Rousseau dedicates the Discourse on Inequality to the republic of Geneva, not merely because he was born a Genevan citizen, but because the city represents, to his mind, the most perfect combination of the two kinds of inequality—natural and artificial—which will be the focus of his essay. Geneva represents the best of all worlds, a city that displays the best human characteristics whilst keeping the worst "abuses" in check. He goes on to praise the city at great length, referring to its many advantages: its size, its freedom from war, the good relationship between people and magistrates, its union between theologians and "men of letters," the importance of women in Genevan society and its fixed borders. He ends by suggesting that the future happiness and success of Geneva depend upon these advantages.
This may look like a section to skip over, but it is important to any interpretation of the Discourse. It highlights the particular political and cultural context in which Rousseau was writing, and indicates what he intends to achieve in this work. His dedication is more unusual than his apparently naïve enthusiasm suggests. Firstly, Rousseau originally wrote the Discourse for a French essay contest, under a French monarch. Praising republican Geneva was a clear and strong political statement, which may not have been well received. More importantly, he was not actually a citizen of Geneva when he began writing this work. He had been expelled from the city in the 1730s, when he traveled to France and converted to Catholicism. He converted back to Protestantism in June 1755, and was received back into the Genevan citizenry before the Discourse was published. One could suggest therefore that Rousseau had ulterior motives for praising his former home. More importantly, however, the picture he offers of Geneva is not entirely accurate. The reality of political life in the republic was one of conflict between the magistrates, or rulers, and those who were not citizens. Women, many skilled workers and immigrants could not become Genevan citizens. Several revolutions occurred in the early eighteenth century in defense of their rights. Also, the relationship between Genevan theologians and "men of letters," such as Rousseau, was far from rosy. It is therefore fair to think of the inequality analyzed in the main part of the Discourse in terms of the very real inequality present in Rousseau's Geneva, and of the author's difficult relationship to his home city. To an extent, he is trying to warn the magistrates of Geneva that whilst their city has much going for it, the going may start to get tough.
A central idea of Rousseau was that “modern people exist within an ever-increasing system of needs in which the opinion of others is vitally important, is hugely influential.”
1. Over the course of human history has the opinion of others become increasingly more important to the average individual, so that, for example, today the opinion of others is more important than it was to the average person 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 1000 years ago etc.?
2. As the average person alive today gets older, do the op... Read more→