Discourse on Inequality

by: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Part One

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.