The first man who enclosed a piece of ground, and then said, "this is mine," and then found enough gullible people to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. People would have stopped many crimes and miseries if they had prevented him from taking that land. But in all likelihood, things back then had reached the point of no return. Much progress had been made before this last stage of the state of nature.
The condition of nascent man was simple: his first care was for self- preservation. He had few needs apart from food, rest and sex. Man scarcely dreamt of exploiting or profiting from Nature. However, difficulties soon arose. Man had to become agile, run, fight and overcome the obstacles of Nature. Difficulties multiplied as man spread. Different climates produced different lifestyles. As man learnt to hunt animals, he began to consider himself preeminent among species. This was the beginning of pride in himself as an individual. Savage man was solitary, but gradually began to see similarities between himself and others. Man was in a position to judge when he should cooperate with others. Such dealings did not require a refined language.
Initial progress became more rapid. Men discovered tools, and how to build huts. This was the first "revolution," which led to the establishment of families and a sort of property. Conjugal love resulted from families living together. Each family was like a small society. Women became sedentary and stayed at home while men foraged. The sedentary individuals became less able to resist wild beasts, but better at co-operating to fight them. Men enjoyed a great deal of leisure in this new state. They acquired new conveniences that weakened their bodies and minds, and which turned into needs. Men were unhappy to possess these needs, but equally unhappy to lose them. Various natural catastrophes made language increasingly necessary. Floods, earthquakes and revolutions of the globe broke up landmasses and brought men together, forcing them to communicate.
Mankind became more settled. Nations eventually formed. Conjugal love increased, as did ideas of merit and preference. Jealousy eventually developed together with love, and discord triumphs. Songs and dances in villages led to comparison amongst people. This was the beginning of inequality and vice. As soon as men began to appreciate each other, civility and consideration became important. Contempt for another became a serious offense. This is the state of contemporary savage peoples, which makes people think that man is naturally cruel and needs political order to survive. In reality, nothing is as gentle as natural man.
Early society was different from the state of nature. However, it was the happiest epoch, representing a middle way between the indolence of the state of nature and the activity of amour propre. It was the state with least revolutions, and the best time for man. Subsequent progress was a step towards the perfection of the individual, and the decrepitude of the species.
As long as men applied themselves only to one-man tasks, they were free and healthy. The moment when one man needed the help of another, and one man wanted what was enough for two, equality disappeared, work became necessary and oppression developed. This second "revolution" was caused by metallurgy and agriculture. The division of land followed its cultivation; from property came the first rules of justice. It is impossible to conceive of early property other than in terms of man's labor. Labor gives a right to land, which is transformed into property. Things could have remained equal in this state if talents and the use of resources had been equal. Natural inequality imperceptibly unfolds together with unequal associations. The differences between men became more obvious and started to influence events.
Human faculties were now fully developed. Amour propre and reason were active, and the mind was almost at the limit of its perfection. To be and to appear became two different things. From this arose cunning and all the vices. Man was now subjugated by a multitude of new needs, but especially by his need for other men. In fact, man became a slave to men when he tried to be their master. Domination became the only pleasure of the rich. When the powerful claimed a kind of right to another person's goods, equivalent to the right of property, the breakdown of equality led to a state of war. In response, the rich developed the best trick ever invented: to persuade the weak to unite with them into a supreme power to institute rules of justice and peace. Little was needed to convince such crude and easily seduced men. All ran towards their chains in the belief that they were securing their freedom. Those who did realize the nature of the trick thought that they could trade part of their freedom for security.
This was the origin of society. It irreversibly destroyed natural freedom, fixed the laws of inequality and property, and turned usurpation into right. All men were subjugated to servitude and labor for the profit of a few. Multiplying societies soon covered the globe; the law of nature was left only in the relationship between nations. Great national wars occurred. Rousseau discounts other explanations for the institution of society, such as the Right of Conquest.
The political state remained imperfect because it was the product of chance. People would have done better to begin again rather than attempt to stabilize it. It is obvious that people gave themselves to their leaders to defend their freedom. It is wrong to argue that people have a disposition for servitude because they may have forgotten what freedom is like. One should not look to slave societies to prove this, but free ones. The idea that civil society is derived from paternal authority is wrong; rather, paternal authority derives from civil society. The voluntary establishment of tyranny is also impossible, as it is impossible to have a contract that gives one of the parties nothing, and which involves giving away your freedom. Pufendorf's argument that you can alienate (give away) your freedom is simply wrong. It is clear that government did not begin with arbitrary power, which is its corruption and illegitimate last stage. The establishment of the body politic is a contract between the people and the leaders it chooses. The people unite their wills into one; the collective will develops laws, and one of these laws regulates the selection and power of the leaders. If these laws were destroyed, the magistrates would lose their power, and the people would have no obligation to obey them. The state would dissolve, and people would revert to their natural freedom. This is possible because, in the absence of a higher power to enforce the contract, the people remain the sole judge in their own case. However, the danger that this involves makes it is a good thing that God acts as guarantor, endowing the sovereign authority with an inviolable sacred power. Religion must be praised, because it has saved so much bloodshed.
Different forms of government derive from the original differences between individuals. If one man was preeminent, then a monarchy was formed; if several predominated, then an aristocracy was formed; the states that stayed close to the state of nature formed democracies. Time concluded which was the best form. All magistracies were at first elective. Then the selection process led to strife and civil war, so hereditary government was instituted. This is how leaders came to see the people as their property. If you follow the progress of inequality, you find that the establishment of law and property was the first stage, the institution of monarchy the second, and the conversion of legitimate to arbitrary power the last. The first stage authorizes the state of rich and poor; the second, the state of powerful and weak; and the last, the relationship of master and slave. The same vices that make institutions necessary make their abuse inevitable. Laws contain men without changing them; a country where no men broke the law would not need laws.
Political distinctions bring about civil distinctions, and psychological changes. Leaders could not oppress people who really wanted to be free. You cannot subjugate someone whose only desire is to be free. Even without government intervention, inequality of prestige is inevitable amongst men. Thus the importance of wealth in a society is a measure of its corruption. The universal desire for wealth and prestige leads to catastrophe; division is sown beneath the surface of society. From this disorder arises despotism, which devours all and tramples laws and peoples underfoot. Despotism is the last stage of inequality, which returns us to where we began. All private individuals are equal because they are all nothing. This new state of nature is very different to the original.
Although much is missing here, there is a great distance between the state of nature and the state of society. Savage and civil man differ so much that what makes one happy makes the other miserable. Now we have honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness. This is clearly not man's natural state. The growth of inequality is due to the development of the human mind, and becomes legitimate through the establishment of property and human laws. Modern, moral inequality is therefore contrary to natural right when it is not directly proportional to physical inequality.
Part Two is a detailed investigation of inequality and the state. Rousseau has established the nature of man and of natural right, and can now explore their relationship to inequality. He also attempts to show how mankind arrives at a state of instituted inequality. It is clear that this is not an inevitable development. Perfectibility is certainly important in human development, but it cannot entirely explain the rise of inequality. Other forces also contribute.
The development that Rousseau describes happened entirely by chance, but nevertheless had several clear stages, or "revolutions." Revolution in this sense means a great upheaval or violent change. Initially the state of nature was a static condition, but various environmental factors, described by Rousseau as "difficulties," led to change. This change includes both the spread of mankind throughout the world, and the development of various social and economic structures. Man's difficult interaction with his natural environment explains much of his later development. The first revolution involved men beginning to use tools and build shelters. This development of technology led to changes in human psychology and behavior. Conjugal love, co-operation and particularly the creation of gender roles that make women subservient to men represent the beginning of inequality.
Leisure is the driving force of this stage of Rousseau's story. When man is most like other animals, he only has enough time to search for food and sleep. This is no problem. However, the development of co-operation means that shared tasks take people less time, and man suddenly has leisure time to spare. Other activities are needed to fill this new gap, such as dancing and celebrations. These activities become habitual behaviors, and then become needs. Something that was initially a novel pleasure is now necessary. This is the beginning of man's decline: relationships with other people become motivated by forces other than pity, and become situations in which people depend on others and compare themselves to them. What others think of you becomes important for the first time, and so you unhappily crave their opinion and company. The fact that Rousseau chooses the village dance as an example of this type of comparison is unusual; such occasions are more normally associated with sociability and community spirit. This only illustrates Rousseau's point. Even aspects of society that we find pleasurable are bad, because they all involve thinking about other people rather than ignoring or feeling pity towards them as the savage does.
However, Rousseau is sincere when he argues that this stage was the best in mankind's history. Although he criticizes many of its features, it essentially represents a point at which the self-preservation and pity of savage man are perfectly balanced with the amour propre of modern man. This is good evidence against the view that Rousseau idolizes the state of nature, or that he feels that modern men would be better off living as savages. Some aspects of reason and communal life are good, but they are still potentially destructive. In criticizing civility and concern for others as negative features of society, Rousseau goes against the general trend. Good manners and civility are generally seen as restraining the savage features of man; Rousseau feels that there is nothing to restrain in natural man, and civility only makes men compare themselves to one another.
Natural catastrophes are important in the process of development that Rousseau describes. Humans began to spread throughout the planet, to use language, and to settle in different habitats because they were driven there by earthquakes and tidal waves. The importance of such random events must be recognized: without earthquakes at the right time, man may never have developed at all. Underlying this explanation is the idea that Nature shapes man's progress through natural disasters. The divine will, which some argue Rousseau identified with a God that controls Nature, works through such methods to bring man out of his initial undeveloped state. Rousseau corresponded with Voltaire in 1756 about a huge earthquake that had recently rocked Lisbon.
The second revolution centers on the division of labor. The division of labor involves the splitting of complex tasks between many workers, and increases the dependence of people on each other. Once work can no longer be a solitary activity, people are bound together. The two key activities are metallurgy and agriculture because both allow for huge gains: organized farming produces more food than hunting, and making metal tools and weapons makes intensive farming and fighting easier.
The most important development of the second stage is that of property, which comes directly from agriculture. Rousseau uses John Locke's definition of property: he says that anything to which man applies his labor becomes his property. Thus, if you work in a field, you begin to imagine that your work gives you the right to that piece of land. The institution of property is the beginning of moral inequality, because if men can "own" things, then differences in ownership that are unrelated to physical differences are possible. Initially, however, Rousseau does not believe that property is unequal. If all men work equally and are equally rewarded, then all would be equal. The implication is that the way in which property is distributed is the key factor in the growth of inequality. But without property, there would be no inequality at all, and no rich or poor.
Early society is fundamentally unstable, however. Men's amour propre and their needs—for other people and for things—lead to some dominating others. Dominating others is itself a need that binds the master to the slave, because without other people, one man cannot be master. Master and slave are bound together in a strange paradox. Rousseau is clear that this domination is expressed in class terms, with the rich oppressing the poor. When the rich attempt to treat the poor as their property, conflict results. This escalates into all-out war. The state of war is close to that described by Hobbes and other theorists as the state of nature, but it results from class conflict and a move away from nature towards property and inequality. Therefore writers like Hobbes who claim that the state of nature is war-like are mistaking this later development for man's original condition.
The solution to this terrible conflict is a contract, proposed by the rich, to form political societies. This contract is a grotesque trick played by the rich on the poor. The poor are made to believe that, by agreeing to the creation of political society, they will be made safe and preserve their freedom. The "chains" towards which they run echo the famous phrase at the beginning of the Social Contract, that "all men are born free, but yet live in chains." In the beginning, the state's aim is to preserve the freedom of its members. In fact, it is a device that legitimates property and inequality at the expense of the poor. Rousseau measures a society, in both the Discourse and the Social Contract, by how much freedom it manages to deliver to its citizens. Most societies, particularly those described here, fail to measure up.
The rest of the Discourse is an account of the development and operation of government. Initially, government is unstable and affected by class divisions. In many ways, the history of society is a series of attempts to stabilize inequality through laws. Rousseau's account of the so-called right of resistance is important. As the people authorize their leaders or magistrates through the contract, which sets up laws to regulate their behavior, Rousseau argues that, in theory, if those laws are broken, power returns to the people and men return to the state of nature. This is an argument against the absolute power of kings rehearsed by many theorists, including Locke in his Two Treatises of Government. However, Rousseau is clear that, in practice, religion acts as a powerful force legitimating the authority of the leaders of society. The power of God's will prevents the people from backing out of their side of the contract, because it gives the magistrate divine qualities that prevent the people from withdrawing from the contract. The idea of religion supporting the state is also found in the discussion of "civil religion" in the Social Contract. Here, its meaning is slightly unclear. Rousseau praises religion for preventing conflict, although religion also supports the modern inequality he dislikes so much.
Rousseau's discussion of the different types of government (democracy, monarchy, despotism) can be traced back to Aristotle's classification in the Politics. Like Aristotle and Plato, Rousseau sees despotism, or the unjust rule of one man, as the worst type of rule. However, he differs in seeing them as part of a process in which governments change. The system of government that a country begins with depends on how close it is to the state of nature; by implication, democracy is the best and most equal system because it is closest to natural freedom. Despotism is the most unequal system, in which one man has everything, but it is the culmination of a process that begins with early government. Arbitrary government is the condition towards which Rousseau sees modern states heading; there is thus a radical critique of modern political systems contained within his analysis of their development. Rousseau details the dangers of a society in which conflict is not fuelled by an emphasis on wealth. Rousseau's overall hostility to existing laws and institutions becomes clear in this section. He thinks that they are either useless—because they cannot really regulate behavior—or that they are actively harmful because they take man further away from the state of nature and encourage the vices that they should prevent.
Changes also occur in the human mind that parallel the development of instituted, moral inequality. Together they create the situation of inequality that Rousseau describes. He is clear that the development of reason and enlightenment and the rise of amour propre makes men receptive to domination by others. Without the system of needs that dominate his life, or the need to dominate others, modern man would not be receptive to the kind of trick played by the rich. Savage man, who is unconcerned by what others think of him, and has only basic needs, cannot be coerced. Only when mankind has developed sufficiently to need and desire can the modern system of inequality appear. Mental and psychological development and the construction of political institutions are therefore simultaneous and inseparable. The dramatic and passionate contrast that Rousseau draws between savage and civil man illustrates this point.
After the argument of the previous two sections, Rousseau's conclusions are not that surprising: that inequality has its origins in the rise of reason and enlightenment; that it is legitimated by laws and property; and that it is against natural law unless it is related to physical inequality. All the threads of Rousseau's argument—critiques of man, human development, and modern society—are drawn together at this point. One question remains: how, after reading the Discourse, could one imagine a modern society in which inequality bears any relation to true human nature?