Discourse on Inequality

by: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Important Quotations Explained

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.