Discourse on Inequality

by: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

Explain the role of perfectibility in the Discourse on Inequality.

Perfectibility, which is first introduced in Part One, is first used to distinguish man from the animals. His limitless capacity to develop underlies many of the problems diagnosed in Part Two, however. It is important to grasp the two-sided nature of perfectibility, however. On one hand, it brings man as a species to the limit of his mental and physical capabilities. On the other hand, it is responsible for the misery of individual men because, as well as producing language and reason, it also drives the rise of amour propre and the system of needs that enslave civil man. Without perfectibility, man would still be in the state of nature, and probably a lot happier; however, he would not be human. Any discussion of perfectibility has to consider its role both as the agent of human progress, and as the quality responsible for the many structural faults of modern society.

"The Second Discourse presents an idyllic view of the state of nature." Discuss.

Rousseau does nothing of the sort! While Rousseau is clear that the state of nature is not at all "poor, nasty, brutish, and short", as Hobbes suggested—and while Rousseau contrasts the state of nature favorably with the current manifestations of civil society—he does not idolize it. Rousseau maintains that in the state of nature man is indolent, without shelter, without emotional or conjugal attachment, and he has to fight wild beasts. While his life and prospects are better than those of civilize man, it could be argued that his life is good only in contrast to the modern condition. Rousseau does not idolize savage man simply because he constructs a full picture of his capabilities and limitations. It is accurate to argue that he holds a more positive view of natural man than almost any other theorist, but beware of caricaturing his vision. Be particularly careful to avoid talking about Rousseau's "noble savage," a term found in many books on the subject. Rousseau never uses the term, never refers to it, and probably did not spend much time thinking about it. To Rousseau, Savage man is simple and happy, but not especially noble.

Which form of government does Rousseau prefer in the Discourse?

This is a tricky question. If you accept that moral inequality is an unavoidable feature of the modern world, and that any government is likely to engender it, it is clear that despotism is the most unequal and therefore the worst form of rule. Democracy is the form of government that has strayed least far from the state of nature, and might be seen as Rousseau's preferred model. However, he does not endorse anything in particular, merely saying that "time" will reveal which system is the best. In the context of the dedication to Geneva that prefaces the work, however, it seems clear that Rousseau has a strong personal attachment to republican government of an elective, aristocratic type: Geneva was not a democracy by any means. You need to consider both possibilities, and also the idea that the Discourse is about diagnosing the problem with modern government, rather than about offering solutions of the kind found in the Social Contract.