Skip over navigation

Discourse on Inequality

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Important Terms

General Summary

Philosophical Themes, Ideas and Arguments

Amour propre  -  Essentially, the opposite of self-preservation (amour de soi). Amour propre is an acute awareness of, and regard for, oneself in relation to others. Whilst the savage person cares only for his survival, civilized man also cares deeply about what others think about him. This is a deeply harmful psychological deformation, linked to the development of human reason and political societies. At its root is a difference between being and appearing. Savage man can only "be", and has no concept of pretence: civil man is forced to compare himself to others, and to lie to himself. Rousseau traces the development of amour propre back to the first village festivals, in which competition to dance and sing well increases the villagers' awareness of each other's talents and abilities. Amour propre is best expressed in a society in which wealth dominates; there, all are compared on an insubstantial and harmful basis.
Enlightenment  -  Here, Rousseau means the development of language, human reasoning and mental capacities towards their highest limit. The eighteenth-century philosophical movement known as the Enlightnment, associated with Rousseau and thinkers as diverse as Voltaire, Kant and Montesquieu, addressed questions of human progress and development, and the role of reason, amongst other things.
Moral inequality  -  Also called political inequality, moral inequality is based upon unnatural foundations. It is created not by Nature but by a convention or agreement between consenting men. Differences in wealth, power, status or class are moral inequalities; they involve one person benefiting at the expense of another. Whilst many authors have confused it with the natural state of affairs, Rousseau insists that this type of inequality is a recent creation.
Natural Law  -  Natural law theory is a complex tradition to which Rousseau reacts in the Discourse. Its chief modern figures were theorists such as Hobbes, Grotius and Pufendorf. Essentially, natural law is a set of laws or precepts laid down by God or Nature for man's preservation. These laws ordain what is right, and what "must be": in short, those duties that apply to all. Natural law sets out a framework within which people act for their own utility, and which, for Hobbes and Grotius, is intended to provide a solid basis for ending religious and political disagreements. The question that the Discourse sets out to answer is whether inequality is authorized by natural law: that is, whether differences between men are "natural" and useful things. Rousseau cunningly twists the question. He asks how we can have a law of nature if we do not understand the real nature of man. In doing this, he questions the common idea that only rational beings (i.e. humans) can take part in natural law or have natural rights. See natural right.
Natural Right  -  Natural right is very often linked to natural law. To many thinkers, natural rights are the claims or entitlements we have by virtue of being rational beings. We can have a natural right to do or to have something, such as the right to protect our own lives. The problem with such a definition, Rousseau argues, is that it emphasizes the role of reason, which may be a recent development. Instead, Rousseau founds his idea of natural right on the principles of pity and self-preservation, which, he claims, existed before reason. One of the aims of the reconstruction of human nature that Rousseau offers is to show that an idea of natural right was possible before man became social and created political institutions, and thus he claims that the state of nature was not the terrible place that some suggest. See pity, self-preservation, and natural law.
Nature  -  Nature does a great deal of work in the Discourse. Several meanings of the term are evident: first, human nature is a description of a being's behavior and capabilities; second, Nature is a collection of living organisms, and the environment in which man exists; third, and most important, Nature is also a divine force or power, that directs and shapes human development. In some respects Nature is like the Christian concept of Providence, or God's involvement in the world. Perfectibility and the natural catastrophes that shape human development are part of the divine being's plan for man, expressed through nature. Nature in its various forms is a central theme in Rousseau's philosophy. See state of nature.
The State of Nature  -  An imaginary condition before human societies developed, in which man's true nature is apparent. The state of nature is a traditional starting point for thinkers attempting to derive a theory of society and politics from the nature of man. Much of the Discourse is an attempt to imagine what such a state would be like, and a critique of similar attempts by other thinkers. Rousseau is particularly critical of Thomas Hobbes, who presented the state of nature in Leviathan as a "war of all against all." Hobbes also said that man's natural condition (his life) is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Rousseau insists that this model confuses the man who is deformed by the evolution of society with the natural man; it also confuses the state of nature with the civil state. See also natural right, natural law.
Perfectibility  -  Man's inexhaustible ability to improve himself, to shape and to be shaped by his environment. It is the chief characteristic that distinguishes him from other animals. The development of reason and language are both functions of perfectibility. For man to "perfect himself" is not necessarily for him to become perfect, but rather for his physical and mental capacities to be remolded, time and time again. Perfectibility draws man out of his original condition, and is responsible for his extraordinary adaptability, but it is also the source of all his miseries. It creates enlightenment and man's virtues, but also all of his vices.
Physical Inequality  -  Also called Natural inequality, physical inequality results from natural differences in physical and mental abilities and is established by Nature. Differences in age, health, strength and intelligence are all physical inequalities. Rousseau refuses to enquire into the origins of this first inequality: it simply "is," and has been ordained by Nature. Nor does he seek to establish a link between this basic inequality and its descendant, Moral inequality. The purpose of the Discourse is to chart how unavoidable physical inequality was transformed into moral inequality. See moral inequality.
Pity  -  One of the two key principles that Rousseau identifies as existing prior to reason and upon which he bases his theory of natural right. All humans feel a strong distaste on seeing the suffering of another sentient (pain-feeling) creature. Rousseau argues that because humans feel this impulse of pity towards others they will not willingly mistreat other creatures unless their own self preservation is at stake. Savage man does not actively attempt to do good towards others, but is rather restrained by the principle of pity from harming them. Natural Right is established on the principles of pity and self- preservation because for Rousseau they are the most basic impulses that exist in men independent of society.
Self-Preservation  -  In addition to pity, self preservation (amour de soi) is the other key principle from which natural right flows. The desire to preserve oneself is the only thing that can drive one sentient (pain-feeling) being to harm another, but only in extreme circumstances. Many natural law thinkers, such as Hobbes and Grotius, emphasized the fundamental nature of a right or duty to save one's own life, but Rousseau is relatively unusual in coupling it with a deep-rooted desire not to cause pain to others. See also amour propre.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us