Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Ancient Greek philosopher and author of Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and other influential works. Rousseau's ideas are deeply indebted to Greek political philosophers, especially Aristotle, and so he thinks of the ideal political unit as a small city-state, like Sparta (or Geneva). Rousseau uses a quote from Aristotle in the Preface to Discourse on Inequality: "What is natural has to be investigated not in beings that are depraved, but in those that are good according to nature." Later in the work, we will see that Rousseau’s definition of inequality is starkly opposed to Aristotle’s idea of "natural slavery,” which held that some people are "by their nature" physically and mentally inferior to others. 

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645)

A Dutch scholar who lived during the Thirty Years’ War and felt compelled to write in response to it. The result, a treatise on war and international relations titled On the Law of War and Peace (1625), eventually became accepted as the basis for the rules of modern warfare. Discourse on Inequality reflects Rousseau’s familiarity with Grotius’s ideas and his reactions to them.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

A philosopher and political theorist whose 1651 treatise Leviathan had enormous influence on Rousseau and other 18th-century thinkers. The controversial Leviathan detailed Hobbes’s theory that all humans are inherently self-driven and evil and that the best form of government is thus a single, all-powerful monarch to keep everything in order.

Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)

Dutch-born philosopher who lived most of his life in England and who is most famous for his 1705 satirical work, Fable of the Bees. An influence on Rousseau’s thinking, Mandeville believed that men would be unbearable if they did not have both pity and reason.