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Discourse on Inequality

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Important Quotations Explained

Philosophical Themes, Ideas and Arguments

Key Facts

There is, I sense, an age at which the individual human being would want to stop; You will look for the age at which you would wish your Species had stopped. Discontented with your present state, for reasons that herald even greater discontents for your unhappy Posterity, you might perhaps wish to be able to go backward; And this sentiment must serve as the Praise of your earliest forbears, the criticism of your contemporaries, and the dread of those who will have the misfortune to live after you

In many ways this is the moral of Rousseau's Discourse. Rousseau's critique of modernity is based upon the idea that human development represents both the rise of man and the moral and psychological decline of mankind. Readers will be "discontented" with their present state both because the action of amour propre drives them to compete with others and to worry constantly about their position, and because Rousseau expects that his work will reveal to them the true awfulness of their situation. Unfortunately, history is not a video-tape that can be rewound. The "dread" of those who live after is partly due to the knowledge that things are likely to get worse, without the possibility of returning to better times. Some people have claimed that Rousseau advocates a return to the state of nature; this is absolute rubbish. He does, as this quotation reveals, think that people might want to rewind to a former stage of development, but it is an impossible desire. The aim of the Discourse is to alert readers to some of the problems with modernity, and to make them aware of the operation of inequality, but not to send them running back to the woods to live with the monkeys.

By stripping this Being, so constituted, of all the supernatural gifts he may have received, and of all the artificial faculties he could have only acquired by prolonged progress; by considering him, in a word, such as he must have issued from the hands of Nature, I see an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but, all things considered, the most advantageously organized of all

This is a clear statement of Rousseau's methodology, and of the most startling assumption that he makes in the work. The "Supernatural gifts" and "artificial faculties" are language, sociability and reason, which for Rousseau emerge after a long process of development. Man as created was nothing more than an animal. This may not sound particularly shocking to modern readers, who are familiar with the theory of evolution, but it sounded more radical in the eighteenth century. A long tradition of writers considered man as created especially by God, to rule over the animals, from whom he was distinguished by reason. Reason is in many ways the defining human characteristic for these writers, but Rousseau discards it entirely. What makes humans human initially is their "organization," or their physical structure. Their perfectibility means that they have an in-built advantage over other animals, but there is no reason why they must or should develop into rational beings. In many ways, Rousseau states the presumptions of evolutionary theory many years before Darwin.

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine, and found people sufficiently simple to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors Mankind would have been spared by him who, pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had cried out to his kind: Beware of listening to this impostor; You are lost if you forget that the fruits are everyone's and the Earth no-one's

The development of institutionalized inequality is a series of tricks played by the powerful on the weak, and so too is the ultimate foundation of civil society. This quotation emphasizes the extraordinary nature of the creation of property. It is after a strange act, which necessitates a supply of gullible people to witness it. Rousseau is very clear that the link between property and inequality is a direct one. Once property has been created, institutional structures emerge to fix it in place, and mankind is then "lost." Wars and conflict result from property because, as Locke says, "without property there is no injury." However, just as human development is irreversible, Rousseau sees no real way to return to a state in which the Earth was "no-one's." It was Marx's insight that only the abolition of property could resolve this situation.

It became customary to gather in front of the Huts or around a large Tree: song and dance, true children of love and leisure, became the amusement or rather the occupation of idle men and women gathered together. Everyone began to look at everyone else and to wish to be looked at himself, and public esteem acquired a price. The one who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded, and this was the first step towards inequality and vice: from these first preferences arose vanity and contempt on the one hand, shame and envy on the other; and the fermentation caused by these new leavens eventually produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.

This quotation represents the moment at which the balance tips in favor of amour propre. Leisure, which is harmless to the savage, who is happy merely to be idle, becomes dangerous when it is used for an activity that encourages comparison. First you need people to dance with, which is a pleasurable activity; soon, however, you will need people merely to watch you dance, to admire and compare themselves to you. Once this is the case, the evil passions released cannot be reversed. It is striking that Rousseau locates the beginning of vice in the village dance, which is largely seen as a positive event that strengthens community feeling. Rousseau would sympathize, one feels, with the puritan who didn't like sex because it might lead to dancing.

Observation fully confirms what reflection teaches us on this subject: Savage man and civilized man differ so much in their inmost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants only to live and remain idle, and even the Stoic's ataraxia does not approximate his profound indifference to everything else. By contrast, the Citizen, forever active, sweats and scurries, constantly in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to the death, even rushes toward it in order to be in a position to live, or renounces life in order to acquire immortality. He courts the great whom he hates, and the rich whom he despises; he spares nothing to attain the honor of serving them; he vaingloriously boasts of his baseness and of their protection and, proud of his slavery, he speaks contemptuously of those who have not the honor of sharing it.

This is an important statement of Rousseau's conclusions. He draws a parallel between the "inmost heart" of savage and civil man, which is the best reflection of their true natures, and their outward behavior. Savage man is concerned inwardly and outwardly with freedom and leisure; ataraxia is a philosophical position of indifference to worldly cares, adopted in response to outward turbulence. Rousseau's point is that the savage does not need to adopt any such position, because his inner and outer life are at one with each other. Civil man, on the other hand, lives outwardly and engages with the world. His amour propre causes him to interact with others ("the great" and those beneath him) to gain advantage. But the citizen's activity and urgency are self- defeating, as he merely hastens his own demise. This is a powerful image of the difference between modern and savage man, but it is an extreme one. Rousseau explains elsewhere that savages hunt as well as laze and, in later stages of development, form small societies. Modern man presumably has some leisure time, too. The point remains unchanged; human nature changed dramatically for the worse, a fact that is reflected in the outward-facing behavior of modern man.

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