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Discourse on Inequality

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Part One


Part Two


It is important to consider man at the beginning, but it is not yet possible to follow him through all the stages of development. If you strip man of artificial faculties, you see an animal that is less strong and agile than other wild animals, but the most advantageously organized of all. Savage men live among beasts and raise themselves to the level of animal instinct. They are toughened by exposure to the elements. Natural man's only tool is his body, which is stronger than ours. In a one-on-one contest, savage man would easily beat civil man.

Hobbes argues that savage man is naturally intrepid: Pufendorf, Cumberland and others believe him to be naturally timid. Savage man is probably not afraid of anything, as he learns to recognize which beasts he can defeat. For example, the Caribs of Venezuela can defeat almost any animal. Other, more serious enemies are natural infirmities: childhood, illness and old age.

What is the role of medicine? Many of our ills are due to the excesses and passions of modern society. With few sources of illness in the state of nature, there is less need for doctors. We must beware of confusing savage man with civil man, as in mistaking domestic animals for wild ones. Being naked and without shelter is not a disadvantage to savage man, although it would be to us. Savage man sleeps much and thinks little. Self-preservation, whether through attack or defense, is his major care. To succeed in this, he needs robust senses.

We must also consider the metaphysical and moral side of man. Any animal is but an ingenious machine, to which Nature gives senses to operate and to protect itself. Man contributes to his own operation because he is a free agent, but is otherwise similar to the animals. Animals choose by instinct: man chooses by freedom. Man is therefore more adaptable than an animal. The key distinction between man and beast is the faculty of perfectibility. This distinct and unlimited faculty is the source of all of man's miseries. It draws him out of his original condition and causes his enlightenment, his vices and his virtues to develop.

Savage man begins with simple mental operations: he can will or not will to do something; he can desire or fear something. Reason develops and perfects itself through the passions. We seek to know only because we desire or fear something. These passions result from our needs. Savage man has no needs, and his only passions come from nature. Food, sex and rest are the only good things for him: the only evils are pain and hunger. There is no reason for savage man to cease being savage. His needs are close at hand, and he has no idea of the wonder of nature, or any conception of the future.

A great gulf exists between sensations and knowledge, a gulf so great that it must have taken a long time to cross. Agriculture and fire are good examples. How could agriculture develop without an idea of property or possessions? Even if savage man were highly intelligent, what use would this be if it could not be communicated? What could man achieve without speech or language? When one considers the importance of language, one realizes that it must have taken many thousands of years to develop. The first problem is why language became necessary. It could not have developed in families, which did not really exist in the state of nature. The actual formation of language is still unclear, but Rousseau ignores this and focuses on how language was established.

Man's first language was the cry of nature, stemming from mere instinct. It had no real use in ordinary communication. As human ideas increased, gestures became more important and language expanded. The first words used had wider meanings than those in developed languages. There were no abstract, general words, because general ideas are possible only with words. Savage man had no understanding of metaphysical notions. It must have taken a very long time to express men's thoughts, and to develop abstract words. Rousseau leaves to others the question of whether language or society came first.

It is clear that nature has done little to bring men together, or to make them sociable. There is no reason why men in the natural state should need each other. Those who talk of the misery of the state of nature are wrong, as, for example, few savages want to commit suicide, suggesting that their life is more pleasant than ours. In instinct alone, savage man has all he needs. We should not conclude, as Hobbes does, that because savage man has no idea of good that he is wicked. Hobbes understood the problem with modern natural rights theories, but his answer was equally flawed. He should have said that in the state of nature, care for our own self-preservation did not conflict with the self- preservation of others; this time was therefore the best for mankind. But Hobbes, in fact, said that it was the worst. He did this because he took the need to satisfy passions that are part of society as part of savage man's self- preservation. Hobbes did not see that the same cause that keeps savages from using their reason also keeps them from abusing their faculties. Savages are not wicked because they do not know what it is to be good. The calm of their passions and their ignorance of vice keep them from doing harm.

Pity also softens the desire for self-preservation. Pity is evident in all animals, and is even recognized by Mandeville, author of the Fable of the Bees. Mandeville sensed that men would be monsters if they did not have both pity and reason. Commiseration, or empathy, is strong in savage man, and weak in civil man. Reason engenders amour propre, and turns man back on himself. Philosophy isolates man, and makes him unlikely to help others. Pity is a natural sentiment that, by moderating self-love, contributes to the mutual self-preservation of the species. In the state of nature pity takes the place of laws, morals and virtues. Mankind would have ceased to exist if it depended upon reasoning alone. Savage men were not prone to quarrels, as they were solitary, and they had no idea of property or vengeance. Sexual lust is the strongest of the passions, and violent passions need laws to restrain them. But would these disorders and passions exist without laws? There are two types of love: physical and moral. Physical love is merely sexual desire, whereas moral love is romantic attachment, designed to make women dominant over men. Quarrels and disorders come from romantic love, which becomes dangerous only in society. Savage peoples such as the Caribs are really the most peaceful in this respect.

Rousseau says that he has dwelt on man's beginnings because he feels he needs to "dig at the root" and show that in the genuine state of nature inequality has less influence than writers claim. It is easy to see that many differences between people are taken to be natural although really they result only from habit and the different lifestyles men adopt in society. Natural inequality increases as a result of instituted inequality. It would be hard to make savage man understand what domination is, or to make him obey you. Ties and servitude are formed solely by men's mutual dependence and the reciprocal needs that unite them. It is impossible to subjugate a man without placing him in a position where he needs another.

Inequality is scarcely perceptible in the state of nature. Rousseau now aims to show its development. Perfectibility and the social virtues could not develop by themselves; they needed fortuitous outside influences. These were contingencies that made man wicked whilst making him sociable. These are only conjectures, Rousseau insists, and what he describes could have happened in several ways.


Part One of the Discourse is a careful reconstruction of natural man. It prepares the ground for Rousseau's examination of the growth of inequality in Part Two. The reconstruction is initially divided into two parts, dealing with both man's physical and mental characteristics.

The assertion that physical man is just another animal is very important. It goes against the classical and Biblical view that man, by his very nature, possesses qualities that set him apart from animals. The distinction between human and animal was used both to justify man's possession and use of the Earth's resources, and to explain why humans apparently have certain unique capabilities, such as reason and language. Rousseau's definition of man answers the second point very cleverly; man is like but yet unlike other animals, because of the unique way he develops. He does not argue that modern man is similar to an orangutan, but that he once was, before human development changed him.

The meaning of the Aristotle quote at the beginning of the book ("What is natural has to be investigated not in beings that are depraved, but in those that are good according to nature") becomes apparent as you look at Rousseau's treatment of natural man. The importance of looking at man as he really is means that one must begin with the most basic part of his nature: his physique. Once the physical strength and senses of natural man have been established, Rousseau can consider his more complicated functions.

"Metaphysical" or "moral" man for Rousseau covers what we would now call human intelligence and the higher functions of the brain. It is here that Rousseau explains exactly what distinguishes man from animal. Both are essentially mechanical, but man has the ability to act freely, which allows him to choose, and to vary his behavior. More importantly, humans have the faculty of perfectibility. Interpretations of this important quality vary, but it is most helpful to see it as a capacity for change, or an ability to be molded by one's environment. Man cannot only choose, he can also change rapidly, and develop at an almost unlimited rate. Without this quality, humans would remain in the state of nature forever, and never progress beyond the level of other animals. Rousseau is clear that this can be a tremendously positive force. We should admire the tremendous distance that humans have covered, but also despair of the state to which it has brought us. Rousseau does not contradict himself when he says that perfectibility is the source of both enlightenment and vice. It is because perfectibility produces both that perfectibility can account for human development.

The mechanism by which perfectibility operates is unusual. Rousseau argues that the passions produce reason in man, by producing needs that require him to think in order to satisfy them. Linking reason and the passions goes against the philosophical tradition, beginning with Plato, that sees the two as fundamentally opposed. For many other philosophers, reason should rule the passions, or vice versa. But Rousseau's argument works. The passions are strong feelings that move us to act, or to reach beyond ourselves, and if reason is something that humans were not created with, then some force must have made men reach out towards reason. For Rousseau, this force was need, which stimulated certain passions in mankind, then caused men to act and develop. It is a giant leap from the passions to the development of reason, and one that works only if you assume that the passions exist prior to reason.

Rousseau separates language and reason, a division that breaks with the view inherited from Plato and the Greeks that speech and reason are both represented by the word "Logos." Rousseau wrote extensively on language in other works, including the Essay on the origin of languages, so his account here is relatively brief. It is clear that at a central part of reasoning—abstract thought—is impossible without language. Therefore reason and language are very closely linked. Abstract concepts, such as romantic love, jealousy, or reason, exist for Rousseau only when men have the right words to describe them. Rocks, trees and other physical things exist independently of language because they are real. Therefore savage man cannot have complex thoughts until the development of language.

Rousseau's discussion of sociability follows on from his treatment of language. His argument against Hobbes is important here. Hobbes's position, described in Leviathan, is that the state of nature is a state of war between humans. Mankind's passions drive him to desire things and to fear others. This leads to bloody conflict. Although he agrees with Hobbes that man is not naturally sociable, Rousseau also believes that he is naturally peaceful. The problem with Hobbes's account is essentially the method he uses. Hobbes looks at man deformed by society, and calls him natural man. Really, he should attempt to follow Rousseau and look back at man's origins.

Rousseau's idea of the natural goodness of savage man rests not on any good quality that man might have, but rather on his ignorance. Without language or the ability to reason, it simply never occurs to the savage to be evil. This clearly conflicts with the Biblical idea of original sin, which states that man is born bad and can only be redeemed through God's grace. Such an idea is nonsensical to Rousseau, who argues that any idea of savage man as evil comes from confusing savage and civil man. From his picture of savage man, Rousseau derives the two basic principles of the Discourse: pity and self- preservation. The two qualities are what make it possible for savage men to exist together, because they essentially balance each other out. Pity draws one person towards another, whereas the desire for self-preservation draws men apart. These two principles rarely conflict, according to Rousseau, because one person's pity should prevent him from interfering with another's attempts to preserve himself. The reference to Mandeville shows how important Rousseau felt pity to be: Mandeville controversially argued for the doctrine of "private vices, public benefits." His position was seen as extreme by many, so the fact that he endorsed pity is proof for Rousseau of its universality. Rousseau goes further than Mandeville by arguing that pity was the only rule that natural man needed. Pity takes the place of laws because if you pity another and empathize with him, you cannot harm him. In the civil state, however, laws develop, in part because self-preservation and pity are no longer balanced against each other. Amour propre is a kind of extreme self-preservation unbalanced by pity.

Only self-preservation and pity can guarantee a degree of harmony. Rousseau is clear that ordinary laws cannot have this effect, partly because they rely on reason. Also, laws may in fact create certain evil passions. This is an unconvincing version of the chicken-and-egg argument. Rousseau intends to suggest that if savage man can be good without laws, then perhaps only laws make him bad. However, if this is true, then why are laws introduced? Rousseau attempts to answer this in Part Two.

Many writers have interpreted this section as describing the "noble savage." Such interpretations argue that savage man is naturally good and virtuous, and that Rousseau really wants his readers to emulate this model and return to the primeval forests. This is far from Rousseau's point, however. Firstly, Rousseau makes it very clear that talking about natural goodness is a mistake; secondly, there is very little "nobility" in natural man. He is merely an animal, without any higher faculties or interest in anything other than food, rest and sex. Thirdly, it is clear that the Discourse sets out a model of development that cannot be reversed. Rousseau may admire some aspects of the savage's life, or even think that he is better off than modern man, but he never considers that we could or should return to the state of nature.

Rousseau's conclusion to this section restates and develops his central argument, but leaves several questions hanging. The main question to be answered is how inequality develops from the basic state of nature presented here.

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