsieur de Mably, brother of the famous writer, the Abbe de Mably. From 1742 to 1749, Rousseau lived in Paris, barely earning a living by teaching and by copying music. He became friends with the Enlightenment figure Diderot, who commissioned him to write articles for the famous Encylopedia.

In the early 1750s, Rousseau had a string of successes. His First Discourse, on the Arts and Sciences, won first prize in a competition run by the Dijon Academy, and he had an opera and a play performed to great acclaim. The Discourse on Inequality was completed in May 1754, and published in 1755. In 1756, Rousseau left Paris. 1758 marked a break with many of the Enlightenment philosophers; his Letter to d'Alembert attacked d'Alembert's article in the French Encyclopedia on Geneva. Rousseau's later quarrel with Voltaire was legendary for its violence.

The publication of Rousseau's sentimental novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise in 1761 gained him a huge following. His next works were less popular; the Social Contract and Emile were condemned and publicly burnt in Paris and Geneva in 1762. The French government ordered that Rousseau be arrested, so he fled to Neuchatel in Switzerland. Here, he began to write his famous autobiography, the Confessions, and formally renounced his Genevan citizenship. Rousseau came under increasing attack, in print and in practice, from the French monarchy, Voltaire and many others. He accepted the Scottish philosopher Hume's offer to take refuge in Britain, only to quarrel with Hume as well and soon return to France. Rousseau died suddenly on July 2, 1778. His death caused a great outpouring of sentiment amongst his many readers and admirers. In 1794, the French revolutionary government ordered that his ashes be honored and moved to the Pantheon.

Historical and Philosophical contexts

It is fairly easy to trace the philosophical influences on the Discourse. Before writing the Discourse, Rousseau worked as a secretary to a French tax-collector called Dupin. He was required to read and summarize a variety of works, including Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. Montesquieu's huge work develops a pessimistic view of the nature of modern man, arguing that modernity is a corrupt and decayed state, in which the glory of the classical period is no longer possible. Rousseau's notion of uncovering man's true nature, and dissecting modern government owes much to Montesquieu, although he disagrees absolutely with Montesquieu's conclusions.

Rousseau also read deeply in classical and modern philosophy and literature, such as Plutarch, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf. The footnotes to the Discourse show the depth of this reading. Here, Rousseau cites not only philosophical works but also anthropology and travel writing. Accounts by seventeenth and eighteenth century travelers of savage tribes and human-like primates are fuel for Rousseau's arguments about human nature, because they demonstrate how man in the state of nature might have behaved. He engages in debate with contemporary writers on human nature and natural history, such as Buffon and Condillac.

Several other philosophical contexts are important to understand. A vital part of the Discourse is Rousseau's reaction to natural law theory, particularly that of Hobbes and Grotius. Natural law theory is an attempt, dating back to the classical period, to identify a series of principles set out either by God or by reason, on which all men can agree for their self-preservation. The question Rousseau has to answer in the Discourse is whether inequality is authorized by natural law, but it soon becomes obvious that he redefines this particular term to suit his argument.

Equally important is the contemporary debate about human nature and forms of government. Philosophers such as Montesquieu considered the possibility of recreating the great achievements of classical Greece and Rome, and particularly of recreating classical systems of government. Montesquieu argued that human nature is corrupt, and that republican government is possible only with great effort and self-control; therefore monarchy, the most common form of government in Europe at the time, is also the best for the modern world. Human nature was seen to limit what could be achieved politically. By tackling questions about human nature and the foundations of modern inequality, Rousseau engages with this debate to a great extent. Also important here was the European political situation, in which the great monarchies such as that of France were dominant, and republics such as Geneva were rare; for the background to Rousseau's dedication of the Discourse to Geneva, see the chapter by chapter summary.

The key historical context of the Discourse was the complex phenomenon known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a diverse movement, represented in France by writers such as Voltaire, Diderot and the authors of the Encylopedia. Some of its key concerns were the operation of reason, the idea of human progress and development, and a hostility to received opinion (dogma) and religious authority. Rousseau's relationship to the Enlightenment was not a simple one. He was friendly with Enlightenment figures such as Diderot, and even wrote articles for the Encylopedia, but later quarreled with them. More importantly, in the Discourse Rousseau is in many ways extremely negative about the progress of reason. He makes it clear that the growth of society, reason, and language makes man capable of amazing things, but at the same time, such growth will "ruin" him. This is not exactly the standard Enlightenment vision. However, it is important to consider the diverse concerns of the Enlightenment as a background to Rousseau's work.

Charting Rousseau's influence is hard, simply because it was so vast. Very many literate people in the eighteenth century read and responded to Rousseau, in France and elsewhere. However, Rousseau was later to write in his autobiography, the Confessions, that "…in all of Europe…[the Discourse]…found only a few readers who understood it, and of these none who wished to talk of it." Although he debated extensively with critics of his earlier work, the First Discourse, Rousseau never mailed his replies to the major critics of the Discourse on Inequality, Charles Bonnet (writing as Philopolis) and Charles Le Roy (writing as Buffon).

The Discourse may not have impressed the judges from the Dijon academy, but it nevertheless won a great following. Aspects of Rousseau's ideas from the Discourse, particularly his idea of a system of increasing needs that govern modern society are found in Hegel's account of civil society, and perhaps in Marx's idea of alienated labour. Arguably its greatest influence was as one of the first attempts to write a rigorous philosophical history of mankind.

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